Lighter inspections. less bumf, more self-evaluation... The 'new relationship' between government and schools sounds good - but what's the reality for people testing it out? Phil Revell reports
In July the Government promised a new relationship with schools. Pilots have been set up all over the country testing new ways of working in six areas. These include the single conversation - where schools have one named improvement partner - school self-evaluation, a slimmer Ofsted framework, and a new school profile to replace the annual report. All this should replace a system where schools duplicate efforts accounting for themselves to several different authorities. So how is it going?
"The so-called single conversation is anything but," says Diane Dockrell, head of Chichester high school for boys in West Sussex. Ms Dockrell is currently seconded to the Department for Education and Skills as an adviser on the pilots, though she says heads are positive about the changes.
Meanwhile, heads' and governors' organisations have concerns of their own.
David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, has rejected one set of DfES proposals outright and governors are concerned about their place in the new accountability system.
At the heart of the new relationship with schools are shorter, more focused inspections. Alongside that schools minister David Miliband proposed what he described as "intelligent accountability". Schools would evaluate themselves, charting their progress term by term.
To help schools through this process the Government proposes to create improvement partners, experts who will work with a school to identify strengths and weaknesses.
The system would be streamlined. The current, unpopular requirement for an annual report and meeting with parents will go, replaced by a simple school profile document.
"Schools felt too accountable to too many partners," says Diane Dockrell.
"This aims to put teachers back in control through self-evaluation."
At the Walton girls' high school in Lincolnshire headteacher Ros Gulson was keen to join the pilot. "Between 1992 and 1997 we had three inspections, I thought 'I just can't have this happening every few years'. The role of the improvement partner is to come in, go through the development plan with me and act as a critical friend. In Lincolnshire improvement partners have to have had at least three years' leadership experience. My improvement partner now does my performance management as well, and that cuts out another layer of accountability. It's made the process much simpler."
Dr Paul Jones, head of West Sussex's Orchard middle school, was also deeply frustrated by the previous system. "We were telling the same people the same things over and over again," he said.
He now uses his self-evaluation document for many purposes, including LEA reporting, the Investors in People process and Ofsted preparation. "It works on three levels," he says. "First as a school improvement plan. Then as a detailed map of everything we have done on school development, and finally as an audit track, which says exactly what we have done, who did it and how it worked out.
"It takes a while to set up, but it's saved me so much time."
Ofsted inspector Chris Constantine has led three trial inspections in the new format. "There's a premium on high-quality self-evaluation," he says.
"We use it to focus on what we are going to do. We want to follow trails the school has marked. We say: 'Tell us how good your teaching and learning is'."
But this is where doubts surface. With the new-style inspections lasting at most two days, some heads worry that they are being asked to do Ofsted's job. Chris Constantine thought that schools had little to fear from the new system, but heads The TES spoke to were not so sure.
"This is self-inspection, not self-evaluation," said one. "Are people really going to hand Ofsted the ammunition that might see their school put into special measures?" said another.
There are also concerns about the role of improvement partners. They will be key players in the new system, but there have been different models in different pilot areas. In some the local authority area adviser has taken the role, prompting heads to wonder if there is anything new about the "new relationship".
The two heads' organisations are split on this issue. Secondary Heads Association general secretary John Dunford acknowledges that some advisers are acting as improvement partners but is supportive. "But part of the reason for that is the speed the pilot was established," he says. "For the real thing, there is a detailed person specification that most LEA advisers would not be able to meet."
In secondaries, most improvement partners will be heads, either seconded to the role or with recent experience. But this isn't true in primaries, which may explain the initial hostility of the NAHT, which draws most of its members from primaries.
"We are still not certain who the improvement partners are going to be for primary heads," said David Hart. "The last draft document from the DfES on this issue was so patronising that I threw it straight back." He is adamant the NAHT will not accept LEA advisers as improvement partners unless they have good primary experience.
Heads might be reassured by the failure rate on the training programme for partners, currently running at about 25 per cent. But there is real concern about recruitment: partners will be expected to support schools for about 40 days a year. But amid a shortage of primary heads - to take people away from their schools to fill these roles might strain the system to breaking point. "And just who is paying for all this?" David Hart wonders.
Meanwhile, governors have a different set of worries. Who will keep them in the picture? "It seems that the new process may devalue the dialogue between Ofsted, parents and governors," says Paul Mason at the National Governors Council.
Heads are talking about their conversation with the improvement partner, but where is the conversation with the governing body? Heads may be ecstatic at binning the time-consuming annual report and parents' meeting, but Mason isn't so sure.
"Many schools have tried to humanise the process, by having events alongside the annual meeting," he said. "At the school where I am chair we get an audience of 40 from a roll of 210. Governors need to report to parents themselves."
In theory the new school profile meets this need. This simple document replaces the annual report and offers parents an easy to understand description of their school. At least that's the theory.
The controversial bit is that school performance data will be dropped in by the DfES in a form the school cannot amend. Initially the data was to be on the front page, making it the first thing parents would see. Heads were furious.
Some kind of value-added data that compares a school with schools facing similar challenges has been promised, but exactly what has yet to be decided. "The jury is still out, although in principle it's an excellent idea," said John Dunford. "But we are not convinced the DfES has the right comparisons with like schools."
At the General Teaching Council conference where these issues were aired, GTC chief executive Carol Adams saw the reforms as an opportunity "to engage parents with schools". She also called for clear DfES guidance on how self-evaluation should work in practice.
A final warning comes from Professor Onora O'Neill, principal of Newham college, Cambridge. Whilst welcoming self-evaluation, the expert in ethics and philosophy warned: "If we want to be genuinely accountable to parents we need to recognise that there is information and there is communication - and we mustn't confuse the two."
THE NEW RELATIONSHIP
A new relationship with schools, expected to come into force next year, is designed to streamline schools' relationships with local and central government and cut down on bureaucracy.
Alongside the new inspection system comes a greater emphasis on schools developing their own process of self-evaluation. The intention is also to cut down on bureaucracy. The current four self-evaluation forms are to be replaced with one which schools will be expected to update annually.
The measures also aim to simplify school improvement so that schools have a "single conversation" about development priorities, targets and support needs. Trial LEAs are working with secondary schools to develop a new role - that of the "school improvement partner" - likely to be someone with headship experience.
Another goal of the New Relationship is to improve communication between DfES, Ofsted and schools, stopping the mountains of paper schools receive and making greater use of new technology.
And it introduces the School Profile, making available to parents a simple, accessible document about the school and what it offers.
TIMETABLE FOR CHANGE Spring 2005
Education Bill: legislation for lighter-touch inspections and the school profile alongside the repeal of the requirement to hold annual parents'
NRwS pilot projects end.
After that the DfES will not speculate, but a timetable might be:
DfES proposals for new self-evaluation systems and school improvement partners.
New systems in place