Schools must speak for themselves (Part 1)

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School self-evaluation is a strange beast. There’s no requirement for schools to present it in a particular format and approaches vary up and down the country. How you go about the process is a matter for you and your governors to decide. So long as you know your school, and how it needs to improve, all will be good.

Ofsted’s maligned online, grade-driven Self-Evaluation Form (SEF) was abolished several years ago and many of us still remember it with much angst and trepidation. Many hours were wasted by leadership teams agonizing over fine-grade boundaries as to whether the school was a 1 or a 2 or a 3 or a 4. The fact that it had very little to do with school improvement got lost amidst the hubris.

The grade was everything. If the lead inspector disagreed, invariably it was you that didn’t know your school rather than the other way round. You can understand therefore why so many of us agonized over it, especially when the stakes were so perilously high. They still are for that matter.

What if the grading system is as unreliable as observing a lesson? We know from research that if a lesson is given a top grade there’s a 78% chance a second observer will grade it differently. Worse still, when giving the bottom grade, the figure increases to 90%. Even if we adopt a 50% margin of error, it’s close to 50/50 if following a category 4 inspection a second lead inspector comes along and gives it a different grade.

If the purpose of grading your SEF was to try and second-guess the inspector, you may as well have tossed a coin.

Last week @HarfordSean, Ofsted’s National Director of Education made it absolutely clear on Twitter that we don’t need to grade our self-evaluation summaries. This came at just the right time for me as for the past six months or so I’ve been trying to align the process of school self-evaluation with the key themes in my recent book. Namely, that as leaders we should run our schools in a way that is meaningful and purposeful to us and not necessarily for a national inspectorate.

Wanting to find out whether the message was getting through, I turned to Twitter. I asked the question: ‘Do you grade your school self-evaluation?’ Almost three-quarters of you said that you did and that you use the 1-4 Ofsted grading. One in ten schools (11%) don’t grade at all with one in twenty (6%) choosing to grade but using their own criteria. Ten percent of you were clearly in a mischievous mood choosing instead to tick the ‘What Ofsted summary?‘ box. I shall consider these as spoilt papers.

I was mildly surprised though that a quarter of schools use their own grading criteria or none at all when self-evaluating. Scaling up, that’s equivalent to approximately 5,000 schools that write a SES that does not use Ofsted grades. In my 8 years as an Ofsted inspector I can’t recall a single inspection where the school did not produce a self-evaluation summary that was not based on the inspection framework and not graded 1-4 using Ofsted grades.  Even now as an NLE I’ve yet to find a school that has been bold enough to ditch the grades altogether.

For those schools that don’t grade, it would be interesting to see how this impacted on their overall inspection outcome. I wonder as well whether there are any heads out there leading schools in special measures and subject to regular HMI monitoring visits who are brave enough to ditch the grades.

I’m still not clear whether to grade or not. It was interesting to learn that @TeacherToolkit is trying to convince his leadership team not to grade, if nothing else to make Ofsted work harder for their stripes. Likewise @theprimaryhead doesn’t grade, instead choosing to identify strengths and weaknesses.

I think it takes a bold headteacher to drop the grades altogether, a sentiment shared by @Funkycow64 who appeals to anyone who chooses not to grade to come forward. Her #askingforafriend hashtag suggests she is grappling with the idea but needs some allies. However, with @Yorkshire_Steve’s rallying cry – ‘spread the world people!’ – hopefully she’ll soon have plenty, myself included. The day will come when one day we shall have the critical mass.

But for now, I’ll continue grading – albeit with caution – but not using the traditional Ofsted terminology. If we are though as a system going to try and move from good to great, then we will surely need some form of proxy as to where we are on the journey and so it’s inevitable that we will need a set of progress markers, as crude as they may be. As a MAT, it also allows us to compare ourselves with each other using a common language of school improvement. At least if they are crude, they’ll be consistently crude. (I’ll take this over inconsistent refinery any day.)

In my next post I’ll share the rationale and approach to the new self-evaluation framework I’ve been developing. It’s based in part around the 1999 publication ‘Schools must speak for themselves‘ that does a fine job of making the case for school-led self-evaluation. We’ll also look at some of the most recent research on system-led self-improving schools, including peer review and the work of the London Leadership Strategy.

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