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14 Mar 2024
Mike Douse

The Evolution of School Inspection

In this blogpost, Mike Douse illustrates that, across the world, schools are inspected in various ways, for a variety of reasons, argues that self-evaluation with benign external moderation is the eventual goal, and maintains that, whatever process is applied, no conscientious teacher or responsible school leader should ever be pressurised, pilloried or penalised.

Schools are inspected in order to achieve multifarious objectives, political as well as educational. The UNESCO learning portal (UNESCO, 2023) explains that “although different traditions use different terms, these processes generally have two interwoven objectives: public accountability and school development. The particular balance is dependent on the political context and education system of individual countries”. The brief distinguishes between “three main groups of functions:

a) giving a public account concerning the quality of education;

b) providing a guarantee of compliance with standards and regulations; and

c) providing a service for quality management and improvement” (ibid).

The UNESCO portal notes also that a ‘hard’ governance approach includes “target-setting, performance management, benchmarks and indicators, and data use to foster competition and improvement” while ‘soft’ governance refers to “processes of education, creating networks and partnerships of actors that rely on self-evaluations, giving good examples and learning from best practices” (ibid). Its other well-informed insights include the realisations that: “Criticism of inspectors is not uncommon… Schools in difficult and challenging circumstances need different types of feedback from schools with high socio-economic status pupils…performance league tables have negative effects on well-being” (ibid).

School inspection systems have, according to Simeonova et al. (2020), undergone a transformation in response to changing social and economic scenarios and “two major approaches can easily be identified that also define the two ends of the continuum. On one end is a high-stake sanctions-oriented inspection while on the other end is the low-stake advisory inspection”.

According to the Council of British International Schools (Woolf, 2023) “there are three broad approaches to evaluating schools around the world: school self-evaluation, external evaluation, and comparison of schools using performance measures”. The Council  focuses on “professional conversations about continuing school development rather than handing down judgments”. They “shun one-word judgments and instead provide detailed reports that list areas of strengths and areas for improvement” (ibid). Clearly, there is more than one dimension (such as ‘hard-soft’ or ‘external-internal’) and attempting to simplify the distribution pattern serves only to complicate the analysis.

A World of Approaches

The recent Jobs for the Future report (WEF, 2023), while recognising that inspection systems can take “an expansive look at teaching and learning… they are designed to foster improvement, not just identify failure; and they can engage educators in understanding what high-quality instruction looks like… (they can also be) costly, they pose challenges for ensuring that judgments about schools are reliable and valid, and they place a burden on schools, by requiring them to provide extensive documentation on their practices”.

Internal or self-evaluation involves each school identifying its own strengths and weaknesses, possibly obtaining external quality assurance and or constructive advice, and developing plans for quality improvement. Sometimes this process is mainly a source of information for the inspector; sometimes (albeit seldom) it may be a creative and enjoyable exercise involving teachers, parents, the local community and – why not? – the learners themselves.

Using case studies in four European countries, school leaders’ and teachers’ views on School Self Evaluation (SSE), its role in school improvement and the capacity of schools to engage with the process were analysed (McNamara et al., 2021). Findings suggest that, although there is a consensus concerning SSE’s potential utility, “across some countries, there were also concerns relating to implementing the process and the potential misuse of SSE outcomes… … (there is a need for) clearly defined legislation… to dispel school leaders’ apprehensions regarding the balance between SSE for accountability or school improvement” (ibid).

First-Hand Experience

Some thirty years ago, I was involved in a major donor-funded drive to reform the existing supervisory regimen in favour of a benign school and teacher advisory system, in a Sub-Saharan African country. This action uncovered (and over time helped remedy) large numbers of ‘ghost teachers’ (a quarter of those on the payroll were dead or had never existed), widespread corruption and instances of sexual exploitation of teachers by supervisors.

In many poor countries the school inspection function cannot be performed as the inspectors have insufficient travel funds. Rose Matete (2021) investigated the impact of school inspection on teaching and learning in primary school education in Tanzania, establishing that “inspectors’ working conditions were poor as they lacked fuel to facilitate their school visits and lacked a means of transport”. This phenomenon has been widespread across much of Africa and, sometimes, as there is no accommodation allowance, the inspectors must board with the school principal and their family, and that too is invidious.

Matete makes the point that inspectors “did not regularly visit the classroom for lesson observations… (but) focused on the professional documents”. There were exceptions I have witnessed, including an inspector taking over a class and teaching. Children (and indeed their teachers) should enjoy education: in only one [Bhutan] of the thirty or so countries whose school inspection arrangements are known directly to the present author was ‘enjoyment of the lesson’ an explicit criterion.

More positively, fresh approaches also exist. Bangladesh’s Shikhbe Protiti Shishu (Each Child Learns) initiative was a five-year education plan’s flagship activity aimed at basing pedagogy directly upon each child being able to demonstrate that which has been learned, with inspectors tasked to establish how well that had occurred and to advise teachers on remedial action when the learning had been limited. Development partners were highly sceptical, feeling safer with projects involving building schools, developing curricula, and recruiting and training teachers. As Shikhbe Protiti Shishu was not a conventional, internationally-tested approach, donors were unready to recognise as valid this in-country generated initiative. Accordingly, it never became a targeted and funded education plan activity, and the inspectors continued to examine the records of what the teachers had taught rather than how well the children had learned (Chowdhury & Douse, 2019).

The English Experience

In the UK, facing widespread criticism and following a three-month consultation, Ofsted is now providing all inspectors with guidance on developing and formalising the enhanced professional dialogue essential for successful inspections (and letting) providers know that they can contact Ofsted with any unresolved issues on the working day after the end of the inspection. Moreover, from April 2024, when providers receive their draft report, they will be able to highlight minor points of clarity or factual accuracy or raise a formal complaint to seek a review of the inspection findings and judgements awarded.

To Conclude:

More generally, countries and education systems across the world will continue to deliver their preferred form of school inspection, appropriate to their perceived priorities and aspirations. Ultimately, it is suggested, each school community should be enabled annually to evaluate – collectively, cheerfully and creatively – its own achievements against its own explicit objectives. Perhaps an external ‘critical friend’ should be available on call to signify that the internal evaluation has occurred and to agree on a one-page public statement covering progress to date and anticipated improvements. No pain. No shame. Much participation and positivity.

 

About the Author:

Mike Douse has been involved in international education since 1964, having worked in and for over sixty countries, including, most recently, Afghanistan and Sudan. Based in Wales, his assignments have been related to European Union, World Bank, UNICEF and ILO educational programmes. Mike was the foundation principal of a flagship science secondary school in Nigeria; and the first Director of Australia’s Disadvantaged Schools Programme. His published work includes (with Professor Philip Uys) One World One School, many articles and conference presentations on issues educational, and three collections of his poems.

 

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