Self-evaluation is not simply a process, or an event sparked by an external stimulus but should be the core ingredient of continuous improvement in every school where the teachers and school leaders are the key agents of change.
Get self-evaluation right … and the school functions like a well-oiled machine where everyone knows and understands their own roles and responsibilities, expectations and boundaries are defined and clearly articulated, and activities have a purpose. When this happens, the evidence collected makes a meaningful contribution to the school’s evaluation of its own performance and feeds into a cycle of leadership decision making to drive improvement. Unfortunately, in recent years, the term ‘self-evaluation’ has become synonymous with inspection, audit and accreditation for too many people. As a result, the power and potential of true self-evaluation is often lost in translation, especially when used as a management tool rather than a driver for strategic thinking and action.
Your school’s self-evaluation should be driven internally and should
not be a reaction to external factors and influences.
In our experience, too many schools put a lot of focus on micro and macro activities with the result that self-evaluation often becomes an onerous process that is perceived as a burden with the resulting impact of overload on teachers and leaders. Every school should use their valuable time and energy to make self-evaluation a meaningful process that works for them in their own unique context. If this doesn’t happen then monitoring processes are often carried out without a clear purpose and the collection of more and more evidence starts to take over from other important activities and functions in the school.
Schools are living dynamic organisations that can change very quickly and it is so important to remember that one small change, whether in staffing or the composition of an individual class of students, can have a significant ripple effect throughout the whole school. The biggest mistake for any school leader is to assume that one size fits all and that what has worked for them previously, will automatically transfer into a new context. This means that school leaders need to develop flexibility in both the process of self-evaluation and the behaviour of their people towards self-evaluation. Therefore, one of the first things any school leader must do is to accept responsibility for setting the tone through the way they themselves choose to behave towards self-evaluation.
We have identified six main ways that school leaders often behave – which of these metaphorical characters best describes your behaviour at the moment and what does this mean for your school?
When leaders adopt the caterpillar behaviour towards self-evaluation, they wait and expect others to come and tell them what is happening. A lot of time, energy and effort can be wasted because everything becomes fragmented and reactive with no clear strategic purpose.
This behaviour towards self-evaluation is typically associated with a flurry of activity where staff are involved in a constant cycle of lesson observations, work scrutiny, data analysis and other monitoring activities. Leaders ‘buzz around’ in circles like a busy bee trying to collect as much evidence as possible but what purpose does this serve and at what point does it stop telling you anything new?
Ninja behaviour is when the school’s most senior leaders take on the mantle and responsibility of self-evaluation personally and start to believe they have to do everything themselves if they want to achieve results. This is dangerous because it can create fractures in the school and affect its capacity to improve.
Behaving as the all-seeing owl, leaders realise the importance of getting as broad a picture as possible of the school’s performance and start to develop a 360-degree view of what is happening. This requires joined-up thinking and processes with clear lines of accountability to bring middle leaders into self-evaluation and make sure they do not miss something important.
Stepping outside the school will give an external perspective on its performance. By behaving like a wolf, leaders will get a more balanced view and are more likely to recognise potential threats and weaknesses, although the danger is that they develop a predator/prey relationship with staff that can undermine relationships.
If leaders don’t like what they see, they may decide to retreat back into their shell for a period of time. This turtle behaviour provides an opportunity for self-reflection but continued withdrawal from active participation is not sustainable and will create confusion and instability across the school.
The way all stakeholders behave towards self-evaluation is a critical factor in its success in driving improvement in any school. When self-evaluation is accepted as an integral part of daily school life, it is a process with meaning and purpose that becomes a force for development and improvement. In this scenario, self-evaluation will always start with the key decisions that have been taken by the school’s leadership, set in the context of their individual school. Put simply, the school will be collecting the right evidence – for the right things – at the right time – to measure and evaluate the impact of their leadership decisions and actions on students’ outcomes.
Self-evaluation is not – and never should be – a replica
This all sounds great in principle but, given the reality of school life and all the challenges that schools face every day, is it really possible to embed self-evaluation so that it brings meaning and purpose without overloading staff and creating mountains of additional paperwork? We believe it is and is going to share this with you in a series of articles over the next year, where we will be drawing on our combined experience of over 50 years in educational improvement, to present some different ways of thinking supported by practical tips and techniques. But … before we start looking at some of the solutions, let’s begin by being totally honest about some of the most significant problems associated with self-evaluation, bearing in mind that different schools will be experiencing these to a greater or lesser extent.
- The school treats self-evaluation as an event rather than an ongoing process. This is usually triggered by a reactive response to an external stimulus, such as an inspection or an accreditation/validation visit.
- The school is collecting vast amounts of data to evidence it’s self-evaluation, but this is often considered to be monitoring for the sake of it and creates an overload for staff.
- The school’s senior leaders are committed to self-evaluation but have not articulated the purpose clearly enough to engage and motivate middle leaders and other stakeholders to make a meaningful contribution to the process.
- The school’s self-evaluation doesn’t tell you anything new. If it simply reinforces and/or validates what you already knew, then the focus and purpose are not correct in the first place.
- The school’s self-evaluation is disconnected from the school’s improvement plan and from the management activities that support the school, such as an appraisal.
From working with schools across the globe, we have seen the same patterns arise time and time again. It doesn’t matter what curriculum you are teaching or how your school structure is organised, there are 3 underlying principles that need to be established.
Self-evaluation needs to be integrated into the daily life of the school so that you collect the right evidence from the right people at the right time.
Self-evaluation depends on developing the people in the school so that they all behave as leaders of learning and improvement in their respective roles.
The school needs to have a purpose for self-evaluation that takes account of its unique context and focuses on the right things.
In other words, if you want your school to improve and keep soaring, you need to know what you are doing and why you are doing it – you need to establish a strategy for evidence-based school-led self-evaluation.