How to pep up performance

14th March 1997 at 00:00
The 1992 report of the school teachers' pay review body, then chaired by the industrialist Sir Graham Day, made a shrewd observation: schools, it suggested, are far more assiduous about setting up the right programmes and policies than checking that they actually produce the desired results.

It accused school managements of "a failure to focus sufficiently on pupils' achievements, on outcomes as well as processes". That judgment was echoed in the latest report from the Chief Inspector of Schools: "Schools which are otherwise led well often do not evaluate their performance with any vigour."

Why schools should spend so much time and energy on developing different policies, procedures and teaching schemes but comparatively little on systematic checks of their efficacy is a moot point. In the past, this was regarded as a matter for professional judgment. But some argue that teachers enjoyed too much autonomy; that the producers of education - schools and local authorities - controlled the "secret garden" of the curriculum and disregarded the interests of consumers.

Governing bodies, with their responsibility for the national curriculum and its testing, religious education and pupils' social, moral, physical and cultural development, may or may not relish the fact that they are part of the Government's plan to open up the secret garden of school standards to outside scrutiny. Many find this is the area in which they meet the greatest professional resistance.

The Office for Standards in Education says governors find the monitoring of standards particularly difficult. In another report, the Chief Inspector wrote: "Governing bodies are, on occasion and for a variety of reasons, deflected from discharging fully their key function of strategic direction. In plain language this means asking relatively simple questions about behaviour and attendance; about homework, attitudes and expectations.

"Where such questions are asked, and answers sought, governing bodies are offering schools the informed support of the critical friend. Where they are not asked, governors will have only a limited impact on standards and quality."

Opening up school standards to greater public scrutiny is not universally welcomed. Some argue that easily reported test results produce at best a partial picture and distort learning by concentrating on the easily testable. Teachers have been reluctant also to expose their work and that of their pupils to what they regard as unfair comparisons which take no account of the in-built advantages and disadvantages of different schools.

League tables based on such raw results can be not just unfair but unhelpful. They discourage those doing well in difficult circumstances and encourage complacency among those achieving average results when the attainments and background of their pupil intake suggest they ought to be doing much better.

Hence the interest in progress or so-called "value-added " measures of school and pupil performance. These attempt to take account of pupils' initial or prior learning to demonstrate the progress a particular school or course has added. The proposed "baseline testing" of the skills of infants at school entry is expected to provide not only information on where a child's schooling should begin but also to enable later tests to show how much progress has been made.

Junior and secondary schools may use national curriculum or other test results to assess progress and by ensuring that like groups of pupils are being compared with like, may be able to pin down whether boys or girls, different ethnic groups, different subjects or individual classes are being equally effectively taught.

As well as allowing for pupils' starting off point, some progress indicators try to take account of pupils' home background in order to judge how far schools are successful in overcoming social disadvantages. This is controversial, however. Some see it as reducing expectations and excusing low attainments.

It still remains to be seen how successful league tables will be in prompting schools to raise standards. There is some evidence that they may have a salutary effect on those at the bottom of the league but they may have rather less impact on the average and above.

In an attempt to encourage these to raise expectations, schools are now being urged* to go beyond reviews of past performance and to look ahead in order to set themselves targets for improvement. The idea is that they should compete against their own previous best performance by setting targets as part of their overall development plan. This may even soon become a legal requirement.

The challenge for the governing body, especially in a school reluctant to review its own performance systematically, may well be to foster a more analytical and self-critical approach. To do this governors need to give encouragement, praise and understanding where and whenever they possibly can. They need to develop the skills of asking questions in a non-confrontationa l way and to encourage the school to make regular analysis of performance and the raising of standards central to all its work. They should be receiving regular feedback on pupil performance and objective information on the progress of all of their policies.

Whatever their school's position in the league tables, or the contents of its OFSTED report or the expectations of staff, ultimately it is for the governing body to answer the value-loaded question, "Is the school doing as well for our pupils as it should?" and to hold the headteacher to account where they conclude it is not.

* Setting Targets to Raise Standards: a survey of good practice free from DFEE Publication s 0171 510 0150

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