A lot is riding on the success of self-evaluation in improving standards, writes David Henderson, after visiting two Aberdeen schools that have started to do it.
Hackney, Ridings. Just a whisper of those names among Scottish headteachers is enough to convince most that the "self-evaluation" approach to school effectiveness is a whole lot better than what goes on south of the border.
The push on standards in England, given extra momentum by Tony Blair, is characterised by attacks on failing teachers, schools and authorities and speedy action to sort out those not passing muster. Hit squads and talking tough are central to the task of raising achievement.
In Scotland, it is altogether more measured as school self-evaluation creeps in through the grandly titled Quality Initiative in Scottish Schools, supported by its 33 performance indicators.
Brian Wilson, the education minister, may have been obliged to take action on incompetent teachers and appraisal in line with a London directive, but the differences in approach are more significant than many classroom teachers appreciate. Only trouble at the Nicolson Institute in Stornoway forced the minister to intervene in the style of David Blunkett.
Elisabeth Sharp, education officer in Aberdeen and a seconded national officer on school evaluation at the Scottish Office audit unit, is under no illusions.
"If we don't get this right, it's OFSTED," she warns. "And Scottish teachers do not want someone with big boots coming in and assessing them."
The audit unit's slimmed-down tome, How Good is Our School? Self-evaluation using performance indicators, last year launched a significant phase in the battle on standards. Senior inspectors bask in its international reputation and senior managers in schools have since then been digesting the agenda.
Aberdeen has grasped the initiative, even if practice is developing gradually rather than at breakneck speed. Six schools - three primary, two secondary and one special - are currently involved in producing extensive reports on standards and quality which adopt the indicators' approach. But by next year, all yearly school audit reports will have to use indicators. It is a first step towards the fuller reports on broad themes.
Schools that have joined the Quality Initiative have agreed to produce reports on performance every three years in seven key areas: curriculum, attainment, learning and teaching, support for pupils, ethos, resources and managementleadershipquality assurance. Not all areas will be tackled annually.
Mrs Sharp says: "All partners in education now use the same language and criteria to describe and evaluate the quality of our schools - a comprehensive and consistent approach which has been received positively by our own schools and by schools across Scotland. This contrasts with the more confrontational and authoritarian approach adopted in England and Wales."
She is convinced the self-evaluation model can deliver higher standards in the classroom once teachers see the benefits. "The only people who can raise standards are people in the classroom and unless they see that self-evaluation affects their pupils, it will not be worth anything," she says.
Teachers will have to accept that it is a professional duty to examine their own classroom work if self-evaluation is to succeed. "It's coming from development planning and it can deliver quality assurance, but we're not there yet," says Mrs Sharp.
She believes that there is no alternative to the emerging model since the introduction of the unitary councils last year. Aberdeen has only 14 education officials to carry out its central services and it would be impossible to monitor and evaluate schools in any other way, she says. "The days of local authority inspections are gone."
It is now in schools' hands. The concept of authority-wide review groups on particular themes, such as reading, will represent the remnants of local inspections. Authorities are there to moderate, validate and check. "If we're not responsible for quality in schools, we might as well pack our bags and go away," she says.
The relationship between local government and schools has changed significantly since devolved management and council reform swept away central powers. Yet councils retain a duty to plan strategically and ensure pupils in all parts of an authority receive equal and fair treatment. Councils, as Mrs Sharp says, are still responsible for providing adequate and efficient education. The buck stops with them. "We have to get evidence from schools and we have to trust it's valid. If self-evaluation does not improve things for pupils, we have to go back to the drawing board."
The pressure to succeed will be intensified by the Government's forthcoming measures to inspect authorities as well as schools. Councils will have to show results in schools. They, too, will be on the self-evaluation road.
What the quality initiative is all about
The Quality Initiative aims to * raise standards of pupils' achievements through improvements identified by self-evaluation; * bring about a coherent, flexible approach to improving and evaluating standards based on agreed performance indicators and agreed targets; * develop a partnership approach between schools, education authorities and the Scottish Office which takes account of the views of pupils, parents and business; * celebrate and share success and promote high expectations andself-esteem among pupils and teachers; * ensure pockets of good practice become standard practice; * promote Government and education authority policies to further improve public reporting on standards and quality.