The purpose of this research was to identify and analyse the ways in which school inspections in the Netherlands impact on the work of schools. We were particularly interested to test whether the Dutch school inspections have an effect on school improvement through the expectations they set on good education and/or through the feedback they provide to schools. These assumptions were tested by means of a survey to principals and teachers in primary and secondary schools; the survey was administered to the same sample of schools for two years in a row.
The results of our study particularly support the mechanism of ‘setting expectations’ as an important driver for school improvement from school inspections. School inspections that set expectations about good education through the inspection standards particularly impact schools’ efforts to implement self evaluations and impact on the changes they make in the capacity of the school to improve (e.g. transformational leadership, cooperation between teachers and participation of teachers in decision-making). Changes in self evaluation subsequently lead to improvement of capacity building, which lead to improvements in the effective school conditions. Schools that incorporate the inspection standards in their daily functioning also report acceptance of inspection feedback to a larger degree. Our results also indicate that schools with stakeholders (e.g. parents, school boards) who are sensitive to inspection findings report on more changes in self evaluations of their school, and also report that they accept inspection feedback more.
Accepting feedback in itself however does not seem to be a key variable in the impact of school inspections. Schools report that they receive and accept feedback, but this only leads to some changes in the quality of the school. Schools that accept feedback seem to do so as a result of ‘setting expectations’ or ‘stakeholder pressure’. Also, the amount of feedback does not have an impact on the extent to which schools accept feedback. This suggests that schools who accept inspection feedback in a setting without these two conditions primarily change conditions of school effectiveness (e.g. use of student assessment data to monitor schools, opportunity to learn, structured teaching), but do not improve their self-evaluations or capacity to improve.
These results are somewhat different for principals versus teachers, and primary versus secondary schools. Principals reported higher responses on the improvements in self-evaluations compared to teachers, and respondents from primary schools reported higher responses on accepting feedback and improvements in self evaluations than respondents from secondary schools.
We also measured unintended consequences of school inspections, such as gaming, window dressing, teaching to inspection and teaching to the test. Overall, principals and teachers reported few unintended consequences. Where there are unintended consequences, these are surprisingly related to the same variables and mechanisms that explain effects of school inspections. Setting expectations, accepting feedback and stakeholders’ sensitivity not only lead to school improvement, but also to a narrowing of teaching methods and a refocusing of curriculum and teaching strategies. Schools that indicate high levels on these three variables also seem to ‘game’ the inspection measures to a larger degree; they particularly indicate that they have sent documents to the Inspectorate that present a more positive picture of the quality of the school, and to have put protocols and procedures in place specifically for the inspection visit. Our results indicate that setting expectations, accepting feedback and stakeholders’ sensitivity are connected in some way in driving unintended consequences in schools.