No room for improvement

26th May 2006 at 01:00
As the Government tinkers with a perfectly good system of appraisals, primary governors are left with no system at all. David Sassoon reports.

Change is very much a part of the educational kaleidoscope - not just in this country - but around the world. Take education secretaries. They are two a penny. Alan Johnson, being the fifth we have had in nine years.

However, with the performance management of headteachers, the Government is determined to test human patience by fiddling with a system that is working perfectly well.

I have complaints. I wish to question whether the change in the organisation of heads' performance review is really necessary. I am, of course, talking about the school improvement partners.

The sixth round of performance reviews since the inception of performance management in 2000 recently ended. The Cambridge Education Association had contracted to organise the support for schools through external advisers (EAs). Surveys carried out by the CEA reveal high levels of satisfaction from governors and heads.

The training of EAs was rigorous, and annually they were briefed and updated to ensure support for governors to carry out their role as critical friends and spur heads on to greater heights in their performance. EAs were also a source of in-service training to both groups. For instance, many of them spent considerable time interpreting for governors and heads the information contained in their Pandas - yes, including the meaning of the dreaded contextual value added.

Quality assurance was woven into the system. EAs had considerable paperwork to complete in carrying out their duties. They were required to analyse contextual data - which included the heads' objectives from the previous year and comment on the evidence provided to indicate whether or not these objectives were met. The analyses provided information to heads and governors about issues that the schools were tackling. The final part of this document itemised areas from where objectives could arise for the current year and the rationale for the choice.

Following the visits, EAs drafted the review statements and the objectives for the current year - tied to success criteria and monitoring arrangements. These papers went to the schools and the CEA. Finally, EAs had to provide the CEA with returns, a factual record of how well or how badly the visits went. These returns were checked for quality assurance.

Where the very few EAs were failing on the job, CEA officers visited to inspect the practice and provide fruitful (if ruthless) feedback. No EA was allowed to visit the same school for more than three years. This was to ensure that the process did not become cosy fireside chats.

The system worked. It was by no means "broke". So why did it need fixing? The then schools standards minister, David Miliband, said that changes were needed because our unfortunate heads were drowning in bureaucracy and paperwork. The idea was to enable them to have "single conversations". What he meant was that heads were answerable to every Gina, Gita and Gill, and Tom, Dick and Harry, and it would be so much better if each head were answerable to just one person.

So, the EAs were exterminated, replaced by school improvement partners.

This is the cadre that will now be responsible for the performance reviews of heads - of course, in collaboration with the governors.

How they will do their job is still unclear. However, they will have a bigger part to play than EAs did, in that they will offer challenge and support more than once a year, though the performance review will be an annual event. So where is the "single conversation"? Isn't it going to be multiple conversations, but with the same person?

The new breed is being trained by the National College for School Leadership. They have to be serving or recent heads.

To qualify, the applicant must undergo a rigorous online test, which, once started must be completed within 36 hours. So far, er - so good. So the new system will be fully in place by September 2006. Right? Wrong! Only secondary schools will have SIPs by then. What about primary schools? Well, the pilot is still running in some authorities and there are not sufficient SIPs for this phase. Fine, so bring back the external advisers. No you can't, as they have ceased to exist. Besides, there is no contract for the CEA to run heads' performance reviews.

Great! This surely means that primary heads do not need to be appraised by their governors. Wrong again. It will be up to every governing body to nominate two or three governors to carry out the review and appoint an educational consultant (who could be a former EA) to support them.


But who will pay this person? The Government? Wrong again. The governing body will have to find the money. And the cost? Well, the CEA paid a SIP pound;360 per visit last year and the fee has been going up by pound;10 annually. So the governing body will have to set aside pound;400 for this exercise, not counting the free time that governors give for the process.

We had a perfectly good system working, which has now been replaced by no system and the promise of a better system the day after tomorrow. Where else in the world can one experience such a scenario?

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