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Evaluation article: Know your strengths

Published: Wednesday, 09 August 2017

Can you make inspection an enriching learning process that is actually good for your school? Heather Clements of Best Practice Network offers some advice. 

Summary

  • Supported peer review (SPEER) can give a detailed insight into school’s strengths and areas for development. 
  • As well as informing school improvement the SPEER process will help schools prepare for Ofsted.
  • It is important to time SPEER carefully so that it is as effective as possible.
  • Headteachers should be receptive to feedback and involve the team.

No school leader would wait to open a new Ofsted report to get a detailed picture of their school’s strengths and weaknesses.

Knowing your school’s strengths and areas for development is a key responsibility for every school leader. Having intelligence means that you can identify areas for concern early and address them, well before the inspectors call.

There is quite a crop of school management information software now available that helps school leaders get that information picture.

However this can only go so far and is only as good as the information that you put in. The richest way to know your school - to identify strengths and weaknesses and pinpoint areas for learning and development - is to also conduct your own peer review, bringing in leaders from other schools to see your school with fresh, expert eyes. 

An approach that has been used successfully in a number of London schools is supported peer review (SPEER).  The aim of this process is to give schools an insight into themselves that informs their self-evaluation and improvement planning. It’s all about partnership. The approach is designed to draw on the knowledge of the school’s leadership team and the perspectives of ‘critical friends’ outside the school.   

Factor in all of these views and you have a broad and balanced view of the school that identifies what practice works best and which areas need improvement. Schools using this process also gain knowledge and expertise in areas like monitoring and evaluation, and learn about the strengths and challenges of other schools. And of course this learning can be used to prepare for HMI’s next visit. 

While the SPEER approach uses an inspection framework based on Ofsted’s there is a fundamental difference: it is not about imposing inspection upon a school – the ‘done to’ approach – because schools not only choose to do it but they formulate the final judgements, drawing their own conclusions from the evidence collected during the review but benefiting from external challenge so that they don’t arrive at an unrealistic judgement. 

It all sounds pretty straightforward, but how do you as a school leader know when the time is right to use such an approach in your school? And what do you need to think about to make sure it is a meaningful process that helps your school improve? Here are six key features of any successful supported peer review approach:

  • Timing
  • Commitment
  • Clear protocols
  • Planning
  • Don’t sweat the data
  • Pupil voice.  

Timing

Wait until you’re in post for at least six months to a year – any earlier may mean a lack of evidence of impact or an overly critical or optimistic view. When to have a supported peer review will to some extent depend on a school’s last Ofsted judgement. For a school that requires improvement 18 months after that judgement gives time for that school to bed in change and will help prepare them for their next inspection. For schools with good judgements six months before a predicted inspection gives them time to meaningfully address any areas for improvement. For outstanding schools it can be anytime but three years after inspection means they can pick up anything that needs improvement before it affects pupil outcomes. 

Timing within the year also needs to be considered – autumn is good for some schools as it may provide a baseline and inform improvement planning, particularly if they have several new members of staff. For other schools, settling new staff and pupils is a priority so spring or summer terms are better. I would recommend that reviews don’t happen in the first week or last fortnight of any term as the process is quite intense and it is good to have the final report before the end of term. 

Commitment

For a review to be effective you need to commit to the process, be willing to allow a fellow headteacher access to in-depth information about your school, be confident that your SLT will get fully involved in the process - and be receptive to feedback. Also give every member of staff plenty of notice – a fortnight is good – and make sure you make it clear what the scope and purpose of the review is. Make sure that most departments are represented and that teachers and middle leaders who were not observed have the chance to contribute in discussions or have their work included in work scrutinies. 

Clear protocols

Make sure you’ve established some firm principles if you are doing your own peer review. Most importantly you need to trust those schools involved in your review and be confident that they will maintain confidentiality. Setting up protocols that everyone can agree to from the outset is a good idea. These could contain ‘must-haves’ for schools involved in your peer review, such as a commitment to completing reviews in full, putting aside any personal preferences for particular styles of teaching or curriculum models and agreeing to apply the review standards rigorously, and treating everyone in the host school with courtesy and respect.

Planning

The process has to fit into a cycle of plan-do–review so there is no point writing a detailed school improvement plan and then having a review as there will inevitably be changes in priorities and actions that emerge from the process. If you know well in advance when your review will be or you schedule it to fit into your existing cycle you can make sure the outcomes will be meaningful and useful. 

Don’t sweat the data

Schools say the probing and questioning of the review process helps them to present their data in a more meaningful and transparent way. For this reason schools do not need to provide evidence especially for the review – what they present and the way they present it can often be enlightening in itself and in several reviews schools have realised that they need to ‘do’ data differently. 

Pupil voice

In supported peer reviews we listen to pupils as part of the formal process as well as more informally around the school. Their willingness and capacity to articulate how the school supports their learning and development often speaks volumes about the degree to which their views are taken into account and acted upon.

Further information

  • Further information about how supported peer reviews can be used in school and multi-academy trust improvement is available at: www.schoolandtrust.co.uk

Toolkit

Use the following items in the Toolkit to put the ideas in the article into practice:

About the author

Heather Clements is a consultant for Best Practice Network, a national provider of training and professional development that works in partnership with teaching school alliances and academy trusts across the country to deliver nationally recognised leadership development programmes and qualifications. Heather is a former director of schools for Harrow local authority and specialises in CPD, school improvement and self-evaluation with London schools.

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