There's no escape from self-evaluation
Freedom can be a strange concept. Sometimes it creates more problems than existed before.
Take the self-evaluation form (SEF). One of Michael Gove's announcements earlier this year was that schools would no longer have to produce the things from September.
This news was greeted with delight by some heads, and we were all supposed to be excited at the prospect of the free time we would have now that we weren't filling out paperwork for the SEF (the fact that the form was never actually a statutory requirement was not dwelt on ...).
The education secretary also announced that the Ofsted framework would be revised ready for January 2012. It was partly for that reason that I went on a course about preparing for inspections the other week, even though we are not due a visit for at least another year. When it comes to Ofsted, it is always good to be as prepared as possible.
The consultant leading the seminar had to make some calculated guesses about the new framework, which is understandable as the consulation on it only finished a fortnight ago. But, from the various pilots going on at the moment across the country, it seems we can expect little change to inspections.
And that means that - unless we want to commit professional suicide - we still have to complete some sort of, well, SEF ready for Ofsted's arrival.
Our trainer advised us to prepare a self-evaluation statement based on the format of the present one but concentrating on the four areas expected to be highlighted by Ofsted in the new framework: the quality of teaching, leadership, behaviour and safety, and pupils' achievements.
Supporters of Mr Gove would point out that four areas is a major reduction from the 27 supposedly addressed by the current SEF. But the changes mean that schools will have to create their own format for SEFs from scratch, which I believe involves even more work. This seems a bit of an own goal.
In our school we are currently in the middle of our third self-evaluation week of the year, where every teacher across the school is observed, where books are scrutinised and progress and learning judged. Pupil progress is measured in a variety of ways through regular half-termly assessments and through marking and questioning within the lesson. Putting all this information together, we can make an informed decision about how we are doing. These measurements are compared to the Ofsted framework judgments and thus we can grade ourselves. Although this is time-consuming, it does help us to focus and identify areas that need further development.
The findings of this exercise are presented to staff, to governors and of course to Ofsted. Most schools will do something similar, but the format will end up being very different in every school and valuable time could be wasted as inspectors try to find the information they need. We need to point them in the right direction.
Ofsted uses the SEF to produce the pre-inspection briefing (PIB), which allows it to form a hypothesis and sets out trails for the inspectors to follow. The PIB saves valuable time and allows inspectors to spend more time in lessons. Without an SEF, inspectors will have to plough through a whole range of information held centrally (achievement data that may be very out of date) and whatever you decide to send them. This will not give the best impression.
Furthermore, any weakness in self-evaluation will reflect badly on the leadership and management judgment. Inspectors will have to make a judgment on the impact that the school's self-evaluation has in driving improvement and, therefore, demonstrating the capacity to improve.
I don't think Mr Gove was aware that part C of the SEF, where lots of important statistical information is recorded, needs to be provided before an inspection and is vital to Ofsted. We need to assure the inspectors that governors are meeting their statutory requirements, as well as give them information about the number of boys and girls, free school meals, looked-after children, different languages spoken and so on, otherwise they cannot make a fair judgment. The fact that school improvement partners will no longer be available to provide an impartial view of the school (thanks again to Mr Gove, who decided we did not need them) will mean the SEF is even more important than before.
So, freedom can be strange. When the boundaries are laid out in black and white you know exactly what you have to do and can get on with it. This particular new freedom leaves too many questions unanswered and could make more work, not less, for schools.
Kenny Frederick is headteacher of George Green's secondary school in east London.