By Amelia Walker
9 October, 2019
Article first published in Trust – The Journal for Executives and Governance Leaders, on 3 October 2019
So… I used to be responsible for evaluation in Ofsted. I’ll just get that out there before I say any more as it is relevant to virtually everything that comes next. But I’d like to think I would say the same even if I hadn’t.
Now that I am in Ormiston Academies Trust I don’t hate it that we might have a MAT evaluation. I know that unions are perpetually in a twist about how terrible external scrutiny is and we should all be peer evaluators. But I’ve been responsible for performance management and evaluation in a few organisations now. The truth of it is that very few organisations have the energy to really focus on reviewing themselves and their performance and impact unless there is something pushing them to do it. The most common push is financial in any sector. But it’s surprisingly easy to come under huge financial pressure without this leading to good evaluation of performance.
In July Ofsted published a piece saying that self-evaluation was a ‘blind spot’ for trusts as a sector. If it’s a legitimate critique then those of us in trusts should make a serious response. I don’t think we’re starting from a position of strength. I don’t know if you have seen self-evaluation criteria for MATs doing the rounds online. On the face of it, it’s better that something exists than nothing. However, if you stop and look closely at some of the criteria you will see there is a real pitfall being created here. The value of an inspection framework for schools is that it gets a real thrashing before anyone uses it. If the criteria you are using to evaluate yourself have been googled there is no quality control. Should we be matching ourselves against criteria that have not been tested? The real risk is that you set yourself up against a poor standard. You might look good in comparison, but the bar is on the ground.
We need an alternative. As a sector we could wait for the inspectorate to do the heavy lifting and create a standard to match us against. While I don’t mind a MAT evaluation, I do mind if we as a sector delegate this work to an organisation that knows us less well than we know ourselves. Ofsted will freely say they are not in a position to judge us on our financial management. A framework from them would necessarily be a partial view of what matters in our world.
That means we need to do some work. For our part, we have created an initial self-evaluation framework. We have tried our utmost to make this framework represent the real standard we hold ourselves to, and to reflect the professional expertise within our trust from many years and many organisations across the private, voluntary and public sectors. The doubt remains, however, that we have our own blind spots or gaps in understanding. Have we forgotten something? Have we set the bar too high or too low?
What we need next is some collaboration. Easy to say, hard to do. We are all under pressure. There is no obvious owner to drive it forward. Coming to a consensus might be painfully difficult. However, if we could marshal the focus to agree a common standard that we would all hold ourselves to, this would be a real achievement for our sector. It would be a strong demonstration that we are a sector that is transparent, accountable and committed to doing our very best for the pupils that we serve.
It is painfully obvious that there are still many people who view the existence of academies and trusts as a problem in and of itself. The politics of this are complex and deep rooted and we cannot change this overnight. We can, however, have our houses in order and floors swept. Do we have the will to provide a broom for ourselves or do we need someone else to do it for us?