By Chris Nash – International School Principal, Beijing.
BA (cantab), PGCE, MA ( Education Management), NPQH.
Whichever level of school leadership you’re working at now, the habit and skills of rigorous self-review are critical to improving both your own performance, the performance of your team and through them, the learners themselves. If we met up today would you be able to talk me though the impact of major improvement initiatives you have led over the year? Would you be able to reliably explain to me the key strengths and weaknesses of provision within your area of responsibility. And most importantly would your accounts be ‘finger in the wind’ estimates or would they all be securely rooted in data, both qualitative and quantitative? If you don’t feel confident about your ability to do any of this now’s the time to strategise an end of year review.
What should you focus on in this self-review? The best was I can answer this question is to advise you to measure what you value. In part or even in total, you should be evaluating the effectiveness of what you set out to do in your annual Development Plan. Hopefully when you set this Plan, you also set some Performance Indicators to help you to measure progress. However be aware that the range of objectives set in an Annual Development Plan can be narrow. Objectives might have been set in specific areas, that while they are important, don’t reflect everything that matters in terms of learning in your school. Things change within a school year, sometimes significantly, so your evaluation should take account of any such significant changes.
So end of year review is about asking the right critical questions. What do you need to know in order to lead the school to its next level of improvement. Throughout the year you have hopefully been close to colleagues and classrooms so you should have a set of ‘gut instincts’ about what’s going well and what seems to be in need of an improvement focus. Formal review is an opportunity to turn those instincts into a set of research questions and to identify the evidence base that will give you a reliable and rigorous data set to inform your decision making.
Quantitative and qualitative data both have their place. Of course you will want to investigate the trends in outcomes from the various academic departments in the school. Of course you will want to ‘disaggregate’ this data to identify differentials such as gender or special educational needs or previous educational background. But it’s equally important to have reliable indicators of the quality of educational experience in each area of the school and with all of your teachers. You could consider the usefulness of two formal teacher observations per year. One at the end of each academic year to give a summative assessment of progress and improvement in teaching skills and crucially to set improvement targets for the next academic cycle. The second mid-year observation then becomes more of a formative assessment of whether improvements are moving in the right direction, or whether mid-year adaptations need to be made.
Who should you involve in end of year self review? My answer is that ideally it will be a whole learning community review. A learning organisation will want to collect information about the quality of learning from across the whole ‘web’ of education. Parent misunderstandings of a school policy could be a contributory factor in making its impact less than optimal. To move forward you need to know. A member of the governing body could tell you about a conflict between an aspect of your provision and the cultural practices of any of your communities. I’d advise you to use a mix of structured and unstructured questions in your surveys. Structured questions will give you a coherent focus on what you think matters. Unstructured questions will allow correspondents to comment on issues that they see as important.
There are a variety of ways to involve students. They too can fill in questionnaires – probably best administered electronically. If you want to compare your student body with larger samples you can use ‘attitudinal surveys’ conducted by third party organisations. Personally I think this is an important opportunity to value and empower ‘student voice’. It’s vital that the student voice you listen to is authentic and representative. In an international context I would suggest you carry out the conversations at least bilingually, if not entirely in first language. There are nuances both the students and you are likely to miss if you work entirely in the second language.
The second part of my answer to the question of who to involve in self-review points to school staff. Hopefully you have made self evaluation an embedded part of your ‘learning organisation’ culture. Leaders at every level and teachers themselves should be in the disciplined routine of regularly asking themselves the two core critical questions -‘what’s going well’ and could things be ‘even better if’. We can see this as a whole ecosystem feedback loop, so the whole school has both a conscience and a consciousness. The end of year review then becomes a ‘harvest’, a collection and pulling together of all of these different dimensions of how your school is ‘being’.
Of course you are likely to end up with an office full of a myriad of different data sets. And it’s going to take some sifting through. There should be contradictions and differing interpretations, after all your school is a complex, multi-dimensional entity. You might find that the review ultimately throws up more questions than answers. That’s great, because now you can refine your search and achieve that laser-like focus on the key issues that really seem to be making a difference in your school.
Finally, let’s be clear that when you’ve finished the review itself you’re only half way through. But draw a deep breath, you’re about to produce an annual development plan, reliably configured around the most accurate possible picture of what your school really needs!
Photo credit: Katerina Holmes