A common message emerging from recent educational research and literature is that the three components of school effectiveness, school improvement and school self-evaluation are often considered separately, causing a disjointed and fragmented approach to overall improvement.
While it is widely accepted that rigorous, robust and systematic self-evaluation is necessary to drive successful improvement in any school, we believe that this concept needs more clarity and definition. In other words, a school’s self-evaluation should be:
… and should be driven by a clearly defined strategy that aligns the school’s purpose, process and people. Start by challenging what you do, why you are doing it, and what is changing (improving) as a result of all the time, energy and effort that is currently being invested into self-evaluation … then connect the dots between the leadership decisions that have been taken and the impact you expect these decisions to have on students’ learning.
Understand why you are doing self-evaluation and what you are trying to achieve in the school.
Recognise what activities are being carried out in the school and how they contribute to self-evaluation.
Recognise who is involved and understand how people are behaving in relation to self-evaluation in the school.
To be truly effective, self-evaluation cannot be owned by one individual or be implemented in pockets or silos by different groups of people, each focusing on their own narrow purpose. It requires a collaborative approach underpinned by trust and the distribution of leadership and responsibilities throughout the school. All stakeholders need to be engaged and encouraged to make meaningful contributions that add value to the process. This requires all stakeholders to have a clear role underpinned by a specific set of responsibilities, expectations and boundaries that ensure purposeful interaction and contribution to the school’s self-evaluation.
People need to know and understand where their responsibilities for self-evaluation begin and end.
Individuals need to be clear about the specific tasks they are required to carry out and also how they will be held to account for the outcomes of these activities.
When everyone understands and can articulate their personal responsibilities, self-evaluation is likely to have greater cohesion because the purpose becomes clearer and the process becomes more relevant and manageable to each individual’s day to day practice.
People need to know precisely what is expected of them with regard to their actions and behaviour to support the school’s self-evaluation.
Individuals and teams can set targets and measure their own performance in relation to the expectations of their role.
The school can build resilience into its self-evaluation process by encouraging people to work together, communicate clear expectations and navigate the challenges through professional collaboration.
People need boundaries to be explicitly defined so that they can see how their role contributes to the overall outcome and how they will be held to account for their performance.
Without clear boundaries, some people may overstep their responsibilities causing repetition and unnecessary effort, while others may step back from their tasks or not live up to expectations leading to gaps in the self-evaluation process.
Each principal will have their preferred approach to self-evaluation, just as they do to other aspects of leadership in the school, but it is important to consider how your own individual style might be perceived by your colleagues and other members of the school community. Some principals may prefer a hands-on approach where they are actively involved in all self-evaluation activities, while others may rely more heavily on delegation through senior and middle leaders. Regardless of your personal style, engaging your people in successful self-evaluation is one of the most important parts of your job as a school leader.
Senior and middle leaders
The importance of senior and middle leaders cannot be emphasised enough … they are the agents of effective self-evaluation in any school. They must be able to speak the language of self-evaluation with authenticity, credibility and confidence. Senior leaders need to engage middle leaders in regular systematic discussions to quality assure their work. Maintaining a focus on self-evaluation at these times allows deeper conversations to unpack meaning and explore what lies beneath what the school’s leaders are seeing and hearing.
Senior leaders should be able to see the big picture and understand how the evaluation of work in their respective year or phase contributes to the school’s overall evaluation of its performance.
Middle leaders should be the powerhouse of knowledge about their respective areas of responsibility and be able to confidently articulate the current position drawn from the different sources of evidence available.
In schools where self-evaluation is highly effective, the middle leaders often display a number of traits and characteristics that give them an edge over their counterparts in other schools.
- They understand the strategic purpose of self-evaluation in their school and implement the right activities – at the right time – for the right reasons.
- They analyse and interpret data with a forensic approach to be able to confidently articulate their findings and make relevant decisions for improvement.
- They have a clear schedule and structure to their activities that provide meaningful evaluation in the form of evidence-based portfolios and illustrative examples.
- They integrate and embed self-evaluation activities into their professional practice and constantly check the pulse and monitor the vital signs in their area of responsibility.
- They speak the language of self-evaluation and reinforce this through regular dialogue with their staff colleagues, senior leaders and all school stakeholders.
In schools where self-evaluation is viewed as a ‘bolt-on’ activity or an event prior to an external assessment or inspection, the contribution and impact of middle leaders is often reduced dramatically. This typically shows through insecurity and vulnerability on the occasions when they are held to account for their work and performance, which is worrying because it implies that they are not having the right conversations regularly enough through their day-to-day work in the school. If middle leaders are not being asked the right questions by their line managers and senior leaders, they, in turn, will not be asking the right questions of themselves or their colleagues. This leads to an unhealthy situation where self-evaluation can become unstuck.
It is therefore essential that all stakeholders in the school engage in regular planned dialogue using the school’s agreed language of self-evaluation. It is only through having these conversations that they will develop greater confidence and credibility to articulate their messages and have a shared understanding of the school’s performance.
Put simply, the school’s middle leaders are the glue that holds self-evaluation together.
They should be the superheroes to provide stability and structure that allow meaningful activities and conversations to take place at all levels, while senior leaders create a conduit for evidence to flow through the school and for appropriate leadership decisions and actions to be taken.
Here are three questions to start some reflection and prompt discussion in your school:
- What are the roles of different stakeholder groups in relation to self-evaluation in your school?
- For each stakeholder group:
- How clearly have their responsibilities been defined in relation to self-evaluation?
- How well have their expectations been articulated in relation to self-evaluation?
- How clear are their boundaries in relation to self-evaluation?
- How do your middle leaders measure up as superheroes?
By: Lesley Hunter and Maggie Wright