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The school development planning process begins with a whole-school review. This involves an assessment of current organisational and curricular realities - the many things that are going well, and those activities that need updating, refinement or revision. If the review is to be something more than an amalgam of the unsubstantiated opinions of the participants it has to be informed by hard facts. These hard facts will be gleaned from the analysis of various kinds of data. There will probably be a significant amount of data available to schools, much of it possibly under-utilised. There will be test results of all kinds, attendance records, teacher observation notes, pupils' journals, profiles and portfolios, copybooks, information pertaining to the school environment, parent and pupil feedback, and WSE reports. In the unlikely event that relevant data does not exist, schools need to acquire the hard facts, so that judgements and decisions can be appropriate and informed.

Writing in 1999, Professor John MacBeath suggested that a five-year-old child is capable of assessing how well he/she is doing by asking three questions:

  • What am I good at?
  • What can I improve?
  • Who can help me?

The same questions will serve a school well in assessing current reality.

There are, however, many realities within the school community. Pupils see the school from the bottom up. Parents mostly see the school through the eyes and experiences of their children. The reality for management will be different. Staff has yet another viewpoint. A more balanced view will emerge if the responses of the members of the school community to the three questions above are amalgamated.

"Looking at our School"

The DES publication " Looking at our School" was issued to schools by the Department of Education and Science as an instrument for school self-evaluation.

Click here to view "Looking at our School" on-line.

Context

The Education Act, 1998 clearly delineates the responsibility of the Minister for Education and Science with regard to quality assurance within the education system generally. Under Section 7(2)(b) of the Act the Minister is required "... to monitor and assess the quality .... and effectiveness of the education system provided in the State by recognised schools and centres for education, ..."

Ireland, along with other European countries, is adopting a model of quality assurance that emphasises internal school review and self-evaluation as part of the school development planning process, with the support of external evaluation by the Inspectorate, which has a responsibility under Section 13(3)(b) of the Act "to evaluate the quality and effectiveness of the provision of education in the State ... and to report thereon to the Minister."

The school's role in quality assurance

The maintenance of the quality of education in individual primary schools is a major aim of education policy in Ireland. Schools themselves have a key role in the task of identifying existing good practice as well as areas for further development.

The centrality of the school's role with regard to evaluation and development is clear from the following statement: "... schools are complex institutions in which change can only come about through internal acceptance by staff and management both of the school's strengths and of the need for action in those areas of activity where further development is desirable."  (Report on the 1998/1999 Pilot Project on Whole School Evaluation, p.49).

In order that primary schools may engage effectively in quality assurance activity, it is necessary that school management and staff have access to instruments and methodologies that will assist them, through internal review, self-evaluation and planning, in achieving those standards of quality to which they aspire. The evaluation themes in "Looking at our School" are designed to provide schools with a basis for evaluating their own performance and for identifying areas for further development.

School context factors and the self-evaluation process

As well as operating in a national context, each primary school works within a very specific local context. Local factors that affect schools include:

  • the size, location and catchment area of the school
  • socio-economic circumstances of the students and community, including local employment availability and patterns
  • pupils' special needs
  • physical, material and human resources available to the school.

These context factors serve as a backdrop for the work of the school, and any self-evaluation by the school should keep them very much to the fore. As well as being important for internal review purposes, school context considerations are also central to the process of school planning.

Structure of the evaluation themes

The document presents a set of themes under which a primary school may undertake a review and self evaluation of its own performance. These themes encompass five broad dimensions, or areas, of the operation of a school, as follows:

  • school management
  • school planning
  • curriculum provision
  • learning and teaching in curriculum areas
  • support for pupils.

Each of these AREAS is divided into a number of ASPECTS, which represent the different activities collectively constituting the area of the school's operation that is to be evaluated. The aspects are further broken down into COMPONENTS for each of which a number of THEMES have been identified as a basis for evaluation.

Using the themes in a self-evaluation context

These evaluation themes should be viewed as a facility for assisting primary school management and staff in the process of making professional judgements regarding the operation of the school. It is acknowledged that, while these evaluation themes are comprehensive, there are other aspects of its functioning that a school may wish to evaluate. In such cases, judgements may be formed on the basis of accepted good practice, or other suitable indicators.

When engaging in a self-evaluation exercise, a primary school may decide to focus on an Area, an Aspect or a Theme of its activity. In making this decision, the school is guided to an appropriate range of evaluation themes that can be used as a guide in judging or measuring its own performance. In order to be in a position to make judgements, the school will gather information in relation to the theme or themes under evaluation. Having engaged in a process of collecting and analysing this information and evidence, the school will then be in a position to make a statement or statements indicating its own performance in the relevant theme, aspect or area of its activity. Cumulatively, such statements will be an invaluable source of information and perspective in subsequent school development planning tasks and in the context of external evaluation.

When considering how a school is performing under any theme, it may be useful to think of a quality continuum consisting of a number of reference points representing stages of development in the improvement process. A commonly used continuum (with variations) consists of four levels:

  • significant strengths (uniformly strong)
  • strengths outweigh weaknesses (more strengths than weaknesses)
  • weaknesses outweigh strengths (more weaknesses than strengths)
  • significant/major weaknesses (uniformly weak).

An acknowledgement by the school of its position on such a continuum in relation to a number of themes will assist in the process of identifying its strengths and those areas of its operation where it considers further development and improvement is necessary.

Principles of equality

In accordance with the Education Act, 1998, it is the policy of the Department of Education and Science to promote and support principles of equality, including gender equality, in primary education. Under Section 9(e) of the Act a school is required to "promote equality of opportunity for both male and female students and staff of the school."

The school evaluation themes in the document reflect principles of equality in education and will be of assistance to primary schools in ensuring that school policies and practices meet equality requirements. The themes will therefore be of assistance in the planning, implementation and monitoring of progress on equality issues throughout the school.

Conclusion

It is intended that the evaluation themes will be continually updated to reflect changes in primary schools and in the education system generally. In this way they will continue to be of assistance and relevance to schools in their internal review and self-evaluation activities as part of the school development planning process

 

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