Many schools are nervous of projects which claim to "raise attainment" because they imagine the public will immediately assume they are failing in some way. Even so, 19 schools in Kent - local authority and grant-maintained - volunteered to pilot a self-evaluation handbook sponsored by their local authority, and the gamble appears to have paid off.
The handbook, Raising Attainment in Secondary Schools, is not intended to be the definitive answer to school improvement, says Lesley Saunders, of the National Foundation for Educational Research, who wrote it with Bob Stradling. But it has been welcomed in Kent, where it is now being taken up by a second cohort of schools.
The project is unusual, Lesley Saunders says, in that the final version of the handbook incorporates ideas suggested by the participating schools. The rationale was to provide a menu from which schools could select procedures to meet their own particular needs.
The handbook offers guidance on diagnosis and planning for self-evaluation, and includes a check-list for the assessment of departments and individual staff. One section deals with classroom management, evaluation of classroom learning, and support for learning outside the classroom and whole-school strategies. Another gives specific examples of classroom observation methods, pupil questionnaires, and means of identifying pupils' learning difficulties.
The methodology is designed to slot into the Office for Standards in Education inspection cycle and the Framework criteria. Some schools have already decided to use the handbook over the three years leading up to their OFSTED inspection, others are using it to help implement their post-inspection action plan.
One of the pilot schools was Hayesbrook High, in Tonbridge, a boys' secondary modern, which enjoyed a dramatic improvement in GCSE results after adopting some of the handbook's strategies. The school was inspected in October 1994, and its action plan identified the need to improve pupils' independent learning and GCSE performance.
The head, Nigel Blackburn, decided to use the handbook in the 1995 spring and summer terms to focus on those aspects of school improvement.
"We wanted to encourage self-evaluation by the staff and then move on to the pupils," Mr Blackburn says. "We already had a system for setting exam targets but this was not working well and we felt that we needed a less crude system. "
Students' views were canvassed through a questionnaire which revealed that some of them felt that staff did not have enough time to talk to them individually about their problems. Staff awareness was raised by asking them to look at individual students' progress, or lack of it. Efforts were also made to involve parents more in their sons' work.
And the school's GCSE results improved more quickly than anyone had dared hope - in 1994 only 20 per cent of Hayesbrook's fifth-years gained five or more A-C grades, but last summer that figure jumped to 30 per cent.
Now the school's Year 11 pupils are setting their own targets as the exams approach. Parents have discussed each GCSE subject in detail with their sons and their subject tutors, and next month they will be invited to an evening tutorial to discuss how they can help with homework and exam revision.
"I have been enormously impressed by the extra energy and time staff have put into this project," Mr Blackburn says. "We now have revision clubs at lunch-time and after school. And the maths and English departments plan to run two-day intensive revision courses over the Easter holidays. The grade CD borderline pupils and their parents have been offered special help through our own Contract to Success, which suggests ways to reach that crucial C grade. "
The Castle High School in Deal, another of Kent's non-selective schools, also used the handbook pilot scheme to improve its GCSE results, but by an alternative route. The head, David Barnes, introduced a system of classroom observation as the engine for improving teaching and learning.
"Of course teachers had some concerns about Big Brother," Mr Barnes says. "But we stressed that this was a staff development exercise, though we are quite clear that this is a means of bringing about change and improvement."
Observation is carried out by the senior management team and other staff, with heads of department involved when their departments are being scrutinised. So far, observation has covered key stages, and departments, with observers looking for examples of good and bad practice.
"We have observed about 200 lessons, looking at pace, challenge, differentiation, the use of homework and so on. The teacher concerned gets immediate feed-back, and usually three points are made - probably two positive and one negative where further staff development will be recommended. The emphasis is on self-evaluation and staff development, but at the end of the day we do expect certain things to happen."
Lesley Saunders is happy with the Kent schools' tendency to pick and choose items from the handbook. "We have produced it in a format which will allow a school not only to choose what they want to use, but also add strategies of their own, so that it becomes their own document," she says.
The proof of the project's effectiveness is confirmed in two ways for Gordon Bernard, of the Kent Curriculum Services Agency: that many of the pilot schools are continuing with the monitoring and evaluation they have begun, and that up to 20 more Kent schools are lining up to join the second round organised by the agency. They have been recruited, Mr Bernard says, less by him than by enthusiasts from the first group of schools wanting to pass on the message.
Raising Attainment in Secondary Schools, a handbook for self-evaluation, by Lesley Saunders and Bob Stradling with Simon Gallacher, is available from the NFER, The Mere, Upton Park, Slough SL1 2DO, price Pounds 20.
Seven methods of evaluation used by the pilot schools 1 Quantitative data (eg exam results, attendance etc.) 2 Classroom observation.
4 Group discussion.
6 Work portfolios.
7 Playgroundstreet observation.
Four solutions arising from a whole school approach 1 Better differentiation.
2 Earlier intervention.
3 Rewards for positive behaviour.
4 In-service training for all staff with practical support for changing roles.