A stake in quality

2nd February 1996 at 00:00
School self-evaluation, Scottish-style, can improve on OFSTED methods, argues John MacBeath.

The vision of the school as a stakeholder society is a big idea that has been around for some time. There are schools where having a stake in quality and performance are routine, not simply rhetoric, and where teachers, pupils and parents want to know what those things mean and how they can be judged. The correct description for that would be "quality assurance", were it not a term so devalued that it brings a grimace to the face of most classroom teachers.

If quality assurance is seen by teachers as something done to them by someone else, they are unlikely to see themselves as stakeholders or to rush to bring parents and pupils into the process. Their entitlement to call themselves a "good" or "effective" school may not even be their own, but reliant on someone else's measurements.

If there is an ill-tempered divorce between the informal quality assurance that goes on at classroom level and the formalised quality assurance that operates at national level it may be put down to three things - a "market", the school effectiveness movement, and an Office for Standards in Education. The Government has created a market, school effectiveness researchers have provided the criteria and OFSTED has provided the mechanism by which these two may be joined together Only the most ideologically purblind would deny the significant benefits that have come from all of these three sources, but only the most obtuse could fail to recognise the essential weaknesses of the inspectorial approach to school effectiveness and improvement. There are two inherent flaws, one to do with the way in which indicators are used to measure quality and performance, the other with indicators themselves. In respect of both it is the school's stake in the process that is missing.

The criteria of effective schools have been so well researched that they now trip off the tongue, whether from researchers, policy-makers or politicians. And few could disagree with them. But, it is not the broad sweep of the 10 or 11 key factors, nor the detail of 101 performance criteria which are at issue. It is what these things mean in day-to-day practice for teachers, pupils and parents. Which is where the National Union of Teachers' research began.

Our remit at the Quality in Education Centre at the University of Strathclyde was to find and test an approach to the evaluation of schools which would give people a stake in the process. It should meet the vital criteria of school evaluation. That is, it should be honest, valid and reliable; it should be comprehensive, reflecting those things that matter to people. It should also be developmental and empowering, helping the school to set and monitor its own progress, in a climate of mutual accountability.

Together with the NUT we selected 10 very different schools in England and Wales. In each we met with groups of teachers, support staff, senior management, governors, parents, and pupils to explore their indicators of an effective school.

The third stage was to present 23 of the criteria used by OFSTED, asking the 76 groups to agree on their own top five and bottom three. The process worked just as well with Year 7 as it did with governors, parents or school staff and, as with the previous exercise, set in train a lively challenging debate. Having agreed on priorities and key indicators people were asked how they might go about trying to get evidence of these in a practical way. Our final report suggests different approaches, some of which were already used in the 10 schools.

A treasure trove of ideas was yielded by the 1,743 indicators generated from all sources. They were lively in spontaneity and choice of language, succinct in a way that has been knocked by people like us, hopelessly inured to education-speak. Three of the most common pupil indicators were about teachers and other adults who "help you when you are stuck", "don't give up on you", " really care for your opinion".

Perhaps the most striking finding was the unanimity across all groups on the essential characteristics of good schools and good teachers. The two OFSTED cards "the curriculum meets the needs of all pupils" and "staff have a good understanding of the needs of pupils" appeared consistently in the top five of all groups. One parent asked us if we could please remind the Government that education is about children and, as a caveat, "that children are all different you know." "Pupils take responsibility and show initiative" found a place among the top five cards in all groups. It is an interesting finding, both in the context of "stakeholding" and employers' evidence that this is, above all, what they expect from schools.

Some criteria, or indicators, were specific to particular groups or to certain schools. There were some of primary concern to teachers but of less interest to pupils and parents (recognition and support from management, for example); some of particular concern to pupils (equal treatment and a fair hearing) and to parents (information home on pupil progress). In one school a recurring theme was "older pupils helping younger ones"; in another priority was given to living with and learning with differing abilities and disabilities and from differing ethnic backgrounds. It was a reminder of the extent to which good schools are not just ideal constructions but reflections of people's immediate experience.

This reveals both the strength and inherent limitations of an indicator system derived from experience and expectations, but that is where external evaluation and the critical friend enter the picture. A person, or group, who comes first as friend and second as robust critic can help the school to contextualise its thinking about criteria as well as supporting and strengthening its capacity to be honest, self-critical and receptive to change.

Our experience in these 10 English and Welsh schools replayed for us many of the themes in Scottish schools when a self-evaluation model was being developed. There it is not only national policy but supported at both national and authority level with resources for school, and staff, development. It has become conventional (and research) wisdom that school improvement comes through a blend of internal and external evaluation, which works from the inside out and in which bottom up meets top down. There is neither research evidence to support the notion of improvement by mandate nor of the autonomous self-improving school. Schools need the challenge of an external perspective and benefit from honest brokerage, networking and collaboration with other schools.

Schools and teachers want to evaluate and be evaluated. That has been amply reaffirmed by our research project. There also is a growing cross-party consensus that the time is ripe for a national review of the quality assurance and inspection process and of the role of OFSTED in particular. The way in which we foster quality and performance from within and support it from without is the real test of the educational system's integrity. A rigorous, realistic national framework of internalexternal evaluation can achieve that in a way which genuinely gives to all stakeholders - school staff, parents, pupils, governing bodies, local authorities - a place in the process.

The report of research by Professor John MacBeath, and his colleagues Brian Boyd, Jim Rand and Steve Bell of the University of Strathclyde, was presented at a one-day conference at NUTheadquarters in London on Wednesday. It is to be published by the NUT.

OFSTED'S 23 criteria In order of number of times included in respondents' top five * curriculum meets the needs of all pupils 55 * Staff understand needs of pupils 51 n Pupils encouraged to take responsibility 48 and show initiative * Pupil progress is monitored and feedback 39 given * The school is a safe place for pupils 39 * strong home-school links 35 * high expectations of all pupils 33 * Classes are well managed 31 * Resources are used efficiently effectively 22 * Good relationship with wider community 18 * Pupils with special needs achieve targets 17 set in their individual plan * Staff work co-operatively for shared goals 16 * Staff have a secure understanding 16 of their subject * The standard of pupils' work is challenging 15 * Roles of senior management, governors 15 and staff are clearly understood * Pupils behave well in and around school 14 * Moral principles such as justice are promoted 13 * Regular assessment is carried out 12 Most mentioned in bottom five * Collective worship takes place 33 * The school promotes healthy living 20 * Pupils achieve or do better than key stage targets 19 * The curriculum complies with national guidelines 18 * Staff development motivating for staff 11

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