LAST WEEK AT the Irish EU Presidency Conference in Dublin on how better assessment and evaluation in schools can improve teaching and learning, the Chief Inspector for Schools Harold Hislop spoke about the need to increase the number of school inspections. These comments were widely reported and have prompted a debate in relation to teacher and principal oversight. This debate should be welcomed. However, it is also crucial that any review of our school inspection regime draws on the experience of inspection regimes in other jurisdictions and their effectiveness.
Inspections and appraisals
From my own experience as an educator, I would challenge the very notion that increasing inspections and appraisals is necessary to help develop better education standards. When we talk about education, the key focus must be on those who are trying to develop their skills, be they children in schools or adult learners or students in third level institutions. The core arguments must centre on equality and respect.
Recently I visited Finland with the Oireachtas Education and Social Protection Committee to compare the Finnish system with our own, as they have one of the most celebrated education systems in the OECD. Their entire structure is based around two central themes – trust and equality. Indeed it was a Conservative MP Raija Vahasalo who chairs the Finnish Parliament’s Education and Culture Committee who made sure that our Irish delegation understood that equality was fundamental to their education system.
In Finland, those from lower socio-economic backgrounds progress to third level at far higher rates than any other EU country. Their PISA results, based on the literacy standards of 15-year-olds, are excellent and are envied worldwide. Interestingly enough, there are no formal school inspections as teachers are trusted to deliver the curriculum themselves. This concept of trust runs throughout the Finnish education system and starts with all teachers being qualified to master’s level.
Instead of investing in increased school inspections, perhaps we should look at putting equality and trust at the core of our own education system and we should strive to model what our Finnish neighbours have achieved in terms of social progression and educational development. The vast majority of our teachers do their job to the best of their ability and deserve to be trusted. They are dedicated public servants who work hard to help enhance our young people’s educational development.
The reality is that inspections only offer a momentary window into a teacher’s classroom. This is not a panoramic view and may not reflect the experience that children are given by a particular teacher.
Need for balance
While it would be impossible to import the Finnish approach to the Irish context overnight, a balance must be struck between the rights of parents, the needs of students and the confidence the system must show in our teachers and principals. A balance must also be struck between the respect and appreciation that teacher’s deserve and the high standards that must be maintained of teaching and learning in the classroom.
Striking balances as described will not be easy, but no-one should be afraid of the debate. Howard Hislop has started a dialogue around this issue and his comments deserve examination. However, before any radical overhaul is done, we need to have a wider look at the policies of all of our European neighbours. We should be wary of any move towards the UK model which has stripped away at teacher morale and has resulted in more paperwork and less contact time. We should also be extremely wary of any system that leads to mainstreaming of league tables that are of no educational merit and act purely as a journalistic titillation.
What is important is that the policies and procedures of an individual school should be rigorously inspected. One of the successes of the DEIS scheme in disadvantaged schools was that targets such as attendance and literacy standards were set in conjunction with schools and were monitored. That was one of the main reasons why the scheme has proven to work well because schools and school leaders were empowered to get real results.
Any move to change the future direction of our Education system must be informed and must model the standards in best practice applied elsewhere. However no-one should be afraid of this debate.
Aodhán Ó Ríordáin is a TD for Dublin North Central and the Vice Chair of the Joint Committee on Education & Social Protection. Prior to entering politics he worked as a Principal in Dublin’s Sheriff Street. He tweets at @Aodhanoriordain.