Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Life after SEF

Of course, not being required to have a SEF and not actually having one are two different things. 
While the inspection framework gives guidance for inspecting schools that do not have a SEF, those that take the risk can probably be counted on the fingers of one hand!
As a headteacher in the days of the old forms S1,2,3 and 4, which preceded the SEF and which were just as burdensome, I welcomed the arrival of the SEF because it seemed simpler. The end of the seven-point scale and the introduction of the simpler four-point version made it easier for schools to arrive at a series of judgements that were likely to be similar to those reached by the inspection team. The current SEF rightly requires school leaders to justify their evaluation grades.
The arrival of the SEF in 2005 coincided with the introduction of the New Relationship with Schools (NRwS) and the concept of the ‘single conversation' with a school improvement partner. The guidance pointed out that the SEF was intended to be a part of ongoing school self-improvement and noted, ‘it is important that this is not a time consuming, bureaucratic process' (2005 DfES-1290-2005DOC-EN). As a headteacher I appreciated the role that the SEF played in recording my school's self-evaluation but I hated those data pages that required all manner of information that I was sure could have been found elsewhere. More frustratingly, as an inspector, I jolly well knew that those pages played very little part in the inspection compared with the important self-evaluation pages. Since then, each new framework has introduced a revised SEF. Until now.
We are due to have a further revised SEF, which includes a greater focus on behaviour. The new document should now be available on the Ofsted website. It asks schools to evaluate pupils' behaviour in greater detail, to comment on how good behaviour is and to say if any lessons are disrupted by poor behaviour. There is a slightly revised inspection schedule from September so you would be advised to update your SEF in the light of the changes. Remember, schools will still be expected to have a SEF available up to the end of the current academic year so you would be well-advised to keep it updated either online, or locally as a file that can be sent to the lead inspector in the event of your ‘getting the call'.
Ofsted say that ‘we will consider carefully how inspectors will manage school inspections when the SEF has been withdrawn, as part of work to develop a new school inspection framework during the coming year. We will be consulting on the development of the new framework during the next few weeks; this will provide an opportunity to explore the implications of conducting inspections without a common summative self-evaluation form.'
Preparing for the next stage
One thing is certain and that is that, while the SEF may have gone, self-evaluation - and schools' responsibilities to demonstrate it - has not. Read what Ofsted says - what has gone is a common self-evaluation form. So it is important not to be lulled into complacency. While the NUT's Christine Blower offered a qualified welcome to the end of the SEF, Chris Keates from the NASUWT feared that ‘the secretary of state's decision is likely to result in more rather than less workload and bureaucracy for schools'. So, caveat rector, leader beware. Although headteachers can probably forget the data pages since all it requires is to provide inspectors with information already submitted for PLASC, it would be very stressful if you cheerfully tossed away the SEF only to discover that you suddenly needed to create a replacement from scratch. So, impulsive, peremptory action is to be avoided.
The current inspection framework requires schools to be inspected on seven areas:
  • the quality of provision (teaching, assessment, curriculum)
  • how far it meets pupils' needs
  • standards and achievement
  • the quality of leadership and management
  • the spiritual, moral, social and cultural development of pupils
  • the school's promotion of pupils' wellbeing
  • its contribution to community cohesion.
Michael Gove has indicated that the revised inspection framework will focus on four areas only. Therefore a starting point for self-assessment could usefully be:
  • the quality of teaching
  • leadership
  • pupils' behaviour and safety
  • pupils' achievements.
At the moment it is not known if any of the original seven elements will sneak into the new four, nor the extent of each of the areas. We do know that each of them signal important elements for the Gove administration - expect a harder line on sacking ‘weak teachers' and a far more hardline view of pupil behaviour, probably without reference to emotionally intelligent approaches. Whether the department risks dumping community cohesion remains to be seen. So, if you are planning your own post-SEF self-evaluation, here is your initial focus. Watch for a return to commercial organisations offering an all-singing, all-dancing software package to support self-evaluation and consultants like me toting their services to help schools develop their systems. At the moment my money is on a form of guidance on self-evaluation appearing on the Ofsted website where it will, well, look a bit like a SEF.
It might help to remind ourselves of the six key questions that formed part of the NRwS guidance:-
Does the self-evaluation:
  • identify how well our school serves its learners
  • compare our school with the best schools, and the best comparable schools
  • integrate with our key management systems
  • draw on a good range of telling evidence
  • involve key people in the school and seek the views
  • of parents, learners and external advisers and agencies
  • lead to action to achieve the school's longer term goals for development?
We may be set free and SEF-free but it is a freedom fraught with traps. Headteachers need to temper any celebration with extreme caution.
John Viner was a primary headteacher for 28 years in a variety of schools. He is now a full-time consultant and writer working in teacher education, school inspection and professional support. His book, 'Leading a Faith School' was published by Optimus in 2009. John's website is www.adepteducation.350.com

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