It’s long been the case that good schools carry out self-evaluation in every aspect of their work, but it’s not always been performed as objectively and systematically as is expected nowadays.
In 2004, David Miliband – then Minister for School Standards – gave a speech to the North of England Education Conference titled ‘Personalised Learning: Building a New Relationship with Schools’, in which called for schools to work with a sharper focus, less bureaucracy and greater autonomy – an approach that continues to gain ground today.
One of the main components of this new relationship was self-evaluation, with links to Ofsted inspections and ‘single conversations’ with school improvement partners, and it remains at the core of the systems adopted in schools over the years since.
Self-evaluation and school leadership
The result of this newer system has been to ensure that the school leadership team maintains a greater connection with self-evaluation as a tool for improvement. At the root of that connection are a number of questions, particularly:
- How can we simplify school leadership
- What is the essence of leading a great school?
It goes without saying that at the heart of great leadership is a relentless drive to achieve the best for your children. Time and again, leadership focused on children and great outcomes trumps all other motives.
This can be seen most clearly when there are challenges and vulnerabilities within a school and the community. Evidence shows that driven and decisive leadership really makes a difference. As Roy Blatchford, founding director of the National Education Trust, noted in 2014, “Leaders set out to see the best in people and dwell on the positive, while at the same time being single minded in rooting out mediocrity.”
The same could be said of leadership across a range of different sectors and contexts, but there are some distinguishing features of educational leadership – not least the focus on pedagogy and getting the best outcomes for all children (i.e. equity).
Ofsted and self-evaluation
When Ofsted visits a school, its evaluation criteria is clear. It’s looking for evidence that demonstrates how well the school is performing – that it’s closing gaps, and ensuring that all children achieve their very best. The starting point for the inspection process is the school’s own self-evaluation; this self-evaluation will be the first glimpse that inspectors get of how the school views itself.
Self-evaluation has previously been cited by many schools leaders as one of the most time consuming and challenging tasks they face. At its heart, however, the questions that self-evaluation raises are actually quite simple:
- How well are we doing?
- How do we know?
- How does that compare with any bench marking or national comparisons?
- What must we do next to secure further improvement?
Where to start?
There’s no right or wrong when it comes to the starting point for self evaluation. Leadership teams need to find what works best for them. That said, one strategy that many leadership teams have found useful is to start with the criteria they will be judged against.
The shared debate and discussion that a leadership team will have in the course of agreeing the current ‘state of the nation’ vis-a-vis their school is at the very heart of self-evaluation. Having undertaken this task as a leadership team, you can be sure that the leaders involved will have grasped the bigger picture and understand how the sections of the inspection criteria dovetail together – for example, that what you assert about teaching should correlate with outcomes. For many, this process is the most useful part of self-evaluation.
Where many schools seem to get stuck is by trying to write their self-evaluation as a group. This is because the written product will merely be a record of the discussions and debates you’ll have had as a team. The critical process is to share the criteria and decide the best fit; who actually writes the self-evaluation summary is slightly irrelevant.
Keep it simple
When it comes to writing your self evaluation, keep it simple. It can be helpful to frame each statement in a similar way, by stating your judgement, how you know and defining what comes next. Here’s an example:
‘Written feedback is consistently good. Evidence from book scrutiny and discussions with children support this, because children can talk about their successes and next steps with the majority of pieces of work evidencing pupil response to feedback. To further improve we need to ensure that this good practice is seen in all areas of the curriculum, not just in English and mathematics.’
The length of your self-evaluation will vary, depending on the complexities within your school. It’s important that you don’t feel the need to include every detail in your self-evaluation. The simplest way to keep your summary short is to signpost to other sources of evidence, such as detailed evaluations of teaching, evaluation of pupil outcomes, CPD records, analysis of pupil groups and so forth.
Once complete, it might be useful to ask a colleague outside of your school to read your self-evaluation, and ask them whether they can see clearly how the strengths and next steps are aligned to the inspection criteria. When looking at a self-evaluation summary, ask yourself the following.
Is it concise and succinct, clearly signposting evidence? Is it evaluative, rather than descriptive or repetitive? Is it a regularly updated working document? Is it shared? Is it linked to the inspection criteria? Is it linked to the improvement plan? Is it honest?
Writing your selfevaluation is an important leadership task. Your self-evaluation summary, along with the school’s website, will be the first glimpse that inspectors have into the reality that is your school.
Self-evaluation contributes to school improvement by providing an accurate assessment of how well the school is performing and what it needs to do next. It leads to the identification of improvement priorities and to evidence based school improvement planning, which in turn will result in clear benefits for pupils.
Get the language right
Writing about your own school is far more challenging than writing about someone else’s. In your school there are emotions, heartaches, dilemmas, human beings, all of which can make it difficult to write in a dispassionate way. Where possible, try to use evaluative language – you might find the following phrases helpful:
- ‘Because of… this meant that…’
- ‘Data indicates that… because…’
- ‘The progress of… compared with national shows…’
- ‘The impact was… as a result of…’
- ‘Evidence from… showed us that…’
- ‘Feedback from… resulted in…’
Conversely, try to avoid phrases like these:
- ‘It seems like…’
- ‘We are not sure why…’
- ‘We think that…’
Tim Nelson is a former headteacher with over 25 years’ experience in primary education, and has previously worked as a local leader of education, an Ofsted Inspector and mentor for trainee inspectors. He is currently a fulltime consultant for Focus Education