An intelligence equal to the sum of its parts

28th November 1997 at 00:00
How to evaluate our schools has become a pressing policy issue on a global scale. The Scottish contribution to that debate is acknowledged more beyond our borders than within them. We learned well ahead of many other countries that quality assurance and school improvement are not the prerogative of the enlightened few. They are everybody's business.

The genius of what has come to be known elsewhere in the world as "the Scottish approach" lies in its strategic use of the knowledge of those who know most about schools, pupils and teachers. Organisations, say researchers Argyris and Schon, often know less than their members because they lack the tools, the expertise or the leap of faith to find out what everybody knows. As a consequence the organisation, be it a business, a university or a school, is disabled.

The IQ of the intelligent school is at least equal to those of its individual members. The unintelligent school knows less than its pupils and teachers because it cannot or does not want to learn. Since we believe that self-knowledge is what makes for intelligent children we must believe it makes for intelligent organisations too. How then do schools learn to become more intelligent?

This was the question which was put to us in 1995 by the National Union of Teachers. Looking due north to "the Scottish model" it commissioned us to help in the development of a framework for school self-evaluation, Our starting point for that study was with pupils, teachers, parents, governors, support staff and with their answers to the questions: "What makes a good school?"; "How do we know?"; What do we do next?" It was essentially a rerun of the 1990 Scottish pilot project which gave birth to ethos indicators, but drawing on the lessons learned in the intervening years during which so many Scottish schools have made immense strides in self-evaluation.

The resulting publication Schools Speak for Themselves had a massive impact not only because it offered schools tools, strategies and ways of thinking but because, in the words of one teacher, "it had the authentic smell and feel of a school". It drew on pupil observation about teaching and learning, and showed the insight possible in even very young children.

In the past two years we have run workshops on more than 50 English authorities on Schools Speak for Themselves as well as in Australia, Singapore, Canada, the United States, Denmark, Germany and Italy. Thailand also ordered 100 copies. Frequently the NUT publication is being used by authorities in conjunction with that other Scottish best-seller, How Good is Our School?

Reports from these countries illustrate what the approach has done to develop schools' self-assurance and capacity for improvement. In Denmark, which has neither internal or external evaluation, schools reported greater confidence in facing top-down quality assurance when it comes (and that will be sooner rather than later), while an English primary head in one of the NUT study schools spoke evangelically at a national conference about their progress as a school. So much so that when the Office for Standards in Education team came toc all and was handed the school's self-evaluation dossier inspectors acknowledged that the school was far ahead of them.

David Blunkett recently dropped in on a group in his Department for Education and Employment. It was composed of students, parents, school board members, teachers and headteachers discussing issues of quality and effectiveness. Politely, but not always deferentially, young people were disagreeing with their headteachers about the use of time for learning, the quality of teaching and the effectiveness of learning.

While most pupils rated their schools as a three (on a four-point scale) for quality of teaching they gave their schools only a two for quality of learning, pointing out the gap between how teachers teach and how pupils learn. Pupils and teachers were agreed on one thing - that classroom inspection, or the fabled "crit", which focuses on what the teacher does, frequently fails to confront the question: "Teaching and learning - are they by any chance related?" The one-day seminar which brought together evaluation teams from nine schools in Scotland, England and Wales was a rich learning experience for everyone involved, demonstrating again what can happen when headteachers drop their guard, listen and allow young people to exercise leadership. In Peter Senge's famous catalogue of organisational learning disabilities, his number one spot is reserved for "I am my position" - the hierarchical phobia which filters truth through status and occupational position.

When people leave their status at the door teachers and headteachers genuinely learn from their pupils. In Luxembourg last week 100 schools from 18 countries met to replicate the same experience on an international basis with Scotland again in a leading role.

John MacBeath is director of the Quality in Education Centre, Strathclyde University.

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