WomenEd Blogs

Sensible self-review - why all the fuss? #SeatAtTheTable

by Tracey O'Brien  @tob22

In an attempt to fill in less paperwork and do something with much more purpose, more interesting, and more insightful instead, I've thought about all the monitoring and review activities that we carry out in schools. 

It's all too much. Too much top-down accountability, monitoring instead of trust, review for the sake of review. 

We definitely need to upend the table on this one and especially for women leaders.

I have worked in several schools and have been horribly guilty of imposing some pretty bureaucratic monitoring, evaluation and quality assurance systems on teams. Partly I wanted to find evidence of what was working in our schools and partly because that was what the governors, school improvement partner and Ofsted asked me too. I have led team reviews which generated little I didn't know or should have known already. I didn't pay enough attention to the impact on the workload and wellbeing of the teams.

I wonder now if I filled in all those forms, organised those reviews because, as a woman, I wanted to comply so this became the right thing to do. 

Women often operate among male preferential norms that disadvantage them. 

We are also up against subconscious biases that are more difficult to address, such as the '"double bind" of likeability and competence' (Kabir, 2017).

Now, I am more secure in what I think is actually worthwhile and useful, as a women leader, I want to treat colleagues in a collegiate, collaborative and compassionate way. Education needs us all to play to our strengths given the divisiveness, uncertainty and turbulence we face. I see that this form-filling, top-down accountability culture has gone too far. 

Whether this craze for 'deep dives' is driven by Ofsted, leaders' perception of what Ofsted wants, MAT leaders or Headteachers themselves, it must stop.

I am saddened by phrases such as 'Mock-stead', the deep dives and curriculum investigation meetings. Can't people just sit down and have a chat in a professional sense of course, a professional dialogue based on evidence that has been seen and heard - not forms? We need less sinister mechanisms to help us find out what is going on. We need to build trust with our staff and treat them as professional colleagues.

As for 'deep dives', even the name makes me shudder a bit. 

I have seen several; many are overly bureaucratic, paperwork or process heavy, and largely generic in their approach. We should support our teams with their own priorities, those which have been decided on after their own self review activity and analysis of what works and what doesn't. We should design a team review around these priorities, not our own.

Just as my views around quality assurance and evaluation were changing to become more humane, I had the unhappy experience of working for a headteacher who had opposing thoughts. He insisted on weekly pupil voice, weekly whole year book reviews for different subjects each week. I was expected to write several reports a week on these with impacts and actions, so that he could send this 'evidence' of rigorous quality assurance to his bosses. 

Needless to say, we didn't stay together long.

Doing anything in schools which isn't supportive, that doesn't value staff commitment and effort, shouldn't be done.

I advocate that we should take a 'dialogic approach' to reviewing what goes on in our schools, where we spend time thinking hard about 'what do we actually want to know, and how are we going to find out', and then design review activities based on a few rich questions. 

For example:

Why would we carry out a generic deep dive of the Geography Department if we already know the curriculum decisions are robust, it is being well taught, the students love the subject, and outcomes are good.

Would it not be better to design the review against the department's own priorities of embedding global themes such as climate change, sustainability, energy, migration and globalisation throughout their curriculum instead? 

We would still talk to students, look at work with students and teachers beside us, visit lessons and so on, but with real purpose and clarity - and with a message that we are there to help. 

Doesn't this sound like fun! 

Obviously, some teams might need help ensuring their priorities are the right ones but this can all be done together.

We just need to be brave, put the pens down, the keyboards away, build a better table and talk more.


Kabir, H. (2017) 'Why Women Avoid Taking Risks At Work – And What to Do About It', Forbes, (accessed 26 September 2022).

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Monday, 27 March 2023

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