This article examines the evolution of school self-evaluation (SSE) in Ireland. It charts the earlier policy developments and publications that were precursors to the formal SSE process, which was introduced in 2012 and which leads to improvement-focused planning and changes in teaching and learning. It also examines how the process is now supported as a way of working in schools.
School self-evaluation (SSE) is a collaborative, whole-school process of internal review and reflection. It is an important quality-assurance mechanism in educational systems (OECD, 2013) that can sit alongside external evaluation, with each complementing the other in contributing to school improvement. Through self-evaluation, schools can shape their own improvement agenda by identifying priority areas for development and by planning for improvement in a way that takes account of their particular school context. SSE requires school leaders and teachers to develop their own internal processes of critical self-reflection (Nelson et al., 2015).
A consistent theme in the research on school improvement and evaluation is that external inspection and effective internal evaluation are important processes in enhancing the quality of teaching and learning in schools (Hislop, 2017). Since 2012, there have been significant efforts in Ireland to establish and support a formal system of SSE in primary and post-primary schools.
The Inspectorate of the Department of Education and Skills (DES) has sought to develop internal self-evaluation in schools as part of a larger reform of the approach to quality-assuring schools, early-years settings, and centres for education. The Inspectorate reviewed its approaches to inspection to ensure that inspection models were responsive to school and system need. Underpinning that reformed approach was a recognition of the complementary nature of external inspection and school self-evaluation.
Between 2000 and 2010 school inspection in Ireland developed significantly to become a collaborative, co-professional process that seeks to balance the need for public accountability and external quality assurance, with a clear emphasis on encouraging ongoing school improvement (Hislop, 2017). Establishing self-evaluation in Irish schools was identified as a key action in the Department of Education and Skills’ 2011–2014 Strategic Plan, and in Our Purpose, Our Plan, 2011–13, the Inspectorate’s strategic plan. This resulted in the formal introduction of school self-evaluation in 2012.
Self-evaluation was not an entirely new concept in Irish schools in 2012. There had been a trajectory towards this way of working over the previous decade or more. The Education Act 1998 and the partnership agreements of the early 2000s required schools in Ireland to take responsibility for internal review and improvement through School Development Planning (SDP) (Mathews, 2010). Section 21 of the Education Act 1998 placed a duty on schools to create, implement, and regularly review a whole-school plan in consultation with stakeholders. The DES issued guidelines to schools (DES, 1999) to support SDP, and support services dedicated to SDP were established.
SDP was designed to have a clear action-planning cycle, and over time it became a customary way of working in most Irish schools. An analysis of whole-school planning (DES, 2006) concluded that schools had become familiar with the whole-school planning process and recognised its benefits. However, its impact on classroom practice and on continuous whole-school improvement was a matter that required further development.
A key aspect was the requirement for participating schools to engage in self-reflective, evidence-based planning that resulted in an improvement plan for each school.
In 2003, the DES published ‘Looking at Our School: An aid to self-evaluation in primary/second-level schools’. These documents were designed to complement SDP and to support schools to engage in self-review. They were developed as a result of Ireland’s participation in an international project called Effective School Self-Evaluation (ESSE) by the Standing International Conference of Inspectorates (SICI, 2003). The documents clearly set out a vision for SSE as an essential component of school improvement. Five evaluation themes, reflected in the Inspectorate’s emerging Whole-School Evaluation (WSE) model of external inspection, were identified, and a four-point quality continuum was provided to support schools to rate their practice. However, uptake of this approach to SSE by primary and post-primary schools was limited.
A related and important step in the SSE journey occurred in the context of a DES initiative to support learners in schools located in areas of socio-economic disadvantage. ‘Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools (DEIS): An Action Plan for Educational Inclusion’ was launched in May 2005. A key aspect of the plan was the requirement for participating schools to engage in self-reflective, evidence-based planning that resulted in an improvement plan for each school. Planning was required under specific themes, including pupil attendance, retention of learners and their progression to the next level of education, literacy and numeracy standards, and the school’s work with parents and others. An Inspectorate evaluation of the implementation of DEIS action planning in a sample of the participating schools (DES, 2011c) pointed to how such planning could most effectively impact on learning and teaching.
In preparation for the formal introduction of SSE in 2012, the Inspectorate established a research project with a number of pilot schools, informed by Inspectorate and international research. The project and feedback from the participant schools shaped the development of a six-step SSE process, the expectations at system level, and the development of supporting materials. During this development phase, there was significant consultation and discussion with stakeholders, including management bodies, principal representative organisations, teacher unions, and parent bodies.
The establishment of SSE as a way of working was underpinned by key commitments in the strategy statements of the Inspectorate (Inspectorate of the DES, 2011) and the DES (DES, 2011a). A suite of supports was published by the DES to help schools engage with SSE, and to build self-evaluation capacity and skills among school leaders and teachers. Efforts were made to ensure that SSE did not become overly focused on school compliance with regulations and circulars. All supports focused on developing capacity by empowering school leaders and teachers to engage with the process.
Circulars 0039/2012 (primary) and 0040/2012 (post-primary) were published by the Department in 2012 as SSE was being introduced into the system. The circulars set expectations for all schools to engage in self-evaluation in three areas between 2012 and 2016. In light of the publication of ‘Literacy and Numeracy for Learning and Life’ (DES, 2011b) and the national drive to raise literacy and numeracy standards, all schools were asked to carry out SSE in literacy and numeracy at a whole-school level over the four-year period, as well as in one other subject or aspect of teaching and learning which schools themselves could select based on their own needs. Two further circulars, 0039/2016 (primary) and 0040/2016 (post-primary), were issued to guide schools for the second SSE cycle from 2016 to 2020. These provided greater flexibility for schools to identify areas of focus and to shape their own improvement agenda.
A significant support for SSE was the publication of ‘Looking at Our School 2016: A Quality Framework for Primary/Post-Primary Schools’.
To complement each set of circulars, School Self-Evaluation Guidelines for primary and post-primary schools were published and provided to all schools (DES, 2012a, 2012b, 2016e, 2016f). Designed to help schools navigate the six-step SSE, they suggested methods of evidence-gathering and provided templates for SSE reports and school improvement plans. The 2016 Guidelines benefited from the experiences of schools and teachers in the first SSE cycle and from feedback from a National School Self-Evaluation Advisory Group that comprised representatives of the educational partners, including management bodies, teacher unions, and principal and parent representative groups.
The 2012 Guidelines presented a quality framework for teaching and learning and provided the first published set of standards for this dimension of the work of Irish schools. It drew on research on school effectiveness, quality, and improvement, and provided quality statements at the level of significant strengths. The Guidelines suggested that schools might use the framework to make judgements about their evidence and to help identify strengths and areas for improvement. By 2015, high percentages of schools reported their engagement with self-evaluation (Hislop, 2017).
A significant support for SSE was introduced at the start of the second SSE cycle. This was the publication of ‘Looking at Our School 2016: A Quality Framework for Primary/Post-Primary Schools’ (LAOS). This quality framework provides standards on two key dimensions of a school’s work: teaching and learning, and leadership and management. It gives a clear picture of what good or very good practices in a school look like, as each standard is exemplified at two levels through statements of effective practice and highly effective practice. It is designed to provide a common language for the system to discuss quality. As well as supporting school self-evaluation, LAOS is used by inspectors in all models of inspection to consider quality and make evaluation judgements.
Another important dimension in the evolution of SSE in the school system was the advisory supports provided for schools and school leaders. The Inspectorate established a dedicated website, www.schoolself-evaluation.ie, and a social media presence for SSE. Resources including videos and webinars, together with examples of good practice, were developed in response to the emerging needs of schools.
One resource, an e-zine called SSE Updates, has been published twice a year since 2012. The Inspectorate held a national conference on SSE in 2015, and facilitated a successful annual programme of regional seminars in education centres for school leaders. The Professional Development Service for Teachers (PDST) also provided valuable support for implementing SSE through its seminars for school principals and its support to individual schools.
SSE has a dedicated website, a social media presence, and resources including videos and webinars, along with examples of good practice.
Another important support was, and continues to be, the SSE advisory visits by the Inspectorate. These involve an inspector visiting the school at a pre-arranged time to work with the principal and other staff members to discuss the school’s progress with SSE. An advisory, problem-solving approach is applied to help schools get the most from their six-step process. Between 2012 and early 2014, all primary and post-primary schools were visited. Since that initial programme, it is open to schools to request a visit, and many do so each year. Common areas that schools focus on during these visits include: using LAOS to support SSE, gathering of evidence, target-setting, and monitoring and reviewing school improvement targets and actions.
Towards the end of the introductory cycle in 2016, there was evidence that the six-step SSE was beginning to be a feature of life in Irish schools. Its implementation in primary schools in 2016/17 was impeded by industrial action, which was not connected to any objection to SSE but was taken in pursuit of restoring middle-management posts in primary schools (Hislop, 2017).
The six-step SSE has started to become the recognised improvement and change-management process in the Irish school system. DEIS schools were supported to use SSE to engage in their improvement planning. The potential of SSE to support change at school level was also highlighted in curriculum implementation circulars such as those concerning the Primary Language Curriculum and Junior Cycle. The application of SSE to curriculum change has also been exemplified in resources in the SSE Updates and the SSE website and has been a focus at regional Inspectorate SSE seminars and at CPD events provided by the support services.
Consistent support and messaging have been provided to the system on how to use SSE to address areas that schools have identified as priorities. For example, improving digital learning is a priority for many schools as a result of the Digital Strategy for Schools 2015–2020. The resources provided to schools, including the Digital Learning Framework (DES, 2017a, 2017b) and the planning materials for digital learning, have been closely aligned with LAOS and the six-step SSE. Resources are also being developed to help schools undertake SSE in the STEM areas and in a range of subject and curriculum areas at both primary and post-primary levels.
SSE in Irish schools is entering its eighth school year and evidence from inspection and advisory work suggests that good progress is being made.
A small number of schools are also engaged in other improvement initiatives that involve SSE, such as the School Excellence Fund and the Step-Up Project. Schools participating in the School Excellence Fund work in clusters with other local schools and early-years settings to identify innovative solutions to issues that are specific to their contexts. The focus of participating clusters includes DEIS, STEM, digital learning, and creativity. The Step-Up Project supports post-primary schools to use SSE to improve aspects of the implementation of the framework for Junior Cycle in the subject areas of English, Business Studies, and Science. Participating schools in both initiatives have received tailored advisory visits from inspectors and intensive CPD support.
At the time of writing, SSE in Irish schools is entering its eighth school year. Evidence from inspection and advisory work suggests that good progress is being made towards achieving the goal of a robust, system-wide process of school self-evaluation. Many schools have cultivated positive cultures and highly reflective processes, although there is still much work to be done to fully embed SSE in the work of schools (Hislop, 2017).
The education partners have supported the introduction of school self-evaluation and have provided valuable suggestions at each step of the journey. The work of school leaders has also been important; the more skilled the leadership of a school, the more likely it is that its SSE practices will be effective in bringing about school improvement.
From the outset, it was recognised that establishing a rich culture of self-evaluation in all Irish schools was a long-term goal. There is a positive energy and momentum behind SSE across the system. The next few years hold the potential to further develop and embed the process and to ensure a strong reflective culture in all of our schools.
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