To get the best out of Ofsted's self-evaluation paperwork, the trick is to make it fit in with your school's existing practices
The professional lives of primary heads and teachers are being changed by something called "school self-evaluation". Changed for the better, do you think? Or is it another burden sent down from above?
As usual, given the blurred universe we inhabit, it's probably both. As appropriated by Ofsted, self-evaluation sounds grand and new, but it actually describes a process forever at the beating heart of every primary classroom.
I talked about this to John MacBeath, chair of educational leadership at Cambridge university, and a world authority on the subject. He had taken a moment away from talking about it to primary heads.
"A lot of them had spent the summer filling in their Ofsted self-evaluation forms," he said. "And my whole message to them is, 'There's more to self-evaluation than that.' You can't be a good school unless self-evaluation is embedded in the way the teachers think and the way they relate to children in the classroom."
He went on to quote Ted Wragg, who estimated that a teacher makes 1,000 evaluative decisions every day. You know how it works in the primary classroom: ask a question, weigh up the answer, give encouragement and feedback, challenge the child a bit more, widen out to the rest of the class, judge when it's time to move on, make a mental note of how well you coped. It's what the job is all about.
Clearly, if all of those evaluations are going to be useful as pointers for personal and whole-school improvement, they need to be "caught" and summarised. The self-evaluation form (SEF) provides a way of doing this, but Professor MacBeath believes it shouldn't be the starting point.
"The SEF can be helpful," he says. "But as soon as you give anyone a format to work with, it tends to take over. The focus shifts to the outcome rather than the process. We've done a lot of work in the past with schools on devising their own systems of self-evaluation and it's quite sad when they ditch them because the SEF has appeared."
Talk to teachers in the real primary-school world, though, and you realise there is no denying the power of the form and its potential for driving what happens.
Greg Marsden, head of Lisle Marsden CE primary in Grimsby, has had to work carefully to ensure that his own school's way of doing things is demonstrated in the form.
"Whatever anybody says, because of its very defined structure the SEF has a tendency to wag the dog - and maybe to straitjacket us a bit," he says.
"It's a matter of knowing what's possible in a busy school."
So, at first, although he accepts the principle of accountability, and the right of the Government to ask the questions, the tendency of the self-evaluation form to shift the school's focus disturbed him.
"I was concerned that it would take my eye off the ball," he says. "For example, the SEF necessarily drives you to concentrate on the child's achievement in context (CVA, or contextual value added) at the end of the key stage, whereas at Lisle Marsden we've always had a tradition of looking for steady progress through each year group."
Over time, he has learnt that, although Ofsted's prompts and guidance may not always fit your own way of doing things, they don't actually put up barriers. So you really can make the form fit the school, rather than the other way round - especially, as Mr Marsden says, if you show a bit of professional bottle.
He is confident that when the inspectors arrive they will approve of an approach that strives to keep the school's own vision and priorities intact. "That's the experience of schools in this area," he says.
Mr Marsden and his colleagues update their form every half-term and the information is shared electronically with the whole staff. One effect of this has been to give classroom teachers an overview of the school and its priorities.
"In the past, teachers would focus on their own classroom and responsibilities; now there's more of a whole-school view," he says. "I hadn't anticipated that, but in fact it's been one of the benefits."
There is growing interest in encouraging children to evaluate their school's performance. If this is to go further than sampling their opinions, the starting point is to involve children in assessing their own classroom work. This is what's being developed at Moat Hall, a large, 580-pupil primary in Staffordshire.
Up until a couple of years ago, teaching at Moat Hall was evaluated in what has become the conventional way: through constructive lesson observations among colleagues. Some of that is still done, especially where a teacher is new to a year group. But in the past couple of years the focus has shifted as the children have been helped to take more responsibility for themselves and their learning.
The school has adopted Guy Claxton's Building Learning Power approach, which provides children with many tools and strategies for handling their own learning and for tackling difficulties, with the teacher as coach rather than instructor.
Because the children become knowledgeable about their own progress - strengths, weaknesses, gaps - it follows that they are a key part of the school's self-evaluation process.
"We only plan the first three days of any week," says Marie Hopley, assistant head at Moat Hall. "That gives us the opportunity to act on feedback from the children, so if we do identify areas of misconception, we're flexible enough to deal with them."
The children's input shows in many ways. Each classroom has a distraction scale on the wall, for example, which each child uses to show his or her own judgement about their level of concentration.
Then there's the school's marking policy, which was revised recently in response to pupil views. So when you read a teacher comment - for example, "How could this sentence be improved?" - you'll find that the child has gone on to write a better sentence during a lesson slot dedicated to the purpose.
It's very clear from what's happening in primaries such as Moat Hall that school self-evaluation really can start with the pupils.
A wealth of information exists about self-evaluation, such as: RESOURCES
* Building Learning Power encourages pupils to become better learners: www.buildinglearningpower.co.uk
* Ofsted's A New Relationship with Schools: improving performance through school self-evaluation (March 2005) helps you read your own form as if through the eyes of an inspector: www.ofsted.gov.ukpublications
* Online courses from Optimus Professional Learning are designed for subject leaders as well as for heads: www.optimusprolearning.com
* The self-review framework from the schools technology agency Becta is available in print and online. It can help to evaluate the use of ICT: http:schools. becta.org.uk
The first stop is your school's management information system (already installed) but there is also software specifically tailored to help with the form.
* Perspective from Angel Solutions: www.angelsolutions.co.ukperspective
* Mentus from School Mentor Solutions, developed by Birmingham authority's advisory and support service: www.mentus.co.uk
* John MacBeath's books add up to a bible. They include Schools Must Speak for Themselves (1999) and School Inspection and Self-Evaluation: working with the new relationship (2006), both from Routledge.
* The National College for School Leadership has a pack available in print or for download: www.ncsl.org.uk
* Self-evaluation for School Improvement by Gill Bracey is available from Pfp Publishing: www.pfp-publishing.com
* Behaviour Policy and Practice: self-evaluation pack for schools by Sue Young is published by David Fulton.