There is no magic formula to creating an environment in which self-evaluation can flourish, but there are some underlying principles that will help you to gain some personal clarity, establish a conducive setting and keep the school moving in the right direction at the right speed. It is essential to remember that people carry out self-evaluation and this is where you must initially focus your attention if you want the processes to work. Without the people aspect, you will simply have a production line that runs at a pre-set speed and churns out the same thing time after time – this is when self-evaluation becomes a meaningless activity and is essentially a burden on any school.
Create an inspiring vision for the school
Strategy is about big picture and about taking a long-term view that transcends day-to-day operational issues. It is very easy to get sucked into the detail and bogged down in the minutia of daily life in the school, but you must make sure that you filter what is most important and relevant. You can only do this if you have a clear vision of what you are trying to achieve – a representation of what your strategy will actually deliver.
- Establishing a vision takes time but it is time well spent.
- Imagine what the school’s future will be like.
- The vision should be clear and simple.
Your vision should be an aspirational description of what the school will look like in the future. It should allow people to see a picture in their mind and imagine what the school will achieve and accomplish, as well as providing them with a clear direction to plan their future goals and actions. If you represent the vision purely in words, then it is left open to different interpretations of language and things will get lost in translation.
As principal, you may understand and appreciate the importance of having a clearly articulated vision, but what about your senior leaders … your middle leaders … your teachers … your governors? Think about bringing different these different stakeholders together for a session during which you collectively create a vision board that summarises and represents your school’s vision, which can then be displayed and shared across the school.
What makes your school unique and different from the school down the road? Your vision needs to answer this question and should serve as a marketing tool to convince potential parents that this is the school community that their children need to be part of. Yet, producing a vision and engaging in self-evaluation and improvement are not unique to schools, so reading about approaches outside education can help you think in a different way and see things from a different perspective – look to other cultures, education systems and the world of business for inspiration.
Create the right environment for people to buy-in
This may sound a little obvious, but you might be surprised by the number of times school leaders struggle with some of the things they are asked to do in the name of self-evaluation. One of the biggest barriers to successful self-evaluation is when people blindly take part in activities where they have little emotional investment. In other words, they are simply going through the motions. Although this may ensure that the processes run and that some form of evaluation activity actually takes place, it is neither a useful nor profitable approach and wastes precious time and energy.
So how do you create the right environment for people to buy-in to self-evaluation?
Basically, you have to live your values and lead by example.
The buck may stop with you, but you cannot do it alone!
Demonstrate integrity by following your own advice, being honest and treating others the way you wish to be treated. In the context of self-evaluation, this means challenging yourself about what you are asking other people to do and being sure that your motives are clear enough and they understand why this action is important. By focusing on the why rather than the what or how you will increase buy-in and subsequently accelerate the pace and speed of the process.
Practice humility by not letting your ego control your thoughts and actions. Instead of comparing yourself and your school to others – and then trying to do everything yourself – focus on how you can help the people around you to achieve their part of the evaluation and improvement process.
Share your gratitude. Schools can only realise their strategy by working in teams and it is important to build in opportunities for recognition and acknowledgement of this. The most effective schools distribute their self-evaluation across all parts of their community – remember the Ninja metaphor and the pitfalls it can create!
Engage all stakeholders with authenticity and purpose
The most important thing to remember is that everyone must be pulling in the same direction and share a sense of urgency to make things happen. As principal, you need to be explicit about everyone’s responsibilities and set clear expectations and boundaries. Each individual should be able to explain their key priority – the main focus in their area of responsibility at any given point in time – and then be able to articulate their contribution to both evaluation and improvement.
Have courage and take responsibility for getting things done
It is important to realise that, although exterior conditions do have an impact, it is your internal decisions that are far more important when it comes to the actions you take and the type of school you are striving to create. As principal, your job is simply to take charge of the school’s self-evaluation, which requires responsibility, courage and discipline. Now that you have ensured that everyone understands the contribution they are expected to make to self-evaluation, your job is to set key targets and milestones that will allow you, and your senior leaders, to take the pulse and manage the rhythm of school improvement.
Create unity and motivate your team to perform
The successful delivery of your school’s self-evaluation will depend and rely on the people who implement the process. It is very rare that schools do not have some appropriate processes in place, but it is much more likely that they do not have consistent behaviours among their people. As principal, you need to understand how to motivate the different individuals on your teams and ensure that everyone understands that successful teams deliver more than the sum of each individual’s effort. There will inevitably be times when it would be quicker for you to do things yourself but demonstrating respect and empathy in the workplace means showing others that their ideas and opinions are valued. If someone makes a suggestion it is important that their voice is heard and that you, and their colleagues, do not dismiss it too quickly. Team building is a learned skill and fundamental to that skill is the ability to identify the individual’s voice and ensure that voice is recognised by the wider group.
See obstacles as challenges and opportunities to grow
Having a strategy for school-led self-evaluation is important but having the capacity to be flexible and adaptable when circumstances change is just as important. There are inevitably times when the unexpected will occur and you are faced with giving up or pushing through – this is where resilience and perseverance come into play.
The speed at which your school will deliver its self-evaluation is as much about managing the challenges and obstacles that get in your way than aligning performance with targets and goals. If you have someone on your team that you know is skilled in an area you may be lacking, don’t be afraid to go and ask them for help – remember everyone has a special talent and skill looking for an opportunity to shine and add value.
Despite their hierarchical position in the school, principals are often left feeling vulnerable and isolated, especially when things are not going well. As principal, you need to accept that feedback is rarely intended to insult – even when it may appear blunt and negative. It is important to learn to take whatever truth there may be in the criticism and act to move forward rather than dwell on it.
- Never give up!
- We often underestimate the time and amount of effort a goal will take to achieve.
- Instead of giving up or lowering the mark, give yourself more time and/or increase your efforts.
Schools are learning organisations and, as such, have developed highly effective systems for reflection, review and development that are applied to personalise students’ learning. It should, therefore, be a relatively easy and natural progression to extend this same philosophy to a school’s self-evaluation to ensure that it is truly personalised to the needs of the school.
Reflect – what is working well and what is not?
Review – what challenges and obstacles are we facing?
Develop – what can we do differently to make sure our self-evaluation remains fit for purpose?
Blend all the pieces to develop sustainable practices
We already know that self-evaluation is an ongoing process rather than a one-off or intermittent event, so how do we blend all the principles together to develop and implement a coherent strategy that creates sustainable self-evaluation practice in the school?
- Don’t try to do it alone!
- Keep it simple – prevent yourself and your school from over-complicating things to the point of paralysis and inaction.
- Create a clear and compelling vision to engage all stakeholders and make sure they understand their contribution.
- Break every action up into smaller pieces until each individual chunk seems like a manageable task (focus and plan for one priority).
- Define and articulate the behaviours you expect from your people.
- Recognise, acknowledge and celebrate success.
- Navigate obstacles – adapt your approach – learn from your experience.
Once you have developed your strategy it will be much easier to embed effective self-evaluation into your school’s practice … the next challenge is to ensure it is sustainable. This hinges very much on maintaining the morale and well-being of the people who have to implement the practice. Finding the right balance or combination of work and play in your school can be a challenge, particularly when the stakes are high. However, it is important to step back and build in time for renewal and recognition to ensure that everyone is engaged and feels valued.
School improvement is hard work – students and families are demanding – governors expect results yesterday – regulators expect schools to implement initiatives overnight. Consequently, as the accountable school leader, you must take responsibility for setting and monitoring the direction and pace of the school’s self-evaluation by having a clearly defined strategy.
By: Lesley Hunter and Maggie Wright