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By: Lesley Hunter and Maggie Wright

The concept of self-evaluation was initially introduced to schools as a means of driving the agenda for school improvement. As inspection regimes developed around the world, the accuracy and robustness of a school’s self-evaluation began to inform judgements on both the effectiveness of the school’s leadership and the school’s capacity for further improvement. This approach meant that self-evaluation became intrinsically linked to external evaluations, most typically inspection, and therefore became a necessary evil for many schools to undergo at regular intervals. The problem with this is that when viewed purely in this way, self-evaluation becomes an event that creates a bureaucratic burden and additional workload with little meaningful return for teachers and students.

Experience has shown that when school leaders change their approach to embrace and integrate self-evaluation into the day-to-day life and work of a school, they begin to see tangible value benefits for all stakeholders that go far beyond the original perception of simply judging what the school is doing well and where it needs to develop and improve. In these schools, self-evaluation is not simply an event triggered by an external stimulus but is a continuous cycle of reflection and analysis that has a very specific purpose.

We all know that schools are complex dynamic organisations that need to be able to adapt to ever-changing circumstances. In fact, the only real constant in most schools is that change will happen … student populations, parental communities, staffing profiles, curricular requirements, governance and legislative demands, to name a few. As a result, the success of a school often hinges on the ability of its leaders to filter competing demands and influences to make the right decisions and take the right actions, at the right time, in the context of their own school. This school-led approach is critical and hinges on principals having confidence and credibility in their self-evaluation process and the people that carry it out.

The Keep Soaring philosophy for self-evaluation has evolved from our work with schools over the past ten years, and in particular with schools subjected to frequent external evaluations, such as those in the UK and UAE. We aimed to strip away the layers of jargon and bureaucracy and create a streamlined approach that made self-evaluation a truly valuable part of a school’s work, rather than a bolt-on process where schools simply went through the motions. To achieve this, we believe that a school’s most senior leaders must be explicit about the why and what of self-evaluation with a shift in thinking and focus from how they will do it. They must share this with all stakeholders so that everyone understands the purpose of self-evaluation in their school – which areas will receive focussed attention -and everyone is clear about their contribution and accountability within the process.

One of the biggest problems with self-evaluation is that schools often try to do too much without sufficient focus. A pattern has emerged where staff typically pick up external frameworks (such as inspection rubric) and use these templates or blueprints against which to evaluate their own practice. This approach has a lot of merits… but only if you were implementing self-inspection! Self-evaluation is an entirely different process – the focus for each individual school will be different because it should hinge on the current priorities and leadership decisions in that school rather than on a generic framework that could be applied to any school. By adopting the typical “cookie-cutter” approach, a school will basically dilute the effectiveness of its evaluation because it will not be targeting all its available resources at the areas that really matter.

The purpose of self-evaluation is to measure the impact of the
leadership decisions that have been taken and the subsequent
actions that have been implemented in the school.

The basic principle of Keep Soaring is that self-evaluation has to start with the key leadership decisions that the school has taken and is currently implementing. In other words, you will be evaluating against tightly defined areas that have immediate relevance to your staff and students rather than trying to cover everything that the school is doing.  But what about everything else we have to do? This is the standard objection and reinforces the scattergun approach that too many schools appear quick to accept. The only way to overcome this is to develop a strategy for self-evaluation that helps you to get out of the detail and focus on the things that really matter. It should integrate the 3Ps of purpose, process and people to create an overview of how the school will evidence, analyse and evaluate the impact of each current leadership decision on students’ outcomes.

In our experience, too many schools believe they are carrying out self-evaluation but are actually getting bogged down in the operational detail of the multiple actions being taken across different areas of the school. This is where subject leaders experience overload and often start to lose sight of their contribution to the bigger picture. These schools collect so much data and evidence that it is difficult for them to sift and filter what is really important, and the purpose of their self-evaluation gets lost. Even in those schools where staff understand how their actions will support the school’s longer-term vision, they sometimes struggle to identify how their current self-evaluation activities are feeding into this and how they will make a difference. It is therefore vitally important to shift from operational thinking through strategic thinking to be able to develop a strategy for self-evaluation that keeps the whole process integrated, meaningful and relevant. To help this shift, we suggest considering the following transport-based metaphors to widen your perspective around self-evaluation.

Get off the train

At this level, the school’s leaders typically become bogged down in detail and implementation. Self-evaluation systems and processes may be clearly defined and embedded into the life of the school but, just like a train, movement is tightly controlled and can only happen in one direction at a time. This is a one-size-fits-all approach, without regard to the school’s context, and is highly operational. It is characterised by an over-reliance on the structure and a tightly defined framework of processes while neglecting the individual and collective strengths/weaknesses of the people responsible for carrying out the self-evaluation process in the school.

Get out of the balloon

At this next level, the school’s leaders are aware of the need to rise above the detail and get a wider view of the school and its performance. Self-evaluation is broadened to include external analysis of performance but lacks evidence of impact. This broader perspective typically supports a school to develop and achieve a judgement of ‘good’ but it also creates a ceiling through which the school is likely to struggle to improve its effectiveness further. There is an increasing degree of freedom of movement requiring greater flexibility in how people behave. However, this freedom is also influenced by external factors, which can disrupt alignment between purpose and process.

Get into the helicopter

The ultimate approach for school leaders is to soar above the minutia and achieve a helicopter view of the school and its performance. This is supported by developing an evidence-based school-led strategy for self-evaluation that achieves a three-dimensional analysis of the school, taking the maximum range of relevant internal and external evidence into account. It is only by getting this full aerial perspective that you can truly understand all the factors and influences for your school and ensure that your self-evaluation is authentic. One key advantage of a helicopter is its ability to move in multiple dimensions. It can hover and focus when needed, can pitch forward for a more precise view, can accelerate forwards or backwards, can yaw left and right, and can also move up and down to broaden and narrow the horizon in all directions. Therefore, by maintaining a high-level view from the cockpit, a principal will have the capacity to make sure that the school’s self-evaluation activity is responsive, relevant and fit for purpose at all times.

So what does a strategy for self-evaluation look like?

In our final article of the series which will be published in the May-June issue of Teach Middle East Magazine, we will show you what a strategy for self-evaluation could look like, but in the meantime … grab your wings and keep soaring.