Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Democratic School Review ; an alternative to toxic external ERO and OFSTED reviews

A  multi-dimensional approach.  By James Park.

Reviewed/summarised by Bruce Hammonds

Published 2013 by http://www.demos.co.uk/ Britain’s leading cross party think tank driven by the goal of a society populated by free, capable and powerful citizens. DEMOS’s approach challenges the ‘ivory tower’ model of policy making by giving voice to people and communities.

This report takes aim at the target-driven accountability in the English education system: principally, the Ofsted inspection regime, tests and school league tables. For the past twenty years, teachers and school leaders have worked under this regime in one form or another. The argument of this report is that this has proved profoundly toxic, damaging trust between staff, pupils, parents and policy makers, leading to adverse outcomes for students’.
New Zealand schools, since the establishment of self-managing Tomorrows Schools, have been exposed to a similar regime through ERO (Education Review Office) although up until now New Zealand schools have not been exposed to comparative league tables based on national literacy and numeracy testing but it is not hard to see that this situation could well change under the current government.
An incoming Labour/Green government could well consider the recommendations of the DEMOS Report if they wish to develop more community oriented schooling implicit in the, all but side-lined,  2007 New Zealand Curriculum introduced by the previous Labour Government.
Detoxifying School Accountability proposes an alternative model, one which is built around multi-perspective inspection. Such a model would value the opinions of leaders, staff, students, parents and inspectors about a school’s performance, instead of allowing the judgements of one group to prevail against others’. 
The report argues that, taken together, these changes would generate richer, more useful accounts of each school’s strengths and weaknesses, achieve greater buy-in from all key stakeholders and guarantee all schools are on a path to steady improvement. In turn, this would help to ensure that all young people have a rich experience of learning, and the best possible opportunity to learn.’
The report is concerned with the target driven accountability of the English education system principally the OFSTED (the UK equivalent of ERO) inspection regime, tests and school league table – the latter two are on the horizon for New Zealand schools.
In the UK schools, for their self-preservation, have found that focussing on literacy/numeracy targets have held them back from providing a good, well-rounded education for their students. This scenario is already unfolding in New Zealand as schools are being forced to assess students against National Standards.

An ERO visit - anticipatory dread

The report argues that the current model is profoundly toxic and failing to achieve its stated goal of improving education and sets out an alternative which would allow all children to achieve their potential while ensuring the quality of education in schools is of a high standard. The current system has a toxic impact on four groups of people:
School leaders - who must focus their school on achieving targets (in New Zealand achieving Standards) at the expense of wider educational goals. School leaders end up with what the report calls ‘door knob polishing’ to look good rather focussing on things that really matter. Such compliance culture creates a risk averse culture throughout the school. In such an environment ‘top down’ teaching becomes more common rather than delivering engaging educational practices where teachers work collaboratively with each other.
Teachers – who are under pressure to achieve targets (Standards) rather than providing a more fulfilling education. Teachers are being put in a position where they feel ‘they have to put on a show’ and that they have to sacrifice their own teaching beliefs to comply with imposed expectations limiting their ability to be creative, responsive and spontaneous. In such an environment teachers seem to prefer ‘the safety offered by formulaic lesson plans’ rather than provide opportunities for deep learning.
Students – suffer from test anxiety many of whom as a result of poor performance will develop negative impressions of themselves. If students were to be involved in school improvement disaffection would diminish and engagement increases particularly if students were to be assessed on their strengths through more personalised learning experiences and not just in targeted areas.
Policy makers – who continually tinker with the system to avoid perverse outcomes.
I would add a fifth, parents – who will judge the success of the children by narrow targets (Standards) and in turn not appreciate talents ignored by the targets (Standards).
The report argues that it is trust between all involved that improves educational outcomes and that the current system has eroded this trust. The singular judgements of OFSTED (ERO) ignore the voices of staff, students and other stakeholders. In contrast involving parents in their children’s education has been shown to have a positive effect on learning and this involvement is vital where schools face the challenge of helping children who come from areas of social and economic disadvantages.
The report argues that introducing a multi-dimensional perspective of leaders, staff, students, parents, along with official inspectors, would detoxify school review by engaging all key stakeholders.
Such an approach would make simplistic comparisons between schools by the media more difficult.
The multi –dimensional school review team would collect data from staff, students and parents about their experience of the school and the use the data collected to inform in-depth conversations involving all involved about what the data means and how they can demonstrate ways in which the school can improve teaching and learning. In this way the whole school community has the opportunity to analyse the factors that get in the way of great learning and suggest solutions.
The review would conclude with an honest account of what is strong and what is less strong in the school, together with its strategy for improving the school to ensure all students were equipped with the skills they need to thrive in the modern word. The staff would then be involved in on-going action research to trial and assess improvement ideas.
The advantages of such a multi-dimensional approach, the report states, would be:
The analysis and the solutions would be generated within the school rather than be imposed on the school. Carried out at least once a year would enable schools to generate more up to date accounts of their progress than through OFSTED (ERO). The reports would be more responsive to parents. The data collected would assess a wider range of learning dispositions (as outlined in the 2007 New Zealand Curriculum) rather than a narrow range of targets.

External reviewers

Such a multi-dimensional review process would make it harder for politicians to distort educational principles for political ends. Politicians , the report states, ‘what tends to be forgotten in arguments about accountability, is that schools are sensitive, multi-layered organisational systems seeking to engage in the subtle and sophisticated process of developing individual learners’ and continues, ‘schools need to be helped to grow organically, to build on their strengths and to cut away at their weaknesses.’
The current system has created the belief that schools cannot be trusted to assess their strengths and weaknesses nor develop improvement strategies unless under the supervision of outsiders whose judgements are heavily influenced by how well students perform on tests in core subjects. Both in the UK and NZ educators who speak out against the current system of accountability are spoken of disparagingly and are thus ignored.
One reason why the much admired Finnish system performs well on international tests is the level of trust between teachers, parents and policy makers. Pari Salberg, the systems roving ambassador has written that the Finns emphasize the importance of ‘collaboration, equity and trust based accountability’ in contrast to the neo liberal ideology of imposed accountability, standardised testing and school choice( a privatisation agenda).  In contrast Finland has no national curriculum or testing.
The system in England ( as in New Zealand) is reasonably good at promoting the achievement of around half its students, and rather poor at promoting the achievement of the rest, a significant proportion of whom come from socially and economically disadvantaged homes. The report argues that the current testing and accountability system is contributing to schools failing disadvantaged students. The current system ‘fails because it does not recognise the need for schools to build trust, open up communication and build up their internal capacity to become more intelligent about themselves.’ The current inspection system (OFSTED or ERO) risks subverting and sabotaging the development of the school’s own systems for finding answers to important questions as to what will enable disaffected students to become fully engaged in their own learning? How can we develop the creativity of all students?
The future will require students with more than standards in basic subjects; we will need entrepreneurial and creative individual with identified diverse talents who can find solutions to intractable environmental and social problems, who have the imagination to work with others for the common good and not just selfish ends. In the 2007 New Zealand Curriculum we have a guiding document waiting to be made central by the possibility of a new reforming government in 2014.
The people who will be most valuable in the future are students, who through their personalised educational experiences will have identified their unique set of talents and skills (built on a strong foundation of literacy and numeracy skills) as outlined in the New Zealand Curriculum. The current standards approach is pushing schools in the wrong direction.
A multi –dimensional approach to school review is a way to ‘release a schools intelligence about itself’ – an approach that encourages honesty and openness rather than the anxiety created by an imposed system. As long as people are being judged by external agencies (often by unclear criteria) people will be careful about what they reveal, in contrast those who work in a school will know much more about its strengths and weaknesses. The ‘dipstick’ or ‘tick box’ approach of OFSTED (or ERO) needs to be replaced with a collaborative and negotiated process. Currently schools may collect the data but the ultimate responsibility lies with the external agency.
The trouble with school based review is that it could look like the profession’s attempt to take on the power to decide what happens in the school rather than a way of sharing power with all stakeholders; school based reviews do not promise not enough protection to avoid senior managers subverting the process.
The multi –perspective inspection avoids such distortion. Although staff, parents and students gather the data publish reports and suggest improvement strategies there is still a need for accredited external agencies to work with schools Such external review people ( reformed OFSTED/ERO)  would need to check the process involved in the review has been followed, to check the quality of the inputs, and to ensure the improvement strategies are valid and, if needed, to make suggestions.
Such reviews would create a strong sense of shared ownership in the school and improve relationships between all concerned and create a positive school climate or ethos. This is not to say there would not be healthy debate especially with those who will have to learn to share their power and learn to value others perspectives. It will take real leadership to ensure all involved feel that their voices and concerns are heard, valued and acted upon. It is important that ‘we are interested in what was said, not in who said it. This is important if people are to be completely open in describing their experiences. This applies importantly with students and parents.
The multi-dimensional approach opens up the possibilities of richer conversations about the way young people in particular experience the school. The role of the external agency (reformed OFSTED/ERO) is to keep the space open for those different perspectives to be heard and reflected on. As perspectives are gathered up patterns emerge both where they help to promote learning and where they block it. Such conversations recognise that everybody has some responsibility for what happens. When ideas have been identified plans can be made to try out solutions – involving staff, students and parents as appropriate. With experience schools form cultures where people are continuously identifying issues, tacking problems, and revising approaches. The advantage of this system is that solutions are derived from within rather than being imposed and final report would communicate what is really going on in the school. And the process itself would model to the students the learning skills, the research process, students themselves need to employ grappling with complexity, as they move into adult life. Such research will become part of the daily life of teachers as they try out possible solutions – often in collaboration with their students over such things as behaviour or developing engaging learning challenges.
The validity of this sort of multi – perspective inspection would largely derive from the need to reconcile the perspectives of multiple participants.
Schools could also be encouraged to work together to diagnose sources of problems and devise solutions that are in their mutual interest.
A wider role for a reformed external agency ( OFSTED/ERO) would be to gather information about what schools are doing and synthesising this into reports on what is successful and then to disseminate to schools. Such reports would move away from making judgments to collecting data on innovative and inspiring work that is going on and to providing guidance on what works in particular contexts.
To conclude a multi-perspective school review process has the potential to empower all involved and to ensure all students are given the opportunity to develop positive learning identities, to be given the best opportunities to learn and grow and to release the creative energy of everyone involved in the school community.


Anonymous said...

The report is well worth considering particularly as it seems parents are not rushing to belong to BOTs. It is all about sharing power rather than being agents to to ensure schools comply to a state directed education.

Anonymous said...

Let's hope the Labour/ Green opposition get to read the report. Something postive for them to think about- all about empowering communities

click said...

Good post. I like it. It was interesting to read it. Great thank's author for sharing…