School, know thyself

18th May 2001 at 01:00
Self-evaluation could be the next received wisdom. Phil Revell reports.

The need for schools to evaluate their own strengths and weaknesses is steadily seeping into the culture of school management. But how can schools best put the process into practice? A recent study by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) found that self-evaluation was a useful way for local authorities to stay in touch with schools' performance. It also found that the process fed positively into schools' wider management strategies and the general progress of development plans. It could help to effect cultural change, with spin-offs for teachers' professional development, wider community involvement and other areas.

One shortcoming identified in the study concerned the problem of ownership: so far the process has mostly been led by heads and senior managers. But some argue that the whole school - including pupils - need to be included. Workload was also an important issue. The NFER report recommends that time for self-evaluation must be built into school practice and should foster as much involvement from the local community as possible. "Critical friends," it suggests, are important, whether advisers from the authority or consultants engaged specifically for the task.

Neither does the report offer any significant analysis of the three main forms of school self-evaluation in use. Investors in People offers a starting point, while Ofsted's package has been in wide use for nearly two years.

"A lot of our people regard (the Ofsted package) as really valuable material," says John Chowcat, general secretary of Naeaic, the advisers and inspectors association.

By far the biggest criticism of the report is that it bypasses completely the third model of self-evaluation that stems from the work of John MacBeath, professor of education at Cambridge University. MacBeath's work is widely acknowledged to be ground-breaking, yet the researchers did not involve any schools that had used his approach - mainly because the Ofsted model was more popular in the areas where they carried out their studies.

For better or worse, the NFER researchers went to nine authorities where self-evaluation was said to be "in its early stages". MacBeath himself suggests that it might well have been more productive to seek a range of individual schools with some depth of experience in this field.

In fact, the "Strathclyde" model, referred to in the report could be more aptly be termed the "MacBeath" model, developed when the professor was working at Strathlyde. It was adapted in 1995 for use in the guidance for schools produced by the NUT.

"Properly, it should be described as the NUT model," says MacBeath. "It starts by looking at what is important to the people in the school."

Whatever the model is called, the central figures are the people in the school - teachers, parents and children. What matters most to them MacBeath calls the "careabouts" and they are the starting point for his system.

Such a ground-up approach is "very empowering", MacBeath argues, and helps schools to achieve the ownership that the NFER report acknowledged to be so important.

Schools are frequently amazed by what honest and positive "critical friends" children have proved to be in MacBeath-style feedback interviews. And yet many management teams are loath to take on board such truths from ground level.

"You're there to support and challenge people," says MacBeath, who has taken his model all over the United Kingdom and beyond. He has acted as a critical friend to a number of authorities, including Hartlepool, where Lisa Biggin, headteacher of Rossmere primary school, is enthusiastic about the benefits.

"It's about ownership. The children are the consumers and they have to be given a voice," she says. At Rossmere, teachers carry out "exit" interviews with Year 6 pupils. Similar interviews informed a review of the new behaviour policy in troduced last September.

"This model of self-evaluation works for us," says Ms Biggin."I've seen the impact on pupil progress."

Undoubtedly, schools will face increasing pressure to improve their techniques in self-assessment. Ofsted's chief inspector, Mike Tomlinson, has already suggested that inspections should take account of a school's view of itself, a statement that may well anticipate growth in this area. But surely the key question will concern which model should be used in this process.

Certainly, John MacBeath believes that "bottom-up" approaches offer the best method to produce a faithful portrait of how a school is making progress.

At the Thomas Alleynes high school, Uttoxeter, the headteacher, Peter Mitchell, has wide experience of self-evaluation. "It's not about looking for mistakes as if they were nuggets of gold," he says. "Evaluation isn't about weakness. You have to evaluate success as well - or you won't know why it was a success."Book of the Week, 'Friday' magazine, page 21 Evaluating School Self Evaluation, a report for the Local Government Association, price pound;12, is available from NFER. Tel: 01753 747281

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