Let's avoid a middle road and be cool

5th November 2004 at 00:00
We at Dyce Primary subscribed early to the quality assurance agenda, as long ago as the introduction of monitoring school effectiveness. I remember talking to other headteachers in 1995 about our school board having conducted an ethos survey of parents, pupils and staff and their reaction of intrigued interest at such a radical move.

Four years ago, as part of my professional development (honestly), I enrolled in a Comenius course on school self-evaluation, held in the Italian seaside resort of Viareggio. As well as discovering the delights of Tuscany and the extent to which a non-meat eater can be subjected to a dinner menu of three courses of fish every night, I learned that we in Scotland were light years ahead of our European counterparts when it came to judging our schools' performance.

The very idea of asking parents for their views on their child's school was greeted with horror by a school inspector from Paris. Others were just beginning to consider the pros and cons of voluntarily consulting a range of people on their schools' effectiveness. I gained insights into the education systems in Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Norway and Ireland and I lost weight over the week in the company of hugely entertaining people. Who could ask for more from a course?

I have always been convinced of the benefits of schools identifying areas for improvement and working on them before someone else points them out in a less than friendly manner. As a result, we are completing the third three-year cycle of using quality indicators in How Good is Our School? In order to do justice to our 3-to 5-year-olds' provision, we have also used indicators from The Child at the Centre since its inception. There seems to be no end to this drive for improvement through self-evaluation, as the Series E binder of materials takes increasingly more room.

The management team realised last session that we had perhaps reached a plateau with self-evaluation, when we were beginning to experience a sense of dej... vu on our pre-arranged visits to classes to monitor learning and teaching. I can fully understand why a teacher could decide that a lesson which was received well one year would be viewed favourably the next, but surely this was an indication that our strategies were becoming a tad repetitive.

Time for a change? Clearly it is, as others at a much higher level than I in the education hierarchy have been talking of adding a top level - excellent - to the very good, good, fair, unsatisfactory scoring system.

I had some concerns about allowing any opportunity for easy and expedient completion of an audit or questionnaire by simply scoring down the middle column of a grid, so I am glad they announced this week that there will also be a sixth level to avoid this. The marks will be excellent, very good, good, moderate, fair and unsatisfactory.

I am surprised that we in the north-east of Scotland ever agreed to use terminology such as "very good" in self-evaluation as such fulsome praise does not trip easily off our tongues. There is still a lingering inbred suspicion of success in these parts, which is summed up in the expression "I kent his faither", and which sits very uneasily with any hint of self-congratulation or aggrandisement. It would have been far more in keeping with our reserve and restraint to have applied the levels of "nae bad", " 'at 'il dae", "peer" and "afa". Adding another superlative would tax our lexicon of commendation beyond our capability to countenance such vanity.

Pupils are already consulted in the drive for self-improvement but I wonder how much they relate to the present terminology. I think it would be much more meaningful for them if we were to adapt the description of levels to suit the youth of today. I suggest "cool", "OK", "crap" and "pants" would do the job.

Joan Fenton is headteacher of Dyce Primary, AberdeenViews to scotlandplus@tes.co.uk

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