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Learning Together – A Radical Approach to Inspections

A warm welcome to Chris McIlroy as guest author who writes this post in a personal capacity. In it, he outlines the key features of an innovative, collaborative and pragmatic approach to school inspections.

Chris McIlroy

A big question faced by the recent review of aspects of Scottish education was ‘What kind of education inspection do we need?’ Commentators argue the inspection process should be ‘robust’, ‘independent’, ‘transparent’ and ‘evidence-based’. Its purposes should be to ‘focus on improvement for learners and good practice in teaching’, ‘ensure accountability’, ‘report on standards’ and ‘engage stakeholders’. This is too great a burden for an inspection to carry and some features of these aspirations often can conflict with others. It is intended that the collaborative approach to school inspections advocated in this paper eliminates any undue stress or overwhelming pressures which can be associated with these occasions. Rather, the aim is to focus on how best to enhance the future wellbeing, growth and culture of our schools. It is time for a fresh look at what makes a good inspection and to concentrate on what matters.

‘Without continual growth and progress, such words as improvement, achievement, and success have no meaning.’ (Benjamin Franklin, 1706 – 1790)

Evaluating, communicating and promoting improvement: are our schools working well?

It is important to children, families, communities and councils that they know that their schools are operating effectively. In modern Scotland, with well qualified teachers who take part in a range of professional learning, we should be able to get to the heart of an educational establishment’s health without an inspection becoming too burdensome or comprehensive. An important indicator that a school is in good health is its track record in improvement. Which aspects are improving and how has that been achieved? Which are in a steady state? Which are stubbornly resisting improvement efforts and why? Moreover, the slow pace of educational improvement is a major issue for Scottish education highlighted in national and international comparisons. Future inspection models should therefore focus much more on evaluating improvement as a gauge of a school’s health and less time on ‘reading the metre’ to describe quality indicators and attainment standards – a major focus in recent years. By building a shared account with teachers of a school’s improvement work, inspectors and teachers will contribute to accountability and respect the professionalism of schools.

Good inspections lead to improvements in the quality of learning and in learners’ achievements. If an inspection does not improve these, it has not been worthwhile. Inspections are expensive in time and emotional energy so they must show their value. Let us be honest, despite the emphasis in recent changes to inspection, not every inspection leads to significant improvements, and promoting improvement still lacks prominence as the core activity of inspection. The best gift an inspection can give is to leave a school with the confidence to improve, feeling inspired and with a clear pathway of ideas to benefit learning and teaching. Inspections that focus on improvement have recurring discussions about the school’s success in making advances and in identifying ways of adjusting procedures where authentic progress is hard to make.

(Aristotle, 384 -322 BC)

Harnessing the powerhouse of professional learning

The powerhouse for improvement in schools is often professional learning. Where teachers reflect on learners’ responses and seek their views, engage in focused observations of their colleagues, try out and evaluate ideas to enrich practice, participate in dialogue and debate, significant improvements occur. How do I know? Since retiring, I have been working with over 300 classroom teachers in Glasgow along with two able leaders in applying these ideas on the ‘Improving Our Classrooms’ course with great results. The implications for inspection are clear – inspections should have a much stronger professional learning emphasis in which teachers and inspectors together discuss features of practice and justify and illustrate their judgements with evidence from the classrooms.

‘The ratio of We’s to I’s is the best indicator of the development of a team.’ (Lewis B. Ergen)

Inspections also are well placed to evaluate generic issues in learning and teaching, curriculum, meeting different needs and assessment which are key to improvements in learners’ understanding and achievement. They are best addressed strategically, keeping to the high ground to avoid drowning in detail. Investigating together issues – such as the pace of learning, challenge and support, feedback on progress in different classes or subjects – is a good test of a school’s teamwork applied in the classroom. The quality of development of skills for learning, work and life in the twenty-first century, including personal and social competences, creativity, problem-solving, critical thinking, reasoning and understanding is a penetrating indicator of curriculum relevance and worth.

Inspecting together: good professional relationships

Inspections which lead to improvements are often associated with collaborative professional relationships. Close links and rapport matter because inspections involve learning together and tackling hard questions about improvement which include openness, honesty and mutual respect. Where teachers play a full and active part in inspections, they are more likely to understand and ‘own’ ideas for improvement and are keen to make them work: in other words, effective relationships are necessary to facilitate learning together. The combination of good relationships, partnership working and a focus on improvement is modelled in a successful inspection.

Teachers’ experience and knowledge of their school should play a major part in directing improvement. The idea of bringing together those involved in teaching and learning with inspectors who have wider experience of learning and improvement in schools is sound. Yet the way that power is assigned in inspections may make it difficult to achieve professional partnerships. There may be tension, even fear, and an assumption that inspectors are there to demand justification from teachers or that they ‘know the answers’ and their wider experience enables them rather than teachers to make judgements about ‘how good’ things are. Where inspectors recognise the equal but different value of contributions from teachers and themselves to evaluation and improvement, genuine partnerships for advancement can develop.

Supporting educational priorities

Schools and inspections are designed for a purpose: to improve education, communities and society. The needs of society and the context of important national issues in education should influence the response of schools and the shape of inspections. Inspections should conclude, therefore, by evaluating and recording how the school, its community and society are benefiting from its work and how the inspection will add value to its improvement work.

We know that most pupils do well out of Scottish education but the system fails some pupils and the gaps in educational success between more and less affluent families are an enduring social issue which has defied resolution for over 50 years. The recent pandemic has also highlighted the impact of mental and physical health and emotional wellbeing on significant numbers of children and young people. Key issues for discussion towards the end of inspection will therefore include ‘inclusion’ and closing the poverty-related attainment gap. There is a strong case for a later evaluation of the success of the inspection to focus on these issues and for that evaluation to involve two independent evaluators, one from another education authority and a neighbouring headteacher who has been trained in evaluating impact.

Concluding remarks

An inspection model, based on evaluating and professional learning in a collaborative and pragmatic manner, has much to offer with regard to ensuring high levels of improvement within educational provision for children and young people regardless of their ages or stages. It operates through positive, trusting and inclusive principles towards fostering engagement and raising standards among two of society’s most treasured assets – skilled teachers and motivated learners.

‘Progress is not inevitable. It is up to us to create it.’ (Anon)

Footnote: Chris McIlroy was a teacher and headteacher in primary schools in Glasgow and later a Chief Inspector in Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education. He also has been a Visiting Professor at the University of Strathclyde and a consultant with many education authorities across Scotland. Among his previous published articles are two relating specifically to inspections:

McIlroy, C. (2013) ‘The Scottish approach to school improvement: achievements and limitations’, in T. G. K. Bryce, W. M. Humes, D. Gillies and A. Kennedy (eds), Scottish Education, Fourth Edition: Referendum. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

McIlroy, C. (2017) ‘The National Improvement Framework and the Return of National Testing’ in T. G. K. Bryce, W. M. Humes, D. Gillies and A. Kennedy (eds), Scottish Education, Fifth Edition. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

By O'Hagan

Dr Frank O'Hagan has formerly worked as a science and mathematics teacher, social welfare officer, teacher education lecturer, university lecturer and inspector of educational establishments. Now retired, he continues to have a keen interest in education and provision for carers.