Tell it like it is

31st March 2006 at 01:00
Dorothy Walker finds out from Chris Yapp, the architect of the national grid for learning, about the benefits of rating yourself in education and using technology to bring about change

Chris Yapp says he is "a great fan of self-assessment", having first seen the benefits two decades ago. He is head of public sector innovation at Microsoft, and since he entered the IT industry in 1980, Chris has earned recognition as a leading thinker on employing technology to bring about change in both the public and private sector. In education, he famously came up with the idea for a national grid for learning.

He believes self-assessment is about building trust. "In many professions there is strong evidence that if you impose external regulation and measurements, you get a lot of resistance. The worry over self-assessment has always been that people will over-report and make exaggerated claims.

But there is a tendency to do that in external inspections, too. The key lies in building professional trust and allowing people to make their own interpretations rather than relying on an inspector who may not really understand what the organisation is trying to do."

In the late 1980s, he worked with organisations which were assessing the quality of their operation and saw the emergence of early frameworks such as the European Foundation for Quality Management (EFQM) Excellence model.

He says: "Some models have proved very powerful, especially when people are encouraged to make their assessments visible, rather than purely internal.

But of course, they need space to practice and learn how to do it properly."

He recalls how people took time to get it right. "The first time round, when they asked themselves: 'Are we a four or a five on this particular measure?' they tended to go for the five. But if they over-reported, they had nowhere to go - they didn't know how to improve. Next time, they would undershoot where they thought they were, so they could make an impressive improvement. Over a period of time, the reporting became more accurate."

He says that external inspection can stifle innovation. "If somebody does something genuinely innovative and clever, it may not fit the inspection model, which still reflects the way things used to be. "I saw a wonderful example of this several years ago at a school in Coventry. All the computers had been placed in the library, and the children were allowed to leave the classroom quietly to go and use a machine if they wanted to. If they abused the privilege, they lost the right to go out of the class without asking permission, so they couldn't just bunk off.

"Then the school had an Ofsted inspection. The inspector saw somebody walking out of the classroom, and the teacher taking no notice, and interpreted it as poor discipline. Actually, it was incredibly good discipline - there was a clear code of conduct that allowed pupils to go and use resources when they needed them."

He believes one of the greatest benefits of self-assessment is in encouraging "team-working at the top". "It gets the management team to take a wider view and talk about the context in which they are managing rather than discussing the running of their own departments or divisions. They develop a common language as they work through the challenges and issues.

That is important in education, where one of the problems you find, particularly in secondaries, is that there are many different groups, each with its own plan: one for geography, another for science, another for maths. There are subtleties of the language which are never resolved."

He says the biggest barrier to success is weak leadership. "If the leadership wants to use this kind of tool for continual improvement, then it will be incredibly useful, and it will prompt people to start saying: 'Who is better than us in this sort of area? Let's go and see why they are better.'

"If the leadership isn't serious and just wants to believe the organisation is brilliant and ahead of everyone else, then people will pretend that is the case and there will be no development. Leaders have to be open and willing to respond.

"People are often cynical about self-assessment first time round. They'll say they have heard it all before - this is the flavour of the month, it will last for a while and then be dropped as soon as the next initiative comes along. So it is important for leaders to send strong signals: 'We are going to do this, we are going to be honest and we will listen to feedback - and please tell us like it is, don't just say what you think we want to hear.'

"If you have a very authoritarian style of leadership, it is tricky to build the kind of trust that encourages people to say: 'Well, actually, I think we are pretty dreadful at this, and here's what I think we should be doing.' And if you don't really listen the first time, people will switch off and they will not get involved again."

Chris applies self-assessment in his own life and says it acts as a stimulus to encourage him to move on and seek new challenges: "I review where I am on the S-curve. When you begin in a particular role - at the bottom of the S, you don't make very much progress for a while. Then you start to move into a position where everything that you do works. Then you head towards a plateau - you start reaching the limit and it stops being fun. The question is: when do you jump from one S-curve to another with a greater potential?

"There have been a number of times when I have been able to think ahead and say, rather than wait until I have stopped enjoying a role, I want to be able to move on and do something different. You can no longer plan a career, but you can anticipate and plan these pivotal moments. Most people wait until they are bored, demoralised and depressed - and then when they go for an interview, it shows.

"I act as a mentor and find it valuable to work with someone who sees the world differently and is at a different stage in their career. The combination of doing self-assessment and being mentored has occasionally caused a cathartic moment in my life."

Assessing your limitations and failings, he says, is a vital part of the process of learning. "There are people who fail their driving test having thought they were going to pass. Next time round, they pass, but they feel their driving was worse than before. They didn't pass at first because they weren't aware of their limits or failings. Once they were, they were safer.

"Self-assessment enables you to find out for yourself where you can improve. If someone else tells you, it can feel as though they are putting you down. A decade ago, it was really interesting in schools to see boys who were quite happy getting two out of ten when the teacher marked their maths paper. But when they were using maths to play a game, they wanted to get ten out of ten every time, and they would play it over and over again.

What they didn't like was the feeling that someone was putting them down.

And that is true of teachers as much as it is of kids."

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