Sips that drive us to drink

1st May 2009 at 01:00

Good morning, everybody, and a warm welcome to Sip school. My name's Roger, and I'll be training you to be an effective Sip. It'll be intensive, of course, but with a bit of luck we should cover everything by 4pm.

Now, you'll know that Sip stands for "school improvement partner". It's important to understand that we use the word "partner" somewhat loosely. "Inspector" always sounded a bit frightening, so the Government thought that "partner" sounded friendlier. In reality, though, you're an inspector. After all, if we let headteachers run around organising their own schools, who knows what sort of chaos we'd have, so we need to keep them tightly in check. That's why we have Ofsted inspections, local authority audits of teaching and school improvement partners. It's essential to keep heads looking over their shoulders, because that's the way to keep them on their toes.

So, what's your role as a Sip? Well, you must be able to sum up the effectiveness of a school very quickly, and there's only one effective way to do this. It's called "checking the data".

Please look at the screens in front of you. You'll see progression data for both key stages from a typical primary school.

In a few minutes, I'm going to start my stopwatch, and you'll have four minutes to decide where the weaknesses in this school lie. Candidates who can't do it in four minutes will have to leave, I'm afraid - as will anybody who falls asleep because they find data excruciatingly, mind-numbingly, brain-crushingly boring.

Being able to do this virtually immediately will show the headteacher that you're on top of your game when you meet them in their office.

Incidentally, never stray far from the head's office or you'll find yourself surrounded by little people who grab hold of your legs and try to show you pictures they've painted. Succumb to this and you'll have paint all over your chiffon in seconds.

As you become more experienced, you should be able to string out your meeting for a good three hours, and then it'll be time to go home.

There's a lot of mileage in poring over the data in detail. We call it "drilling down". If Charlie Podsworth has moved down 1 per cent of a sub-level quadrant, you'll want to know why. And you'll want to know what the head intends to do about it and whether Charlie's got a personalised Smart target to make sure he gets the help he needs.

If, by some rare chance, the head says the school has actually met its targets, just tell them the targets weren't aspirational enough.

You won't have any trouble with newer heads. They've been brainwashed to accept all this codswallop - sorry, I mean number-crunching - but older heads need careful handling.

When they tell you that schools are about far more than lists of data, shrug your shoulders and say: "I know, I know, I'm on your side, Graham, but it's the nature of progress, I'm afraid." Then carry on talking about data.

After an intensive three hours, you may find your average headteacher wants to pop into the washroom for a weep. When they come out, pat their arm and tell them we're all subjected to rigour these days and a stressful afternoon doesn't mean the pair of you aren't still chums.

Oh, and just to clear up one final matter. You may still hear references to "children". Start by pointing out that this word is redundant. These days, we call them learning output units.

Mike Kent is headteacher of Comber Grove Primary in Camberwell, South London. Email:

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