Whether schools can reduce social inequality or equalise opportunity is clearly a question as compelling for policy-makers as it is for researchers, but of growing interest to governments is the question "Are some schools more effective, than others?" If so, why? And how could such knowledge be used to economic and political ends?
With the advent of Thatcherism, evidence for the variable effectiveness of schools was a priceless gift to government because it could be put to the service of parental choice, and through the operation of the market, reinforce "good" schools and put pressure on less effective schools to smarten up or to suffer the consequenc es.
While school effectiveness researchers would not wish to be held responsible for the creation of so-called league tables, effectiveness has become closely and carelessly synonymous with measured achievement at a given point in a school's life. Even scrupulous researchers have been known to slip into the shorthand of describing high attainment-measure schools as "effective" and the lowest-attaining ones as "ineffective".
It raises the question of who can best judge the quality and effectiveness of a school, and by what criteria. External evaluators or internal participants? National bodies and local authorities or teachers, parents and pupils?
Some would argue that external agencies bring impartiality, expertise and rigour to the task, versus the subjectivity and impressionistic judgment of the insiders.
Or we might take the view that the reality of school and classroom life can only be truly known through direct, day-to-day experience. There is a growing consensus that pupils are the most informed and fair judges of their schools and classrooms.
Schools with experience of evaluation from the inside-out generally acknowledge the valid contribution of both internal and external evaluation, but also express concern that in the public and political arenas it is external judgments that weigh most heavily, and that the currencies which count are the most easily measurable indicators of performance and not always the ones that say most about the school as a learning, social or professional place.
The singular most valuable contribution of school effectiveness research is to share the best of the knowledge gained over 30 years with schools to help them to become more robust self-evaluating organisations, less dependent on the views of external inspectors, more self-confident in acknowledging their strengths and addressing their weaknesses. With that internal strength inspection becomes light-touch, inexpensive and targeted at schools where a more robust intervention is required.
The prime underlying rationale for the Improving School Effectivenes s Project in Scotland has been to demonstrate how schools can use techniques to know themselves more honestly and self-critically, and to put effective learning and teaching at the epicentre of school improvement. When this happens the two principles of organisational development are met: first, bottom-up; second, top-down. That is internal evaluation before external evaluation, quality leading to accountability.
Professor John MacBeath is director of the Quality in Education Centre, Strathclyde University. This is an extract from his keynote address to ICSEI.