Eurocrats call it "the beautiful project". Some of them have pronounced it the jewel in the crown of European Community education initiatives.
Evaluating Quality in School Education involved 101 schools in 18 countries, all committed to using a common approach to school self-evaluation. Although it received funding for only one school year, 98 of the schools wanted to continue the work beyond the funded period. As one English school put it: "We have learned more in this short year than we ever thought possible. The project has brought new vitality and new energy to the staff."
The genius of the project was in its common approach in all 101 schools while respecting their very different contexts and cultures, from Iceland to the Greek Islands and Malmo to Madrid. There were four elements common for all schools - a set of self-evaluation guidelines containing 30 methodologies, the appointment of a critical friend to support the school, networking workshops and conferences both nationally and internationally, and a self-evaluation profile.
This was used at the beginning of the project to give schools a baseline perspective of their organisational health and well-being. The evaluation consisted of 12 indicators, each rated on a four-point scale from positive to negative, with three further assessment categories - improving, stable and declining.
This assessment was not, however, simply the task of the senior management team or teachers but also involved students, parents and governors (or school boards). Each of these groups was asked to reach a consensus, then to send two representatives to the school evaluation group. This consisted of 10 people, representing five sets of "stakeholders" with different perspectives on school quality and improvement.
The group was then charged with drawing up a self-evaluation profile for their school, and choosing up to five of the 12 areas to explore in greater depth over the following year. This process was the centrepiece of the project.
Consensus rarely came easily. Dealing with disagreement, however, proved to be a salient indicator of the school's inner strength and capacity for improvement.
Of the 101 schools, 44 chose quality of learning and teaching as a priority for further evaluation. Methodologies included questionnaires, focus groups, photo-evaluation, shadowing and spot-checks. And many schools incorporated their researches into the curriculum. In one Spanish school, students administered a questionnaire to younger children, analysing the data as part of their socio-cultural studies programme.
Classroom observation was a popular methodology. This sometimes took the form of peer observation, teachers evaluating one another in a climate of trust. More challenging still was observation by students, for many of whom it was an eye-opener. One Greek student wrote: "For the first time as a student I did something I will remember my whole life. I attended a lesson in our school as a simple observer. During the lesson I filled in a questionnaire based on my observations. I realised that some students are interested in the lesson, while others neither paid attention nor took part. I wondered who is to blame ... To what extent are we students responsible, or our teacher?" From this toe in the water, students became more rigorous and critical. In one Finnish school, teachers agreed that students could conduct unannounced classroom observations. The teachers said it had provided a salutary inside view, more penetrating than the cursory observation of a visiting inspector.
Perhaps the greatest gain was the challenge and the sharing of experiences across 18 nations. Irish teachers visited Finnish schools, English schools played host to the Dutch and Danes. A new teacher from St Kentigern's in West Lothian who thought he was going to conduct a friendly workshop with a dozen Hungarian teachers found himself addressing 250 heads in Szeged.
In Luxembourg, a student from Sarah Bonnell school in Newham found herself on a question-and-answer panel facing questions (not all friendly) from the European Association of Teachers. She described how her students rallied round before the Office for Standards in Education inspection to help "bury the bodies".
Echoing the words of a teacher she described the contribution of self-evaluation as "leading you to where the bodies are buried".
At the start and end of the project schools were asked to rate its value and impact. On three items there was a significant positive gain. Some 82 per cent of schools replied that self-evaluation helped to improve teaching (as against 55 per cent at the beginning). Even more (84 per cent) said it improved management (53 per cent before) while 95 per cent pronounced self-evaluation as "valid" (compared with 56 per cent).
Improvement through self-evaluation? The evidence is convincing. But there is an important rider. "Self" in this context is not a cosy, introspective process. As we have learned, welcoming, confronting and dealing with this kaleidoscope of data is the first hallmark of the learning school.
Professor John MacBeath is director of the Quality in Education Centre at Strathclyde University. His latest book is Schools must speak for themselves: the case for self-evaluation, Routledge, pound;12.99.