by Andy Lole.
I read with much interest the current discussion about the future of inspections. Why is this happening at the moment? Is it all about saving money? What we should be talking about is why we accept a system for monitoring the quality of schools which creates such high levels of anxiety and disquiet. Why, when we work so hard and are so dedicated to do our best for the children placed in our schools should we need to be in constant dread of our next inspection? Even when things seem to be going well! At what point are we going to move away from this persecutory experience where much of our activity is driven by worries of what Ofsted will think, and introduce a system that is focused on what the best and most effective schools are doing?
What I am presenting is an approach that might be able to do that, and would save lots of money. It is an approach that more clearly integrates monitoring and inspection into the school led system, with a strong emphasis on support and development. It provides a process for quality assuring schools on a regular basis, ensuring that where there is a dip in effectiveness this is identified and addressed swiftly. Crucially this model requires schools to provide real challenge and support to each other, and reserves the need for the often-perceived harsher intervention of inspection for fewer schools.
Peer Review model
Over the last 4 years the Mulberry Bush School, a National Teaching School, has led a peer review system with a group of special schools. This approach aims to improve the quality of provision and outcomes for students through school-to-school support, sharing best practice, and evaluation of effectiveness in agreed areas. This year we have 17 schools participating from 7 different local authority areas. It is a low cost initiative (£65 per school) that is showing very successful results. For example all schools that have been involved for more than a year and were previously graded as satisfactory moved to good at the next inspection. To prepare for their peer review schools complete a self-evaluation form, covering all areas that Ofsted inspects. The actual review is a visit to your school by two head teacher colleagues. They spend the day looking at agreed areas of policy and practice. They provide feedback, and make recommendations for improvements. Participating schools highly value the opportunity to create professional networks between schools doing similar work. We share ideas, learn from others and build on what works well. It is an opportunity to share professional expertise and improve provision.
Feedback from the process
Comments from head teacher colleagues who have taken part on peer reviews include the following: ”The peer review reaches the improvement parts that other processes fail to reach. This is because trusted professional expert colleagues come at your invitation, to help you to critically evaluate, to reflect and to problem solve together in the areas you know are your weakest. Because this is the express purpose of the exercise and carried out in partnership with others facing the same sort of challenges in their own contexts, you actively and specifically share the things which you are least proud of and therefore cannot fail to make them better with the benefit of such a helpful process. This is the direct opposite of more adversarial approaches we have all experienced in recent times, where you do all you can to hide every weakness for fear that it should become a loose thread and be used to unravel the whole rug”. Also: “The peer review has proved to be a very supportive mechanism whereby concerns can be shared openly knowing that support will be given. Last year I was fortunate to work with a group of Head Teachers who helped me develop the curriculum to meet the needs of our students who have a range of special needs. The redesigned curriculum has led to improvements in progress and attendance”.
Extending the model to provide a formal monitoring function
The peer review process could be extended to include a monitoring/inspection function. All schools would become part of peer review groups, made up of similar types of school. A Teaching School would coordinate and oversee the process for each group. Schools would be required to complete their self-evaluation form at the end of each year. These documents, supported by evidence of school’s performance data, would be scrutinised by a panel which would include an Ofsted trained National Leader of Education, and a representative from a university with experience of validating research data. The outcome from this process would place schools on a risk level linked to the Ofsted grading. The level of risk would determine the type of peer review that each school would receive during the following academic year. Schools at risk level 1 or 2 would have a review visit focused on areas of their own choosing. The review visits for schools at risk levels 3 or 4 would include standardised monitoring which would look in detail at aspects of the school’s practice and outcomes. One of Her Majesty’s Inspectors would be allocated to each participating Teaching School, to monitor and quality assure the overall process. Information available from this process would be used to identify schools requiring an inspection.
This system would focus inspection on those schools that would most benefit from it, whilst ensuring that all schools are involved in a continuous process of challenge and support with colleagues who have responsibility for similar schools. It would give all schools access to best practice models building on the skills of groups of head teachers, utilise the expertise of National Leaders of Education and National Teaching Schools, and make best use of the objective expertise of Her Majesty’s Inspectors. We would move from a system often led by Ofsted anxiety to one led by schools.
Ofsted are keen to have current practitioners working as inspectors as this adds credibility to the inspection process. This model goes a lot further giving the main responsibility of holding schools to account to peers. A peer review approach where you know the people monitoring you face the same challenges as you would have more value, in lots of different ways.