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Zen and the art of school maintenance

* "Quality . . . you know what it is yet you don't know what it is . . . What the hell is Quality? What is it?" (Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.) A quick skim through a recent TES Scotland revealed 13 references to "quality", starting with the headline "Quality drive welcomed". It now seems more or less mandatory for an education authority to have its quality assurance unit. Whatever it is, there certainly seems to be a lot of it about.

David Hopkins and Mel Ainscow lead the Improving the Quality of Education for All (IQEA) project and on Sunday they will be running a seminar at St Margaret's Academy, Livingston, sponsored jointly by West Lothian Council and the Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum. The last time Professor Hopkins spoke about Scotland was at a seminar on quality assurance, sponsored by the Government's audit unit, when he quoted from an essay on quality in education by his colleague David Hargreaves: "There is no simple definition of quality in education. What is quality in education is not an answerable question."

Nevertheless, if we can agree that the process of learning lies at the core of our work, then by examining the nature of this process we ought to gain some idea of the conditions which will best promote it. And these conditions, in turn, ought to constitute some sort of useful definition of "quality" in relation to education.

Learning for understanding, "quality learning" if you like, is not about the transmission of prepackaged items of "knowledge" but about the construction of personal meaning in the mind of the learner from their learning experiences. David Kolb has commented on the widespread "tendency to define learning in terms of its outcomes [of] knowledge in an accumulated storehouse of facts. " By contrast he describes "quality learning" as "a process whereby concepts are derived from and continuously modified by experience". A process, in other words, in which each learner is empowered by being enabled to build more and more accurate mental models of the way the world operates.

In a comprehensive article on quality in higher education, Lee Harvey and Diana Green describe five definitions of quality as exception, perfection, fitness for purpose, value for money and transformation. They offer some challenging observations on the first four, before suggesting quite firmly that the "transformative" concept is of most relevance to education: "In short, learners should be at the centre of the learning process [this] shifts the emphasis from the value-added measures of enhancement to empowerment."

It is just such a notion of "learning as transformation" that underpins the approach of the IQEA project, now concisely but comprehensively described in Improving the Quality of Education for All: Lessons from the Field (Hopkins, Ainscow and West), just published by David Fulton. The principles of IQEA are: * School improvement is a process that focuses on enhancing the quality of students' learning.

* The vision of the school should embrace all members of the school community as both learners and contributors.

* The school will see in external pressures for change important opportunities to secure its internal priorities.

* It will seek to develop structures and conditions that will empower individuals and groups.

* Inquiry, monitoring and the evaluation of quality are the responsibility of all members of staff.

The project has been operating with increasing numbers of schools for six years and although not yet formally evaluated it seems clear from the response of these schools that the approach has great potential power and effectiveness.

To return, finally, to the notion "quality". J M Juran, the noted authority on total quality management, once observed that "Quality is a journey not a destination". The notion of journeying also runs throughout Pirsig's rather more metaphysical narrative and Improving the Quality of Education for All finishes with the following comment: "We now live in a 'change-rich' environment, where multiple policy initiatives and innovation overload can easily oppress schools. In order to cope with change of this magnitude and complexity, we need to focus on the management of change in general, on the creation of effective and flexible structures and on the empowering of individuals, rather than on the implementation of specific, but usually minor, changes. This is why we have chosen to journey with our schools rather than to search for 'solutions' to specific and immediate problems."

Colin Weatherley, a former headteacher and currently a consultant on teaching and learning, is organising the IQEA seminar.

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