Headteachers wrestling with problem schools have new software to ease their task. Esther Leach on the self-review breakthrough.
Karen O'Neill wasn't entirely sure what she was letting herself in for when she became head of a newly amalgamated junior school in Liverpool. It soon became clear with the help of the city's online self-review system, introduced last summer by the LEA and now used by all schools in the city to help them pick up on problems, current or potential.
"On the first day at New Park I began the self-review process to get a feel of what was going on - and the picture was very bleak," she says. "Almost every answer was either 'absent' or 'in need of development'. I realised I had a problem school on my hands."
O'Neill's first call for help was to Mike Dillon, the authority's newly appointed intervention strategy manager who had introduced the self-review process. With his help, O'Neill identified the problem areas and decided on a course of action to turn the situation around in time for an Ofsted inspection.
"The LEA gave us support in every area, from improving the school building to providing assistants for teachers," says O'Neill. "Today the picture of the school is very different. We got through the Ofsted inspection and we didn't go into special measures.
"Self-review is meant to be carried out annually. I use it every term to monitor our progress. I think it's important not to be afraid to say you have got a problem."
It was a story of survival with which most of those present at a recent Liverpool headteachers conference in Kendal, Cumbria, could identify. It was the second heads' gathering run by the new-look education authority, reborn 18 months ago after schools minister Estelle Morris threatened to privatise its services.
"For the first time, I think, we are all singing from the same hymn sheet," says Jill Wilkinson, head of Rudston Infants school. "At last there is some consistency."
She believes this was mostly thanks to the self-review system. It is based on Ofsted's Form S3 (School Self-Audit), plus many more supplementary questions intended to reveal schools' strengths and weaknesses.
The questions are answered in consultatio with colleagues and governors, and afterwards the review is discussed with the school effectiveness officer (SEO). This person then enters the responses into an LEA database. The SEO will also discuss any areas the school has identified for development and advises heads on the kind of support they can get.
Says Kaye Gee, a senior effectiveness officer: "It has helped to take out the confrontation between the heads and the school inspectors - or effectiveness officers as we're now called - because a problem is there in black and white on the computer screen. It's a starting point - a way into the discussions - and can take the sting out of an inspection.
"I think it's very good for schools. For example, the information gives a view of the school's performance over 12 months and identifies the issues which heads may have put on the back burner and which may need to be brought forward again."
Chris Boycott, head of Abbot's Lea, a special school, says the review system has given her more confidence. "I can see our strengths because it doesn't just concentrate on our weaknesses. Instead of thinking all the time, 'We're not doing so well here,' or, 'We've not got that strategy firmly in place,' I can see we are doing well in many areas. The review takes the guess work out of how we're doing."
Mike Dillon, who is currently analysing self-review feedback, says one of the significant issues raised by the system is the difficulty governors have of knowing what is going on in their schools.
"A solution could be to attach a governor to each school year, who would then report back to the governing body, giving them a fuller picture of what's happening," Dillon says.
"There's also confusion over the role of governors," he adds. "Governors don't always understand the difference between the day-to-day operational management of a school and their contribution to the overall direction of the school. It can be their enthusiasm for the job that gets in the way."
To find out more about Liverpool's self-review system, email: firstname.lastname@example.org. The system will be demonstrated at the Local Government Association conference on June 26 at the Crown Plaza Hotel, Liverpool