One minute précis….

You know strong governance is critical but do you know your Governing Body is as good as it could be? What are YOUR options?

  1. Commission an external consultant to do a review? Good idea – they’ll visit, collect evidence write a report and offer some ideas. Key question – Is this development sustainable? (What happens after the consultant has left?)Estimated cost = £1000
  2. Carry out a self-evaluation? Good idea – photocopy the NCSL/Ofsted review framework for School Governance – draft and circulate questionnaires – analyse results – make plans – implement and review. Key question – are you confident to undertake the review and follow up? (How do you respond to the issues?)Estimated cost for set up, time and materials = £500
  3. Commission, or find Governor training? Good idea – Identify appropriate training, agree the focus and who attends. Key question – How will you share the learning and take action? (Danger that the course learning remains off-site)Estimated cost including travel and fees = £1500
  4. Trial and purchase The iAbacus? Good idea – This deceptively simple, on-line tool is specifically designed to review governance. Collaborate as a Governing Body by using the proven step by step process:- self-evaluation – evidence collection – analysis – planning for progress. It comes pre-loaded with the Ofsted/NCSL review criteria and contains guidance at each step. One click, at the end prints a visually attractive, easy to follow report with your detailed planning and timeline in place. Update at any stage and show progress to stakeholders and Ofsted.Actual cost for a single license £100

To see how the iAbacus works click here 

To appreciate the thinking behind The iAbacus, as applied to Governance read on….

Theory and research behind The iAbacus

Five minute read…

The most recent Ofsted Guidance (here) wants to see governors and school leaders identifying “fundamental actions” linked to the “core issues”. Monitoring Inspectors will judge, “whether the fundamental actions needed to improve the school – for example, in relation to leadership, the quality of teaching, management of teachers’ performance, and governance – are being taken”. The guidance adds,“Pupils are unlikely to be served well by a focus on peripheral matters, or only on planning, rather than directly on the core issues that need tackling before the school can be good or outstanding”

The iAbacus was designed to cut through peripheral matters and quickly get to the heart of school improvement. It deploys a unique and deceptively simple process for self-judgement which identifies core issues for focus. Within minutes The iAbacus becomes a powerful visual image showing where fundamental actions are most needed.

Promoting self-evaluation to fuel feedback

John Hattie’s powerful research (summary here) showed that the most effective leadership approaches, in terms of student outcomes were, “promoting and participating in teacher learning and development… and planning, coordinating and evaluating teaching and the curriculum.”

He concluded [1] that high quality feedback to students is the most significant factor in school improvement. There is a long thread of research from Peter Senge and Alma Harris to Michael Fullen and Lyn Sharratt [2] indicating that the same high quality feedback that works for students also works for teachers, leaders and governors, especially when they work collaboratively.

The iAbacus encourages, indeed requires, feedback of evidence to justify judgements and, in both the analysis and planning sections, expects the user to self-evaluate and provide feedback about what helps and hinders their development.  Furthermore, the collaborative features of the iAbacus, where individuals share their feedback, or commission feedback, on their work from others, also harnesses the power of feedback to strengthen evaluation, analysis and planning.

Quality assured, not just controlled

The research above champions a quality assurance model, variously described as: action research, self-evaluation, or collaborative inquiry. It is founded on a belief that the subjects of an inquiry (school staff and students) can make a significant contribution to evaluations, inspections and observations and that their learning progress will be both quicker and more robust when they are involved in researching and planning for their own effectiveness. Most importantly, the quality assurance approach, has been shown to motivate colleagues because they are intimately involved in, not only the evidence collection, judgement and analysis but also the action taken. In short, they are less likely to challenge findings when they are part of the process.

Quality assurance is distinguished from a quality control model where external experts make judgements and recommendations and, sometimes, offer solutions. This was typified by early Ofsted and the “superhead/city challenge” approach to school improvement, where experts are brought, or sent, in to control, instruct in order to ensure improvement. This can work but there is a danger, that, once inspectors or experts leave, the school has to take the required action, without always having a full understanding of the issues or, in some cases, the capacity to cope. So, increasingly, we see the best (and most recent) Ofsted practice involving school staff in the inspection process, in order that they have more ownership. This makes it closer to, but not quite yet, a full quality assurance model.

There are typically four stages common to both the quality control and assurance: evidence collection; analysis; judgement and usually a list of key issues facing the school. These are typically the content of reports: a Self-Evaluation Report (previously Form), provided by the school and an Inspection, or Review, Report provided by the inspectors or experts. However, the quality assurance model goes further by linking evaluation with planning by including the critical extra stages of exploring and detailing actions to deal with the key issues and, later, evaluating the impact of those actions. The fuller cycle of quality assurance makes more sense to professional staff and, as the research indicates, is more likely to sustain development.

The iAbacus harnesses this research by using the superior quality assurance approach to prepare staff for rigorous self-review. In this sense, The iAbacus is first and foremost a Professional Development Process because it builds staff capacity. It is much more than a School Administration System that builds data sets. Uniquely and importantly, The iAbacus starts by recognising the professionalism of staff by starting with their JUDGEMENT. It then requires this to be justified against standard CRITERIA and follows with an encouragement to provide appropriate EVIDENCE. This is followed by an ANALYSIS of potential actions (see below) which will lead, logically, into PLANNING.

Force Field Analysis

This ability to analyse a situation, identify the significant issues and go on to both design and take action to improve that situation is a key determinant of a professional learner. A capacity to self-monitor and plan progress is also a great motivator. It distinguishes the assured and empowered professional from the controlled operative who carries out assigned tasks and waits for an assessment. Theory and research on leadership, underlining the professional additionallity to management, has led to an increase in delegation and flatter structures in businesses and schools. It is now widely accepted that an organisation’s capacity to sustain development is in direct proportion to the number of staff who are able to take control of their situation and develop the more professional, “Yes, we can” culture. Kurt Lewin, recognising the power of the self-direction, developed a powerful model to support an individual’s, or team’s, skills of analysis. He called the process Force-Field Analysis (3). A well known and often misused version of this is SWAT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats).

The iAbacus follows the JUDGEMENT, CRITERIA and EVIDENCE stages (above) with a dedicated version of Force Field Analysis. This ANALYSIS sits at the heart of The iAbacus because this is where users are challenged to identify those factors which have helped, or might help them, improve and which have hindered, or might hinder, their progress. This replicates, exactly a proven coaching, or mentoring approach. A prioritisation of this analysis leads on to the final PLANNING stage where users make detailed plans (What? When? Who? How?) to strengthen the helping and weaken the hindering factors, to ensure improvement. The first evaluative cycle is then complete, allowing users to carry out planned actions and return later to EVALUATE progress by making their second and subsequent JUDGEMENTS.

The iAbacus reports, produced automatically, display selected text added by users against the visual bead positions and allow collaboration, the sharing of ideas, editing and refinement. Conceptually, an iAbacus report combines the judgement and evidence of a Self Evaluation Report (or Form) with the additional stages of detailed analysis and planning formats. In this way the iAbacus report can be: a Professional Development Profile for a teacher, or Teaching Assistant; A Subject Analysis and Development Plan,, or a Report of Governor Effectiveness.

The extra features of user collaboration, data inclusion and support from the community of practice are detailed elsewhere but mentioned here because they too enable collaborative inquiry to strengthen the capacity of school staff to sustain progress.


The iAbacus grew out of successful school improvement work and is founded on the evidence from the theory and research of school and organisational improvement. It is therefore, a quality assurance, or professional development model, using a streamlined process for collaborative and sustainable development. The intuitive process, is designed to build a school’s collective capacity to: make accurate criterion referenced judgements; identify meaningful data and evidence; analyse and prioritise key factors and finally produce detailed plans and reports of progress, over time.

Whilst The iAbacus process starts from an individual’s perspective it encourage collaboration and, because it is a professional development model, it develops a common language and approach to progress across the school. The universal application of he iAbacus means that whilst the focus might change, with the range of templates, the step-by-step process remains constant. To see The iAbacus, in action using the template for School Governors (using Ofsted/NCTL Criteria for Governance) see 4 minute video here The full range of templates include (Ofsted, Literacy, SMSC, Children’s Centres.


[1] John Hattie 2010 book “Visible Learning”

[2] “Realisation: The Change Imperative for Deepening Reform”, CA Corwin Press 2009.

(3) “Force Field in Social Theory” Kurt Lewin (Harper) 1951

[4] The 4 Key Questions were drafted over years as: Local Authority & Ofsted Inspector, NCSL Lead Facilitator and Senior School Improvement Associate ASPECT/PROSPECT.