How good is our classroom? Teachers taking back responsibility

by Professor John MacBeath, University of Cambridge

Many years ago the inspectorate in Scotland published a series of reports with the title How good is our school? It was an invitation to answer that question from the different viewpoints of teachers, parents, children and young people themselves. It did not suggest that any one of these was the ‘right’ answer but that each made their own contribution to understanding the mosaic of school life.

This did not preclude a view from inspectors with their longstanding experience of visiting schools, but it did acknowledge that a ‘visitor’s eye view’, especially when we are all on our best behaviour, is necessarily limited. What a visitor ‘sees’ is limited by the expectations and agenda he or she brings with them. It is limited by the weight of authority and the ‘passport’ they carry with them. It is limited by what can be seen at a given time and place, what inferences are made, what questions are asked and not asked, who speaks and who listens.

How good is our school? is a complex and contentious question because it presents critics with plenty of room for disagreement. For a start, ‘good’ is a value judgment and not nearly as scientific as ‘effective’. And then there is the ‘how’ – on what basis do you make judgments, and how valid is your evidence? And ‘our’ – whose school is it anyway, who are best qualified to make informed judgments, who are they responsible to?

But it is precisely in these objections that we spot the fallacy of objective measures, of the authority on which ‘effectiveness’ rests, the narrow approach to what constitutes ‘evidence’ and a view of achievement which excludes so much more than it includes – the emotionally cleansed world of standards, performance and line management.

It comes as no surprise that Ofsted has been unable to settle on a valid way of evaluating schools, seeking a “New Relationship with Schools but finding that happy state frustratingly elusive. Well, so have many other jurisdictions but some have approached the issue with a more open mind, with a less politicised agenda and with a belief that there is much to learn from a massive corpus of work on quality assurance, school self evaluation and external review.

The OECD is one such valuable source. Between 2010 and 2012 14 country reviews of assessment and evaluation were conducted by international teams of experts, in an attempt to identify leading edge practice. New Zealand was seen as perhaps closest to achieving the balance of self evaluation and external review:

“New Zealand has developed its own distinctive model of evaluation and assessment that is characterised by a high level of trust in schools and school professionals… The development of national evaluation and assessment agenda has been characterised by strong collaborative work, as opposed to prescriptions being imposed from above.” (Nusche, Laveault, MacBeath and Santiago, p. 132-133)

The secret is out – trust, professionalism, collaboration and ownership lie at the heart of effective quality assurance. In her 2002 Reith lecture A Question of Trust, Professor Nora O’Neill argued that the essential qualities in professional trust have been progressively eroded by simplistic accountability measures, encouraging deception and second-guessing as to what may meet with an inspector’s approval.

There is nothing as corrosive within an organization as mistrust, and nothing as destructive as disingenuous game playing. Yet how easy it is to be held captive by external validation, to feel the warm glow of a pat on the head, to celebrate the accolade of ‘a good Ofsted’. ‘Nothing fails like success’ wrote Peter Senge, in 1990. The more ‘success’ a school experiences within the bounded criteria of exam passes and Ofsted inspections, the less likely it is to question them. ‘There is nothing like success to breed complacency or arrogance because being the best means not looking for the inconsistencies or deep seated assumptions which prevent radical change’. ,

Self evaluation, conducted without looking over your shoulder, set within a climate of collegial trust and conducted in a genuine spirit of inquiry, welcomes inconsistencies, explores deep seated assumptions and is always open to doing things better. It moves from a mechanistic process to an exploration of purpose, meaning and impact. The metaphor of self evaluation as a tin opener captures the sense of opening up, in contrast to the closing down effect of definitive judgements. Too often data and summary judgments, rendered from an authoritarian stance, close down the space for dialogue and the opportunity for learning.

Data is critical. Not the impoverished version of number crunchers but, by dictionary definition, ‘an assumption or premise from which inferences may be drawn, a starting point for exploration’. A starting point for exploration. This is what lies at the very heart of both external and internal evaluation. Both complementary forms of inquiry respect diversity. They encompass observations and inferences. They include a range of quantitative and qualitative evidence. They embrace the whole gamut of achievements, written, oral, experiential, individual, social and collaborative – more ambitious and encompassing than tests and examinations – pieces in the larger ‘jig saw’. Professional connoisseurship lies in knowing how all the pieces fit together to render a valid picture of the school or classroom, and the nature of valued learning.

Self evaluation relies on having a toolbox of strategies, put to use by teachers and students on a daily basis. Respect, democracy and reflection are the foundation. This doesn’t mean abandoning schools to their own devices, to sink or swim. School self-evaluation is best supported by a well-chosen critical friend from another school, not to mention advice from the local authority and HMI. Unlike Ofsted, their role is to sustain a spirit of critical questioning, not extinguish it through fear.

So, self-evaluation has to be understood as multi-faceted and problematic, open to changing perspectives, welcoming of the external eye, but seeing it as a formative opportunity to get all of the puzzle pieces into the right place.

Further reading:

Hammond, S and Mayfield A (2004) The Thin Book of Naming Elephants: How To Surface Undiscussables For Greater Organizational Success. CITY: Thin Book Publishing Company

Macbeath, J. (1999) Schools must speak for themselves. London: Routledge

Macbeath, J.; Schratz, M.; Meuret, D. and Jakobsen, L. (2000) Self-evaluation in  European schools. London: Routledge

Nosche, D, et al. (2012) Reviews of Evaluation and Assessment in Education: New Zealand 2011 ,OECD Publishing

Onora O’Neill’s series of Reith Lectures (2002) can be found at http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/reith2002/lecturer.shtml

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