What makes them great?

30th April 2004 at 01:00
Martin Whittaker opens a three-page report on self-evaluation for schools in the light of the TES survey

When Trevor Atkinson's school got a first-class inspection report, he could have rested on his laurels. But instead he decided to find out why his and other schools praised by the Office for Standards in Education had done so well.

The answer was self-evaluation, the sort that goes right through the school - from governors' table to the staffroom mugs.

Trevor Atkinson, head of Tickhill Estfeld primary school near Doncaster, says: "I'm 55 now and after an Ofsted like ours it would be quite easy just to sit back and coast towards retirement, but I'm not prepared to do that."

What he was prepared to do, and did, was to survey a small group of outstanding primary schools with inspection outcomes similar to his own.

He visited seven primary schools in different education authorities in the spring and summer terms last year.

His task - for the research associates programme of the National College for School Leadership - was to find out how the schools remained outstanding and planned for future development and improvement.

Rigorous self-evaluation was at the heart of their success. Heads said they regarded this as an essential ingredient of good practice, not simply a preparation for the day the inspector calls.

"Although Ofsted and local authorities have championed this important element, the individual schools have been the real driving force," says Mr Atkinson in his report.

One school had identified personal, social and health education, information and communications technology, performance management and the role of support staff as areas for development, backing this up with extensive action plans. And it left the inspectors with little scope to make suggestions for development.

The study also found that, in some schools, questionnaires put together by governors and distributed to parents were much more extensive than Ofsted's.

In one school, governors thoroughly analysed the responses and produced graphs and charts to determine trends and ways forward.

Mr Atkinson says Tickhill Estfeld is currently going through another big self-evaluation.

"Some heads would say 'why bother? You had a good Ofsted'. But I think the school community and the governors expect us to be pro-active. In preparation for our inspection we had identified one or two areas we had to develop. Ofsted accepted that and didn't put them down as issues.

"The message is that, although we have achieved well, all establishments have to keep moving forward. Self-evaluation is vital."

The enviable verdict "no key issues" was passed on Tickhill in 2002. Mr Atkinson believes the school has made great strides since then. Impressed with ICT provision in some of the schools taking part in his survey, he has installed multimedia projectors in all the classrooms.

The school is developing languages at key stage 2, and has appointed an advanced skills teacher. And he says there have been further pushes to broaden the curriculum, though the school has long had an emphasis on art, music and sport.

But in spite of the emphasis on self-evaluation in the new inspection framework, and in spite of its obvious effectiveness, Mr Atkinson believes that not enough is done to applaud those schools doing it well.

The heads whose schools he surveyed had been found to be visionary and inspirational figures. Have they been held up as shining beacons? Far from it, says Mr Atkinson. Many schools felt they were resented by others.

Comments from the schools included: "We are not liked because we are successful"; "we are an island on our own"; and "'no key issues' is quite a dangerous statement as far as colleagues are concerned".

In introducing shorter, sharper inspections and increasing their frequency, Ofsted says it wants to build on schools' evaluation of their own performance.

And yet their schools received little recognition, and there was no evidence that they were being used as examples of good practice.

None of the schools, says Mr Atkinson in his study, had been granted any special status as a result of their outstanding reports. None was listed in last year's annual report by chief inspector David Bell, and none had become a Beacon school. Praise from LEAs and colleagues was limited and superficial, which some heads felt was down to the competitive climate created by Sats and league tables.

"The euphoria experienced by the school communities in attaining such a high Ofsted commendation was very short-lived and only lifted spirits and motivated in the short term," says Mr Atkinson's report.

In his conclusions, he says heads and senior managers need more support to share what they do well, such as invitations to national conferences to disseminate their good practice. And he suggests Ofsted could include in its annual report schools identified as having no key issues, with examples of good practice placed on its website.

"The push seems to be from the Department for Education and Skills and Ofsted for collaboration, but I still think schools are pretty insular at times," he says.

"I feel a bit disappointed that we haven't had more requests to see what we're doing and to have a look around the place."

His views are backed by Jonathan Rowley, head of Upton Priory junior school in Macclesfield, Cheshire, one of the schools surveyed in the research.

"Nobody from the LEA or anybody else has ever made the slightest use of any of us, even though at least in some respects we must run the most successful schools in the country," says Mr Rowley.

"I wrote to the standards manager for Cheshire after our Ofsted result and I sent a copy of the report. And I said in my letter that perhaps there was something I could do, or maybe the authority might want to make use of me in some way. I just got a nice letter back saying 'it's nice to see you did so well'."

The school was involved in the first pilot of self-evaluation in Cheshire and has gone on to develop its own model. Has the school managed to maintain its momentum?

"There have been a couple of changes of personnel, but from the self-evaluation work that we have continued to do, and from parents' and staff's perceptions, I would say we are as good, if not better," says Mr Rowley.

Self-evaluation is necessarily in-house, but it seems that the good stuff it produces should be shared around.

Trevor Atkinson's report, No Key Issues, is available online from the National College for School Leadership. www.ncsl.org.uk

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