Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Focus on cultural change

Focus on cultural change

SHA has long campaigned for school inspection to be more strongly linked to self-evaluation. In place of quality control, rejected by industry years ago, we have sought quality assurance, in which internal and external judgements are properly balanced.

The new Ofsted framework, which came into effect this month, is very close to SHA's proposals for improving inspection. We should give three cheers for that but, as Keith Dennis writes on page 19, although it may be 'light touch', it is by no means 'soft touch'.

The chief inspector in England, David Bell, told the Times on 22 June: "We have made no secret that we are raising the bar of expectations and we make no apology for that. It is possible that schools which in the previous system were considered good may find themselves only satisfactory now."

Raising the bar means that more schools will fail to reach the new standard and one could logically conclude that more schools will be placed in special measures.

Contrary to what some newspapers say, we have a very successful secondary school system, with only 96 schools - around 3 per cent - in special measures. That must give us confidence as we approach the new framework.

There is, I am assured by Ofsted, no quota for special measures and judgements will derive from the inspection criteria. It is these criteria that have been toughened and SHA members need to read them carefully.

Teething problems

When systems change, the law of unintended consequences frequently comes into operation. The last new inspection framework, in September 2003, produced some bizarre judgements, as inspectors interpreted the letter of the new regulations.

The performance of good governing bodies was sometimes deemed unsatisfactory and overall judgements on some schools were undeservedly harsh, resulting in several cases of schools in special measures that should not have been.

The reason for this appeared to be that inspectors failed to make a proper link between the school's self-evaluation and the focus of the inspection, spending too high a proportion of their time looking at those areas revealed as weak in the self-evaluation and giving too little weight to stronger areas.

When SHA alerted David Bell to the problems, he issued fresh instructions to inspectors and the problem did not recur.

There could be no greater disincentive to an open, honest self-evaluation than the knowledge that inspectors will only focus on the areas that the school declares to be weak. As Peter Kubicki states on page 22, schools have to decide whether to take a "bare your soul, shoot yourself in the foot" approach or try to play down perceived weaknesses with a more conservative self-evaluation.

If the balance of the new inspection is right - and evidence from the pilot suggests that it is - a more open approach will produce a better inspection result. Areas of weakness can be mentioned and the action that is being taken to improve can be described. This could even turn a potential negative into a positive for the leadership of the school.

The 180 pilot schools inspected under the new framework have given almost universal approval to the revised system, which is seen as a more professional dialogue than the previous framework. It is still immensely challenging, but it is an altogether more grown-up system than previous Ofsted regimes.

Most secondary inspections will be led by an HMI, rather than the registered inspectors to which we have grown accustomed since 1992. The short notice is less than we wanted, but it certainly avoids the long, anxious lead-in time after the brown envelope arrives.

SHA has tried to persuade Ofsted to indicate the year in which each school will be inspected, but they are unwilling to do so. In reality, after the first cycle, it will hopefully settle into a pattern and schools will know what part of their self-evaluation cycle will include the inspectors' visit.

Eyes on leadership

Pilot schools report that the process is now much more an inspection of leadership and management, with less focus on classroom observation. As Alan Pittam and Andy Morris report on page 23, greater weight is now placed on the judgements of school leaders and the extent to which they identify the strengths and weaknesses of the school.

Although they may be relieved at the reduction in pressure, compared to previous inspections, classroom teachers may be drawn into conversations with inspectors, perhaps in a casual way in the school corridor. They may need to be reminded that there is no such thing as a casual conversation with an inspector!

The five outcomes set out in Every Child Matters have become an important new focus for inspections. It may seem a novel question after years of Gradgrind directions from central government, but do students actually enjoy school? In particular, do they enjoy learning? Do they feel safe? Does bullying take place and what does the school do about it?

Inspectors look to the students themselves for answers to these questions. One of the main differences in the new inspection is the proportion of time during which inspectors are listening to the student voice.

As we heard at the SHA/Specialist Schools Trust conferences on personalising learning, many schools have made great progress on student voice. Schools doing this will be well positioned for this part of the new inspection process.

Results over process

Inspectors' judgements should focus on impact, rather than process. Therefore it is the effectiveness of policies and the extent to which they result in improvement, rather than the existence of the policies, that are important.

Similarly, the evidence from self-evaluation needs to focus on impact. It is not enough to say that a policy exists, but evidence needs to be given of its effectiveness.

Not surprisingly, data is central to this process of judging impact. The contextualised value added (CVA is an acronym that will become increasingly familiar to all SHA members) at the individual pupil level tells the story of a school's success most clearly, according to Ofsted, and this will be the single most important data set for both self-evaluation and inspection.

Throughout the inspection, the link between inspection and self-evaluation is obvious. The self-evaluation form is not the self-evaluation, but is a summary of it and should not be overly long or detailed.

But self-evaluation is not just for Ofsted. It is an essential part of what all good schools do in order to improve. It is part of creating an evaluative climate in which all members of the school constantly review the quality of their work.

In such a climate, it is easier to strike the correct balance between thoroughness and a straightforward non-bureaucratic process. A strong link between self-evaluation and performance management is also helpful in reducing the number of lessons observed. Too many, and the teachers feel no ownership of self-evaluation and no part of a quality assurance process. Too few, and the evidence base is inadequate for Ofsted.

A single plan

Alongside the data set, the school plan is critical. As part of intelligent accountability and the new relationship with schools, heads and governing bodies will no longer be expected to draw up dozens of different plans, with separate documents for each tranche of funding for which the school has bid.

In future, the single plan should encompass all aspects of school improvement, demonstrating not only the direction in which the school is heading, but also the extent to which the leaders of the school can prioritise between conflicting demands.

Raising the quality of teaching and learning will always be at the top of the list, but setting priorities and justifying them to inspectors is essential for success.

During the course of the next two years, the relationship between school self-evaluation, Ofsted inspection and the single conversation with the school improvement partner (SIP) will become clear.

Experience from the pilot areas suggests that the three are closely linked (as they should be) and that the SIPs' reports will be part of the evidence base for inspectors. Similarly, the most recent Ofsted report forms part of the baseline on which the SIP discusses the progress of the school. Self-evaluation evidence underpins both processes.

SHA members in Northern Ireland and Wales and HAS members in Scotland may well look with bemusement at the changes in England, introduced just two years after the previous new framework. The 2003 framework can be seen as a stepping stone on the road to the new system, a halfway house to a proper relationship between self-evaluation and external inspection. In theory, and in evidence from the pilot, the omens look good.

The true picture for every SHA member will be how the new system works in their school.

By John Dunford, SHA Gereral Secretary

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