Staff enjoy secrecy and surprises

26th May 1995 at 01:00
Confidentiality is the byword of the Irish system of inspection though a recent White Paper threatens to upset this cosy world in which assessments concentrate on overall school performance rather than the standards of individual teachers and the results of an inspection are not published.

In not making available the outcomes of school performance assessments, the Department of Education has the wholehearted support of teachers and possibly even parents. When a Sunday newspaper tried some years ago to publish a league table of results (which turned out to be incomplete and inaccurate), there was a hail of criticism from all quarters.

The amount of inspection that goes on in Irish schools is limited by the restricted resources available to the department. Many feel that schools are not inspected often enough, but because of the bulge in the pupil population and continued underfunding, inspectors are visiting schools even less frequently than they were.

When the present system of rolling inspections started in the early 1980s, it was intended that the inspectors would visit each of the Republic's 4,000 primary schools every four years. Now, this has stretched to about seven years, so a child can go through primary education without ever catching sight of an inspector.

Schools are usually notified at the start of the year of an impending inspection. The focus in these assessments is on the school as a unit, rather than on individual teachers, and comparisons are not drawn with other schools. At the end of their visit, inspectors discuss their findings with the teaching staff but reserve comments about individual teachers for the teachers themselves and the principal.

The department also organises surprise visits, but these have become so rare that the only surprise is that they happen at all.

At secondary level, the system of school assessment in most sectors is virtually non-existent. Department inspectors do carry out occasional surprise visits but such is the power of secondary teachers that they can refuse to have an inspector in their class.

The recently-published White Paper on education does make wide-ranging proposals for modernising school assessment. "Whole-school inspection" would henceforth be carried out at both first and second level, and the department's 160-strong inspectorate would be split into a central policy unit in Dublin and regional groups which would come under new regional education boards.

For the first time, the publication of reports on individual schools and the standard of education in different regions is being mooted. The White Paper talks of introducing "performance indicators" to help compare schools' effectiveness. These criteria will take account of initial entry standards of students and their subsequent progress.

Where serious shortcomings are identified, it will be up to the board of management and the school to deal with these. However, the inspectors will make recommendations for improvements to the education boards as well as the school management.

The establishment of these procedures is likely to take years, if indeed they ever come to pass. As ever, the extent to which schools are inspected, assessed and compared will depend primarily on the money available.

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