We are not a number, we are a free school...

9th June 1995 at 01:00
But anonymity is strictly maintained in Surrey's strategic information service for secondaries, as Susannah Kirkman reports. David Pryer cringes whenever he thinks of schools "endlessly reinventing the wheel. Not sharing information is criminal." Mr Pryer, a governor at Oakwood School in Horley, Surrey, and other Surrey governors and heads are now reaping the benefits of the county's strategic information service which aims to trigger effective management by publishing comparative information on the financial, personnel and curricular management of all secondary schools.

The Surrey system is based on the idea that schools need benchmarks to judge how well they are performing. It develops the Audit Commission's survey of 100 schools reported in Adding up the Sums; Schools' Management of their Finances, and shares some of the same benchmarks. The Surrey data includes figures on staffing budgets, funding per pupil and school balances, the pupilteacher ratio and the percentage of non-contact time.

Andy Thompson, head of Oakwood, wishes the information had been available before the school faced its OFSTED inspection in 1993. "The inspectors asked why we only spent Pounds 63 per pupil on capitation when the county average was Pounds 107," he recalls. "We'd never heard of the county figure so we had nothing to base our spending on." In fact, it turned out that the school had not included the cost of furniture as part of its capitation, which brought its spending level well above the county average.

Mr Thompson feels that comparative information also helps governors to quantify the effectiveness of their school, a vital part of their role. "Governors' new accountability means they need to know exactly what's going on," he says. "They are professionals, not just do-gooders, and they want information they can base their decisions on."

But Jennifer Tindle , who is vice-chair of the governors, stresses that governors want to use comparisons with other schools in a positive, not a punitive way. Statistics relating to rival schools should not be used as a stick to beat the head.

"If attendance is down, for instance, the question should be, how can we use our resources to improve it?" She believes that information on a wide range of topics gives a much broader picture of a school than exam league tables. And it can reassure governors that they're on the right track.

"It can be a lonely job," says Mr Pryer. "And when you're feeling isolated, it's nice to know that you're not way out of line."

Oakwood is now developing its own performance indicators, so that it can monitor progress in several areas over three or four years. The governors and management team will look at things like the pupils' use of private study facilities, energy costs, and attendance and punctuality by year group.

Mr Thompson has also found comparative information useful when dealing with parents. "League tables have set hares running," he says. "The parents of the children you really want in the school come armed with checklists, data and questions." Class size is the biggest issue.

The day after a neighbouring, rival school with a sixth form published its OFSTED report showing a better pupil-teacher ratio than Oakwood's, Mr Thompson had to take six phone calls from concerned parents. The strategic information service allowed him to show that Oakwood had a favourable pupil-teacher ratio compared with other 11 to 16 schools in Surrey.

The danger of misinterpreting raw data is one reason for maintaining anonymity in the information service. In an attempt to put the statistics in context, schools are ranked with others of similar size and age range, and the survey gives details of the children with low reading quotients and the percentages of pupils qualifying for free meals. But all schools are still identified by coded numbers, not by their names.

"We don't want the school to be compared openly, so that we would feel inhibited about putting money into teaching staff rather than extra computers, for instance," says Mrs Tindle.

However, Oakwood is happy to share details of its management costs and policies with neighbouring schools before joining forces to train governors in using strategic information. Mr Pryer is hoping that this will eventually lead to identifying and exchanging best practices.

One unexpected bonus for Mr Thompson is being able to reassure his staff that the grass is not greener down the road. "There's a great myth that there are more incentive allowances and more free periods in other schools. Now we can show our curriculum managers that Oakwood comes out quite well."

Meanwhile, Surrey is planning to extend the information service to its primary schools.

For more details about Surrey's strategic information service, contact Denise Stokoe, head of quality and development, Surrey Education Services, County Hall, Kingston upon Thames, Surrey KT1 2JD

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