Schools and teachers in Ireland have a long history of being evaluated by a centralised inspectorate, a division of the Department of Education and Skills (DES). The inspectorate in Ireland has a statutory quality assurance obligation in relation to education provision, as set out in section 13 of the Education Act (1998). Inspection is however perceived as one part only of a range of quality assurance measures in the education system. The range of approaches to quality assurance employed in the Irish education system include: promotion of school self-evaluation; extensive support for school development planning; teacher in-career development and support in the context of curriculum change; school-designed assessment and reporting to parents; use of standardised assessment and state certificate examinations; external evaluation of schools by the inspectorate; programme evaluations focusing on aspects of curriculum provision and system evaluation through international surveys of attainment.
The functions of school inspections are described broadly as the evaluation of the education system and the provision of advice to the education system and to policy makers. Three main objectives are identified: contributing to evaluation, to development and to the support of the education system.
Inspections of schools
The inspectorate conducts a range of external evaluations. Among these are: whole school evaluation, subject inspections at post-primary level, individual inspection of probationary teachers at primary level, thematic evaluations and focused inspections.
Inspections are expected to complement internal continuous improvement activity in schools. It is designed: to facilitate full participation of the whole-school community in the process; to contribute to school development; to ensure school and system accountability; to enable teachers and schools to use the evaluation criteria for school self-review and improvement; and to contribute to system improvement.
Schools are required in theory to gather evidence and then make judgments about their own performance on a four-part rating scale in respect to each theme. This process of self-evaluation then informs the work of a visiting team of inspectors that carries out ‘whole school evaluations’ (WSE) at unspecified intervals, usually not more than once every 5 years. The LAOS system was first implemented in 2004 and as of early 2011 the vast majority of post primary schools have been evaluated under this framework.
A team of inspectors conducts the evaluation and the process involves meetings with management, parents, the principal and teams of teachers. In post-primary schools, interviews are also held with students. Inspectors visit classrooms and observe teaching and learning, interacting with students where appropriate and examining student work, including written assignments and portfolios. Evidence schedules are completed and judgements are made that form the basis of the evaluation report. Although the evidence base includes measures of attainment such as those provided through the use of standardised test results in literacy and numeracy at primary level and state examinations at post-primary level, such evidence, which could be used to create league tables, is not included in the final reports.
The items which schools are invited to self-evaluate and which will be investigated in the course of inspection are: The effectiveness of governance, leadership and management, The Relationship between staff and management (principal), Effectiveness of board / Role of Board, Quality of education provided (curriculum and teaching), The quality of the pupils’ achievements and their learning, attitudes and basic skills, Relationships with Third Parties
Reports have been published on the Department of Education and Science website. As part of the publication process, school staff, management and parents’ associations are informed in advance that the report will be published and management has the right to respond in writing to the report in advance of publication. The purpose of the school response is to allow schools to make observations on the content of the report and to set out how the report will be used in the context of the school’s ongoing programme of self-evaluation, planning and improvement. This development provides a first step in encouraging schools to use the findings of the evaluation for school improvement.
Studying school inspections in Ireland
The project runs for a total of three years (January 2011-December 2013); each year from September to November, principals in all the 3210 primary schools and 729 secondary schools in Ireland are asked to participate in an online survey, measuring the changes they implement as a result of school inspections. The results will be analysed using a time series design, in which the timing of the inspection visit in the three years of data collection is taken into account.