Relief of the heads as the curse of draconian inspections is lifted

1st December 2004 at 00:00

At King David junior school, head Peter Parker is celebrating the lifting of the curse of the old inspection regime.

"It's like an answer to a prayer," he says. "It's been everyone's desire to raise standards, but they made the classic mistake of looking at schools as if they were all the same."

King David junior is certainly not your average primary. As Manchester's only Jewish faith primary, it provides daily Jewish Studies lessons alongside the national curriculum.

The school is very successful - it has the best key stage 2 test results in Manchester and inspectors describe it as "extremely effective" with good teaching. Pupils are helped by parents with high aspirations.

King David junior is among a dozen Manchester primary schools piloting the "new relationship" (see above).

But will the new measures lighten the load or simply become a new set of responsibilities that schools must adopt?

A recent study by Cambridge university has warned the new system is in danger of failing, because self-evaluation models are being imposed by Ofsted rather than being developed by schools themselves.

And after years of striving to toe the line of imposed improvement initiatives, can schools really change to become self-reflective learning institutions as the Government hopes?

Peter Parker says he will certainly see less paperwork. King David can do away with the school prospectus and annual governors' meeting for parents, to which no parent has turned up for six years running. The governing body will be spared the onerous task of compiling an annual report to parents.

In their place is a concise online profile of the school which can simply be updated as necessary, with details including what its pupils achieve at age 11, how it teaches them and what Ofsted has said about the school.

The self-evaluation process will be streamlined, and the school's relationship with its education authority simplified.

Mr Parker says monitoring and self-evaluation has long been part of the culture of the school. "I'm very excited by it," he says. "I honestly believe it's going to allow heads to direct their efforts into the classroom, and most importantly, to look at things in a child-centred way.

I think it will lead to higher standards."

He believes his school will adapt easily to the changes, whereas the old inspections were done against a framework that didn't suit the school.

"Next time we'll be getting an inspection based on our own evaluation of how we really are."

But another North Manchester primary is not finding the pilot so easy.

Patricia Ganley, head of Mount Carmel Roman Catholic primary school welcomes the new relationship, but says she is uncertain about the process of self-evaluation in her school.

"If you go on courses about school self-review, and look at all the possible things you could be doing to come up with your conclusions that go into the self-evaluation form, there are lots of models.

"But it's time consuming, A lot of headteachers, myself included are bowed down with dealing with child protection and all sorts of pastoral problems - particularly in Manchester."

"There's this terrible feeling that I'm not getting the activities done that are going to be able to answer these questions with evidence behind them."

Moston Fields primary, on the other hand, has found the new relationship pilot a breath of fresh air. The school serves a disadvantaged area - around 30 per cent of its pupils are eligible for free meals.

The school and local education authority now draw up a school support agreement - a simple document listing priorities for improvement, identified by self-evaluation. "It's been very beneficial," says acting head Jackie Savage. "It's enabled us to have a fresh look at the school: what we are doing, why we're doing it and the audience we are doing it for.

"The biggest impact has been that it's enabled us to focus on what is important in the school.

"I think one of the biggest things is giving the school the confidence to say, `actually, no, I'm not going to get involved in that this year. We would like to do that, but we can't because this is what we're working on now.'"

Prioritising has helped Moston Fields focus on building and maintenance issues with Manchester LEA. Its 1930s buildings are in poor repair and prone to vandalism.

Mrs Savage says the school support agreement almost acts as a contract for both school and LEA. "Everyone I have spoken to so far has said that's a really useful piece of work," she says.

"It's all there in black and white. So we get away from schools saying they will have a bit of that and a bit of that."

One aim of the pilot is to find out who is best placed to hold the "single conversation" with schools. In Manchester the role has gone to LEA advisers. David Whalley, the LEA link adviser who liaises with Moston Fields primary, says heads have been positive about the changes, particularly those that cut down on paperwork.

But he admits that for some, self-evaluation is a problem. "Some schools are less advanced, less down the road with self-evaluation," he says. "And the work that's come out of this pilot is that it's really useful to be going into the school and asking the right sort of questions."

Christine Bayliss, Manchester's assistant chief education officer who is overseeing the new relationship pilot for the DfES, says the main lesson so far has been that schools do need support to do structured self-evaluation.

But she insists that there are huge benefits. "You get to look at where you are going, what you're doing, what you're doing really well and what needs to be improved. You come up with four, five or six priorities and it enables you to throw away all those other things that clutter up the relationship you have with the outside world.

"In Manchester, because our needs are seen to be high, we get every initiative and project going.

"This has really made us think about how we support schools. We have come a long way over the last couple of years in terms of making our support coherent. The new relationship project has allowed us to build on that."

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