Spare us this death by data

1st January 2010 at 00:00

Chatting to a newly appointed headteacher recently, he could hardly believe the freedom I had in my first year of headship 30 years ago. No constant form filling, local inspectors popped in just twice a year and virtually all my time could be spent on practical matters that would improve my school. It was wonderful.

The rot started with the School Development Plan (SDP).

A directive was issued that headteachers should think about where their schools were now, where they were going, and where they would be in three years' time. And not just think about it, they also had to write it down. In detail.

At the time, my school was difficult, its child population was transient, Year 6 behaviour was appalling, standards were low, and good teachers for inner-city areas were harder to find. It was obvious, therefore, where my priorities lay. I could have written them on a side of A4 and I pointed this out forcibly to the local inspectorate.

I hadn't a clue what would be happening in three years' time. That was light years away. Tough, I was told - accountability is increasing. The SDP is the way forward, so get writing.

Eventually, the SDP became the SIP, or School Improvement Plan. This was similar, only longer. Then, once Ofsted was fully under way, we had forms S1 to S4, which had many different headings and took ages to complete. The task consisted of writing down lots of stuff everybody in the school already knew, simply for the inspectorate. And you still had to write your SIP as well, because ... well ... apparently it's good practice to write everything down. Just in case you haven't a clue what you're doing.

These forms evolved into the SEF, or Self-Evaluation Form, which was pretty massive and caused headteachers to shut their doors and weep in frustration. The SIP and the SEF would now be perused by your School Improvement Partner, a sort of semi-inspector who checks up on you regularly between Ofsteds. SIP and SEF monitored by a SIP. No wonder school governors get confused.

Realising the SEF was heavy going, or possibly because they like changing things every five minutes, Ofsted designed a new version. It's much easier to fill in, it says. Don't write reams and reams, just give us the bare facts. I didn't believe any of this for a moment. And rightly so, because I've just been looking at the form.

SEF Two initially seems uncomplicated, but then you download the guidance that's supposed to help you. It runs to a staggering 88 pages.

And the more you read, the more worried you become, because you need buckets of evidence and reams of data if you're to convince the inspectors the school isn't falling apart. Then you have to grade yourself in each area and hope the inspectors agree with you, by which time you're already shaking and reaching for the gin. Oh, and you're still required to write your School Improvement Plan ...

Is it surprising deputies and most senior managers never teach any more? Some of them never talk to a child. They spend their lives filling in this stuff to appease people who've long forgotten about the realities of school life.

If I wasn't retiring before Ofsted visits my school again, I'd be very tempted to say: "Yes, we plan. Yes, we know what we're doing and where we're going. But we don't spend our lives writing everything down. So roll your sleeves up, get among the children and staff, and talk to them at great length. Watch, listen and learn."

And then make a judgment based on what you've seen and heard, not on a welter of paper and piles of questionable data.

Mike Kent is headteacher at Comber Grove Primary in Camberwell, south London. Email:

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