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The new SEF

Those of you who, like me, are a certain age will recognise that changes to Ofsted frameworks come round with the same sort of frequency as general elections. You've had one lot for a few years and then it's time for a change. And why not change the self-evaluation form (SEF) at the same time, to keep schools on their toes?

Some heads I work with think that SEF stands for self-evident futility. When I dare ask to have a look at it, they give me an old fashioned glare and move me quickly on to something more palatable. When an inspection is imminent, s/he or a senior colleague disappears into a cupboard with a Tesco bag of 'evidence' and a laptop and produce something akin to war and peace.

Heads of a more philosophical - and, arguably, more organised - frame of mind use the SEF (sensible evaluation frequently) as a regular summary of the state of the union. They take the view that good evaluation is an essential precursor to a good school improvement plan, and that the SEF provides a suitable framework. In these schools, systematic evaluation is part of all leaders' responsibilities.

If you're in the latter camp, you'll like the new framework. Amongst many other changes, the new, improved capacity judgement incorporates "the extent to which self-evaluation is established across the school community". You'll like it even more if your current SEF evaluates and contains judgements rather than descriptions and platitudes.

What are the main differences between the old and the new? The answer depends a bit on how good your current SEF is. In general, the new one is better: shorter, more focused and more closely linked to school improvement on the one hand and inspection on the other. It is now available for use online on the Ofsted website, which also contains a version you can download.

Main changes

The main changes are as follows:

  • The judgements in the SEF match the judgements made by inspectors.

  • Each area of the evaluation schedule in the SEF asks for a grade first, support with reasons.

  • Ofsted now provides criteria for every judgement which makes it a bit easier to reach a secure conclusion.

  • Unlike the old SEF, which is full of prompts, the new SEF gives no guidance, apart from asking you to state if you think you are at a grade boundary and to explain why you did not choose the other grade.

  • The specialism gets fewer mentions, and the SEF is unlikely to be the main vehicle for re-designation, but you should not ignore it.

The changes to the individual sections match the evaluation schedule, which Keith Dennis has described for members in a separate article (see link below). The areas which need particular care are:

  • the context: the guidance is similar, but you need to concentrate on changes since the last inspection

  • the new areas which schools are required to make judgements about (although some were previously incorporated within others): SMSC, assessment, leadership of teaching and learning, engagement with parents and carers

  • the substantially changed areas: attainment, embedding ambition and driving improvement, governance, equality of opportunity, safeguarding, community cohesion (if you didn't do it in 08/09), capacity for improvement;

  • the summary grades which are principally determined by other grades: achievement and enjoyment, outcomes, overall effectiveness

There are a number of minor changes to Sections B and C which are detailed on the Ofsted website.

Dos and don'ts

So what should school leaders be doing now about the SEF? I have two don'ts and a do:

Don't panic: all existing SEFs have been archived by Ofsted. You cannot change their archive but you can read it. Inspectors will use the most recent archived SEF, alongside any new information you provide, for inspections next year until you upload a completed new SEF to Ofsted. They are not expecting schools which are inspected during next year to have updated their SEF other than as part of their normal practice during the year. Ofsted says it is quite acceptable to have a part completed new SEF for inspectors to use alongside the old archived SEF. But be aware that this, potentially, demands more of an inspection team under pressure to sort out which bits of which to use.

Don't just cut and paste from the old SEF to the new one. However good your old SEF, the approach is different and, in most cases, the evaluation schedule has altered.

Do have a strategy for completing the new SEF over the course of the year. It would be unwise to leave it longer than that as your SEF may be a factor in determining when your next inspection is scheduled. It may be sensible to work to a shorter timetable if you are in one or more of the following 'risk' categories (my terminology, not Ofsted's).

  • If an inspection is imminent and your archived SEF is pretty good (judgmental, evaluative, not too long), then proceed as suggested below. But it would be wise to align your evidence to the new framework sections as quickly as you can and make a set of preliminary judgements against the new framework.

  • If inspection is imminent and your archived SEF is weak, it would be best to get into the new SEF quickly. In particular, make sure that all school leaders and key governors understand the new evaluation schedule (ES) and get areas of responsibility evaluated and summarised against the ES sooner rather than later.

  • Attainment and/or attendance is likely to be judged to be low.

  • There is an obvious weakness in a key stage, a main subject (one taken by most students at GCSE or a specialist subject), or in the performance of a sizeable group of students.

  • You were graded satisfactory at your last inspection. If so, you have a much greater chance of a no notice monitoring visit than before (40 per cent rather than 5 per cent), especially if you were rated inadequate in any judgements.

You may also want to move faster if:

  • The school was graded outstanding at the last inspection - the bar has been raised.

  • The school was graded good at the last inspection and you think you are now outstanding.

Tackling the new SEF

I would suggest the following approach for updating the SEF

  • Devolve responsibility for each area of the SEF to the appropriate senior colleagues, perhaps paired for peer evaluation and support.

  • Make sure the head and senior colleagues are familiar with the evaluation schedule, particularly your own specific area/s of responsibility. This is especially important in the absence of prompts in the new SEF.

  • If appropriate, train SLT so that they know the changes to the framework and how to approach the SEF so that you are more likely to achieve a common approach.

  • Have a calendar through the year to produce sections of the SEF for agreement by SLT. It's probably most sensible to start with the achievement and enjoyment section in the autumn: as a minimum, do the autumn data analysis as usual, and then discuss how attainment, learning and progress stack up against the relevant grade descriptors,

  • Try to ensure that the first section undertaken is a good model for those that follow.

  • If middle leaders also do their own self-evaluations (good practice as long as the written product is much simpler than the full SEF), make sure the format is revised in line with the school SEF; middle leaders are also likely to need training and support to do this.

  • Provide an update for governors. Try to ensure that they have a defined role in self-evaluation and, in particular, understand and apply the governance criteria in their practices.

Making judgements

This advice is adapted from suggestions from HMI who developed the new framework.

  • Understand what the judgement is about. Look at "What inspectors should evaluate" (in the ES) and underline the key words.

  • Make an initial judgement based on what you know of the school's performance.

  • Look at the grade descriptors in the ES for the initial grade. Underline the key words which describe the essential elements of your chosen grade.

  • Make a short list of the most pertinent evidence you have which is relevant to those key words. Do not include detail, but make links to where the evidence is. The relevant section of the old SEF should help if it's any good.

  • Look at "Inspectors should take account of..." in the ES. Are there gaps in your evidence (for example, about monitoring and evaluation)?

  • Look at the grade criteria immediately above and below your initial grade. Given the quality and reliability of your evidence base, is your initial grade right? Why not the grade above or below?

Also, for the summary grades, read the rules (ie the guidance to inspectors about grading in the ES) and make sure you've followed them.

Writing the evaluation

The following is my advice, not Ofsted's.

  • Keep it short: more than a page on any one judgement is almost certainly too long. The summary judgements require much less space.

  • Make sure it's readable: font size 11pt, short sentences and/or bullet points, sub-headings, lines between paragraphs all help.

  • You do not need to cover all the "Inspectors should take account of..." areas, as per Ofsted's advice - but pick out the key things that show the quality of the area you are evaluating and incorporate, where appropriate, anything you are working to improve.

  • Don't cut from the old and paste into the new, but use the old where it's well written and the judgement area is little changed, as step 4 (the evidence step) in the process above.

  • As far as possible, link provision judgements to outcomes. For example, "Guidance is good as shown by the low number of NEETs and the excellent progression outcomes for Y11 students."

  • As far as possible link leadership and management judgements to outcomes or improvements in the quality of provision - for example: "Because we introduced X, most teachers now do Y and, in subjects A and B, standards have risen."

  • Statements should be evaluative, but you can incorporate bits of description if they explain the outcome/evaluation.

  • Match the evaluation to the judgement: if you judge something to be outstanding, improvement points should be few. 'Outstanding' followed by several major development points destroys the credibility of earlier arguments.

  • If, from reading the ES, you can see that you are at risk in a particular area (and this applies to the good/outstanding border as much as the satisfactory/inadequate border), be particularly careful to cover all the likely territory (although this conflicts with the brevity recommendation above) and explain why you've made the decision you did.

Structuring the writing

The Ofsted dissemination conferences included an example of a SEF section which based the writing on sub-headed responses to some of the main elements of the area being evaluated. I prefer an approach which incorporates:

  • the main strengths/highlights in the area, carefully matched to the most important elements of the ES - see my advice on making judgements above

  • key areas where there is scope for improvement or which you are working on

  • if you are at or near a grade boundary, why you didn't choose the other grade

  • a line or two that summarises the evidence collection arrangements and the reliability of the evidence

  • evidence links, not the evidence itself, except, in brief, if it supports the main headlines

Further help

I am in the process of updating my published guidance on self-evaluation and inspection which many of you will have seen and which will again be made available from the ASCL website in return for a donation to charity. I will include a detailed analysis of the evaluation schedule, including progression within the criteria, some worksheets and checklists to aid SEF completion, a stab at some model answers, guidance on middle leader evaluation and updated guidance on how to manage inspections and inspectors.

Tony Thornley has worked as a headteacher, inspector, school improvement partner and consultant.

Click here to download the Ofsted document The Evaluation Schedule for Schools.

Click here for the Leader article by Keith Dennis on the evaluation schedule.

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