May 2014


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    Dialogue with the profession has been sidelined by this government, says Brian Lightman, with damaging results. It needs to be restored, whichever party is in power, if the vision of a great education service that we all share is to be realised. More
  • The perfect addition
    As more schools struggle to fill headship vacancies, business managers are successfully stepping up to leadership. Dorothy Lepkowska reports. More
  • Be true to your SEF
    As Ofsted announces a shake-up of the inspection framework, Tony Thornley looks at how approaches to school self-evaluation have evolved and explores what a genuinely useful SEF should contain. More
  • Excellence as standard
    We may have reached the zenith of understanding about what makes a great school, says Roy Blatchford. If so, the next step is to make it the norm across the system. More
  • A little bird told me...
    Wary of social media? Think Twitter’s a time-wasting distraction? Avid tweeter Peter Monfort offers a guide to its professional uses that could change your mind. More
  • The true values of education
    record number of school and college leaders gathered in March for the 2014 ASCL Annual Conference, to debate, network and learn about the latest developments in education policy. We were delighted that more than 1,200 of you could join us at the Hilton Birmingham Metropole for what truly More
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Be true to your SEF

As Ofsted announces a shake-up of the inspection framework, Tony Thornley looks at how approaches to school self-evaluation have evolved and explores what a genuinely useful SEF should contain.

In the last 15 years I must have read hundreds of self-evaluation forms (SEFs). Some are brilliant: short, clear about the evidence, sharp in their evaluation of it and specific about what they are doing and intend to do as a result. They are obviously a tool for school improvement, not a response to an imminent inspection.

Others are mediocre: long-winded, descriptive, trying to present a case that something (it’s usually achievement) is better than it is.

When my school was first inspected, Tony Blair was untested by government and Michael Gove was not even an MP. HMI adhered to the maxim Do good as you go and were acknowledged education experts. The inspection lasted a week. A dozen inspectors, for varying lengths of time, crawled all over the school and told me what they thought of it. The school got a ‘good and improving’ rating, which I was pleased with at the time, but we probably would have done better if I’d understood what evidence meant.

Move forward ten years to 2005. Ofsted realised that the 1995 model was unsustainable. It was too expensive, took too long and suffered from inconsistencies (plus ça change). In any case, wouldn’t it be better to differentiate more and use inspectors to moderate schools’ own judgements? Hence there was the birth of Section 5 and the SEF.

The initial Ofsted SEF was a horrendous document, matched only by the complexity of the framework itself. Many schools managed to rack up a hundred pages in tiny text, which in most cases gave a good description of what the school did, but little, if any, evaluation.

I waded into this territory on the back of work as a School Improvement Partner (SIP). I hoped to provide some clarity about what evaluation meant, as well as simplifying the structure. That guidance was the forerunner of the current ASCL SEF documents.

What does good self-evaluation look like?

There are three strands to self-evaluation: evidence collection, analysis and writing. In the best schools, it is developed at all levels, from staff evaluating their own performance through evaluations of subject and pastoral areas to whole-school evaluation. These are mutually consistent with the top level, which is built on the evidence and a analysis at lower levels.

The evidence base incorporates accurate assessments of students’ progress and the typical quality of teaching, not just evidence from published results and formal lesson observations.

The analysis gives you a clear view of how good outcomes and provision are, for cohorts and for groups of students. It suggests reasons for why things are as they are and identifies the most important priorities for improvement.

Finally, the written synthesis is succinct and honest and a good read (honestly), conveying a sense of the ethos of the school.

Good schools get their self-evaluation processes and evidence externally moderated through light-touch sampling at whole-school level. The Bradford Partnership, an alliance of 31 secondary schools, uses an externally verified, peer review process very effectively for this purpose. Internal moderation – to ensure accuracy and consistency at middle leader level – is also important.

Outstanding schools go further. They develop a culture of self-review so that the school, as well as its pupils, learn and improve. It is a vital component of the school’s learning ethos. Students are taught to evaluate their own and others’ work, how to learn independently and how they can play a part in the development of others’ learning and of the school as a whole. Staff are given opportunities to take responsibility beyond their own areas, evaluate their own and others’ performance and contribute to area and whole-school evaluations.

This mature approach develops self-confidence and a willingness to learn from others and to try things out without fear of failure. How you translate your evidence and analysis into a written summary is also important. The style and quality convey a message about the school to an external reader in exactly the same way that the reception area of your school does to a visitor.

A brief summary of the differences between good and dodgy written self-evaluation, adapted from an opinion article I wrote for the National College for the National Professional Qualification for Headship (NPQH) appears in the table (left).

Where next?

The current inspection framework is being shaken up. Ofsted boss Sir Michael Wilshaw said at the ASCL Annual Conference that good and outstanding schools will get shorter inspections. ASCL is supportive. General secretary Brian Lightman has suggested: “The role of the HMI could move from one of quality control, to that of quality assurance of a school’s own self-evaluation processes and whether it has the capacity to improve.”

The new structure will almost certainly be based on a more detailed risk assessment of schools’ performance, using published performance indicators augmented by short HMI visits to schools. Where there were concerns, these would then trigger full inspections along the lines of the current Section 5.

I do a lot of brief assessment visits of the ‘short HMI visit’ type for the DfE, mainly to academies that are below the floor standard or whose progress is worrying. The key elements of these visits are:

  • testing the quality of an academy’s self-evaluation as an indicator of the quality of leadership
  • checking the self-evaluation against progress evidence and students’
  • learning in lessons sampling the quality of some of the evidence base

If the changes to inspection are as I’ve anticipated then good self-evaluation will be a vital component of the new regime. It is certainly worth maintaining and developing colleagues’ abilities to do it well.

I will continue to update the ASCL SEF writing frames and criteria to ensure they are consistent with the Ofsted framework as long as members feel that this is useful. But the bottom line, of course, is that good self-evaluation is the key to successful school improvement.

Good SEFs Dodgy SEFs
Are evaluative: they assess and summarise the worth of the area in question Are full of platitudes: they read like a set of values or a manifesto and have too many ‘So what?’ statements
Are honest and inclusive Are incomplete or, worse, dishonest, with a sense of ‘What do you expect with kids like this?’
Are concise and accurate – this is really important Are too long, too wordy and/or vague. They go into too much detail (typically about achievement). Too much time has been spent producing them.
Are written in plain English, avoiding spelling, punctuation and grammar errors Are drafted carelessly
Take a long-term view, evaluating progress over three years Comment only on the most recent evidence
Are internally consistent: for example, what is said about progress in achievement mirrors what is said about it in teaching Are inconsistent, with one section contradicting another
Hypothesise: suggest reasons for why things are as they are Leave you guessing with regards to why things are as they are
Take a synoptic view, evaluating the big picture as well as the component parts Are scattergun: they contain a lot of detail but no sense of the whole that this represents
Are agreed collectively: by governors, by the senior leadership team (SLT), by middle leaders, by staff – depending on the level of the self-evaluation in question Are covert: written in a dark corner by one person, not shared and not used as the basis for improvement
Are linked to good evidence, quantified where appropriate Are too descriptive: they tell you what the provision is, rather than how effective it is
Are based on evidence and evaluation from lower tiers and from staff, students and parents (has any ASCL member tried a student-led evaluation?) Stand alone; or the different tiers are not mutually consistent
Are externally moderated by sampling Are entirely reliant on internal judgements
Contain ‘even better ifs’ that demonstrate aspiration, arise from the evaluation, form the basis for future plans and are within the school’s or area’s capacity to fulfil Are full of promises but not priorities, or, worse, express complacency about current standards

ASCL self-evaluation tool – updated guidance for schools

Following the demise of the Ofsted SEF, many members asked for a simplFied, fit-for-purpose self-evaluation guide that can be used along with the current inspection framework. Working with ASCL, Tony Thornley has developed this tool. The updated guidance – Version 8 – takes account of the changes to the Ofsted evaluation schedule. The guidance now includes a teacher self-evaluation, linked to the Teachers’ Standards. 

Tony Thornley is an Education Consultant and a former headteacher and HMI.

To order a copy of the SEF Guidance please email include your name, school/college and address for invoice purposes.

Receipts from the sale of these booklets will go to the ASCL Education Charity. The suggested donation for the latest guidance is £50, payable to ASCL Educational Development Trust. If you have already received the previous versions and donated to the charity, you do not have to donate twice to the fund. However, if you find the materials useful, you are welcome to make a further donation.