But will the DIY audit work?

2nd September 2005 at 01:00
The new self-evaluation inspection begins this month. Martin Whittaker asks if schools are ready for the task

School self-evaluation is nothing new. Successful schools have been assessing their own strengths and weaknesses for years.

Now, however, the context in which they do it has changed, as Ofsted brings in its new framework for school inspections this term with self-evaluation at the heart of the process.

Headteachers, senior managers and governors who have become adept at monitoring their schools' progress may feel ready to answer the questions on the new self-evaluation form (SEF). But as the onus is placed on schools to show how good they are, there are fears that some are still not ready for the task.

Late last term, the National College for School Leadership published a toolkit for school leaders on self-evaluation - recognition that at the 11th hour, many schools still need support. An internet survey of more than 1,200 heads and deputies carried out by the NCSL found 76 per cent were ready to take up the reins on school self-evaluation. Viewed another way, that means 24 per cent did not feel ready. And some commentators believe the figure could be much higher. The national college's guide, produced in partnership with the Secondary Heads' Association, stresses that even though good schools have long carried out self-evaluation, "it has not always been performed objectively and systematically to the extent that is now expected".

Ofsted's pilots of the new SEF also showed some schools doing much better than others. While the best schools clearly and honestly set out their evidence, Ofsted says that several provided numerical judgements and long lists of assertions but "only sometimes" backed them up with evidence.

It said that some self-evaluation forms were too introspective and did not get to the heart of evaluating the impact that changes had on pupil achievement. However, a TES survey of pilot schools in the summer found the new regime popular, but hard work for heads.

The NCSL's guide brings together best practice of self-evaluation by school leaders around the country. It gives case studies, different methods of collecting data and an overview of available publications and online tools.

Professor Geoff Southworth, NCSL's director of research, said: "We know that many school leaders can apply the findings from self-evaluation to their schools. However, we want to equip more school leaders to do this as an ongoing activity."

The new light-touch inspection framework will give schools only a few days'

notice of inspectors' visits, though inspection teams will be smaller and observe fewer lessons than at present.

One of the schools piloting the new inspection framework has been Redbridge community school, a comprehensive in Southampton. Headteacher Richard Schofield says the city's schools are prepared because the local education authority has supported self-evaluation since the late Nineties.

The school was inspected under the new arrangements in May. Schofield says that although it was a positive experience - the new, slimline report declared the school to be outstanding - it also held a few surprises. Over the two-day inspection, only a small number of lessons were observed.

"Staff didn't feel terribly involved in the process," he says. "As a consequence, when we were graded outstanding, somehow their sense of ownership of that accolade wasn't the same as it might have been under the old system."

He says inspectors seemed to trust the school to know itself very well.

"Sometimes their lines of enquiry were nothing like as exhaustive as we had anticipated, and at times it became almost a tick-box exercise.

"I think a lot of it was down to the meticulous preparation and evidence file we produced. But it was slightly unnerving as we were expecting a much more intensive, robust engagement which didn't happen."

Sue Eagle, head of Tuckswood first school in Norwich, welcomes the new lighter-touch inspections. But she wonders how much the process will be able to take account of schools' distinctiveness. For the past decade Tuckswood has run an innovative curriculum with a range of extra-curricular activities, which was praised in its old-style inspection last year.

"I'm cock-a-hoop that it's not going to be such a long process, because the week really did feel like a month," she says. "But I do think that we as a profession are going to have to be hugely good at self-evaluation."

The National Association of Head Teachers has been supporting schools with self-evaluation for the past five years. It has produced guide materials and countrywide training.

Mike Parkhouse, the National Association of Head Teachers' senior assistant secretary for training and development, says that while many schools are well down the line with self-evaluation, many also need support in adjusting their practices to meet the demands of the new Ofsted system.

"We've found that they appreciate support in interpreting what's required and in thinking about their current processes, about changes they have to make, and about how they can turn what is a formative process into a summative process," he says.

He says it is important that schools do not lose sight of self-evaluation as a means of school improvement. "It would be a great shame if the self-evaluation process were hijacked and became simply a matter of meeting Ofsted's requirements."

But why should schools be struggling with self-evaluation? Surely they have had enough time to get it right? Mike Parkhouse says that while many schools have had help from their local education authorities, this has been variable. Some will have gone through changes in headship which may have set them back. "The speed with which this has to be done is a challenge for some schools. They know that if their inspection was some time ago, they're going to have to get something on to their SEF pretty quickly."

Self-evaluation is also a big issue for governing bodies. One new area Ofsted will be looking at is how schools fulfil the requirements of the new Every Child Matters agenda. This means answering questions such as "to what extent do learners adopt healthy lifestyles?", "to what extent do learners feel safe and adopt safe practices?" and "how well do learners prepare for their future economic wellbeing?"

Stephen Adamson, vice-chair of the National Association of School Governors, believes the national college's finding that a quarter of school leaders are not ready for self-evaluation is optimistic.

"It's all hitting us terribly fast," he says. "One of the things Ofsted is going to be looking at in its inspections is how schools are providing these extra services now, and how they're preparing for them. A lot of schools are going to be found wanting.

"We have talked to chief inspector David Bell about it and he makes reassuring noises that Ofsted won't be too hard on them initially if they're not prepared for this. But it doesn't stop people worrying."

The National College for School Leadership's publication Self-evaluation: A guide for school leaders is available to download from www.ncsl.org.uk or as a hard copy for pound;10.NCSL is staging a series of one-day roadshows in Bristol (October 6), London (November 3), Manchester (February 15) and at the national college in Nottingham (March 16). The venues for the first three dates are still to be confirmed. The cost is pound;65.The NAHT has also produced a toolkit. For further information contact chrisb@naht.org.uk

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