Quantity can confuse quality

You want your school to impress. But, asks Carolyn O'Grady, is that extra gold star worth it?

QUALITY schemes, once exclusively associated with commercial organisations, have caught on in schools, but opinions about their value vary. Are they mere accolade collecting? And so ubiquitous that people are ignoring them?

Recently in The TES, Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, said: "The more awards there are the more each one is devalued." He said the time could be better spent getting more resources into classrooms.

Others say that as schools become more business-like,

business tools become appropriate. Parents, potential staff and firms are coming to recognise such quality standards as marks of reliability and efficiency.

Many businesses will work with schools to attain the awards. Unilever, for example, has worked with more than 200 since l997 to help them achieve the Investors in People standard.

John May, director of education at Business in the Community, a charity linking businesses and schools, denies that quality marks are mere accolade collecting. An ex-head, who introduced Charter Mark into his school, he found "the process of getting the award was as useful as the mark at the end. It helped to reassure me that the right structures were in place and were effective and it pointed out gaps."

In an educational climate that often fails to recognise progress in value added terms, Mason Moor primary school in Southampton saw getting their Basic Skills Agency Quality Mark as a way of recognising achievement and progress in a school where 52 per cent of pupils get free meals and 42 per cent have

special educational needs.

"We wanted to show staff,

parents and pupils that we had achieved something that other schools hadn't. We wanted public recognition of the hard work that had been put in," says headteacher Sue Nicholson. She is convinced that it was worth it.

"We'd already been working so hard at raising standards that most of the work for the award, except writing the report, had already been done."

But it's important to choose the right one, according to Geraldine Keegan, headteacher at St Mary's College in Londonderry. Her school has won 18 awards for training and education, including three Charter Marks.

The school has picked its way through various schemes and is now working towards the TNT Modernising Government Partnership Award. "We feel that partnership is crucial, with parents, the community, local businesses, further and higher education, an other educational establishments," says Ms Keegan.

Each of the big five award schemes has a contribution to make, according to the Cabinet Office, which oversees them. In a nutshell they are:

the Charter Mark which focuses on customer service;

ISO 9000 - a tool for improving management of processes;

Investors in People - for staff development;

the Thomas Nationwide Transport Modernising Government Partnership awards which puts the emphasis on multi-agency relationships;

the European Foundation for Quality Management Excellence Model which is the most holistic, embracing all the other models.

In its own category because of its focus on educational standards rather than management efficiency is the Quality Mark, a framework for better literacy and numeracy. The Basic Skills Agency says these are increasingly used by local education authorities, as key parts of education development plans.

Apart from different emphases, schemes differ in time to meet requirements and in costs. ISO 9000's start-up fee can be around pound;1,500; costs for the EFQM, for example, depend partly on whether you opt for self or external assessment.

Given so many awards and issues, don't be surprised if you're confused: you aren't alone. A recent Cabinet Office quality schemes task force found demand for guidance.

People want guidelines that "would describe quality schemes and their objectives, set out relationships between the schemes and other quality initiatives, indicate the resource implications for users and provide examples and case studies."

The task force will publish guidance material on quality schemes in education late next month.

Cabinet Office website: www.servicefirst.gov.uk

The EFQM Excellence Award: the British Quality Foundation, 32-34 Great Peter Street, London SW1P 2QX, tel: 020 7654 5000. website www.quality-foundation.co.uk

The ISO 9000: the British Standards Institution, 389 Chiswick High Road, London W4 4AL, tel: 020 8996 9000, www.bsi.org.uk

Investors in People: 4th floor, 7-10 Chandos Street, London W1M 9DE, tel: 020 7467 1900, website: www.investorsinpeople.co.uk

Charter Mark: Charter Mark Awards Service, first Unit, Cabinet Office, Horse Guards Road, London SW1P 3AL, tel: 020 7270 6343, website www.servicefirst.gov.uk

TNT Modernising Government Partnership Award: TNT UK, Holly Lane, Atherstone Warks VC9 2RY, tel: 01827 318856, website www.tnt.co.ukawards

Quality Mark: The Basic Skills Agency, 1-19 New Oxford Street, London WC1A 1NU, tel: 020 7405 4017, website: www.basic-skills.co.uk

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