by Claire Shewbridge,
As in many European systems, Flemish schools are very used to school inspectors knocking on their doors. Schools have to let them in, as such external evaluation is a requirement. The inspectors make a “recommendation” to the Flemish authorities on whether or not the school should continue to be able to award official certificates and to benefit from public funding.
This led to another change in inspection style in 2009. Inspectors now focus their attention on those schools that need this most and on areas that are most relevant within a particular school. This is known as the “differentiated approach”. Each Flemish school will be inspected at least once every ten years, but some may be inspected more often depending on how inspectors judge their quality. For example, some schools may receive a “restricted positive recommendation”, meaning that they can continue to award official certificates and receive public funding, under the condition that they address certain quality concerns identified by the inspectors. Such schools are given an agreed amount of time to improve and inspectors come back to check on their progress and re-evaluate the case. So, if all is well at the school, the inspectors will be knocking at the door less often!
At the same time, the Flemish authorities decreed that schools are legally responsible for providing quality education. Although the decree does not specify that schools must conduct self-evaluation, the hope is that the schools will take up the self-evaluation challenge in assuring their quality.
As part of the OECD Review on Evaluation and Assessment Frameworks for Improving School Outcomes, the Flemish Ministry of Education and Training asked the OECD to come knock on a few doors. A new OECD report shows the results of this exercise. We were delighted to be joined in our expedition by Marian Hulshof from the research arm of the Dutch Inspectorate and Louise Stoll, a school improvement specialist. During an enriching eight days in Brussels, Antwerp, Vilvoorde and Sint-Niklaas, school leaders, teachers, students, parents, educational networks and their pedagogical support teams, public officials and hot chocolate cafés, all opened their doors to us. We enjoyed frank and open discussions as we investigated:
- In between inspections, how do inspectors know that all is well at a particular school?
- How do inspectors judge school performance on each area of the inspection framework?
- Are all schools ready to take up the evaluation challenge?
- Are the right tools available to schools to conduct high quality self-evaluations?
- Do school leaders and teachers know how to interpret self-evaluation results and what to do about them?
- How do schools know whether they are improving?
- Are there opportunities for schools to learn from other schools?
Our favourite question, put to all was: “What is a good quality school?”. There has been a reluctance within the Flemish Community to define “quality”. As it stands, an important proxy for school quality is the inspectors’ judgement on whether or not schools ensure students demonstrate an agreed minimum level of knowledge and skills at the end of primary school and at different stages of secondary education (the Flemish attainment targets).
As in any evaluation exercise, the discussions challenged some of our assumptions and we hope that we also challenged others’ assumptions.
Inspection results and evidence from the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment indicate that in general the Flemish Community of Belgium can be proud of the quality of education provided by its schools. But there are some worrying inequities and the Flemish authorities, via the Policy on Equal Educational Opportunities, have called on the Flemish Community to take up the challenge to reduce the strong influence of socio-economic factors on student learning and outcomes. This has also been a vehicle for stimulating collaboration among schools and some self-evaluation activities.
In going forward, schools have been given the star role in assuring their quality. The OECD review team discovered pockets of excellent examples of self-evaluation activities for improvement, both within schools and a few pioneers of critical friendship among schools. However, many schools have yet to take up this challenge fully and require further stimulation and support. In striving for continuous improvement throughout the Flemish Community, school self-evaluation activities will be fundamental to creating the professional learning community, where collaborative enquiry and use of data for whole-school improvement is the norm. The Inspectorate can help here with clearer communication of its inspection framework and sharing existing information on a regular basis with schools. School Evaluation in the Flemish Community of Belgium (OECD, 2011) provides many other ideas for the authorities, schools and other stakeholders in how to build on existing school evaluation activities. Schools are at the heart of this process, and the quality of teaching and learning should be at the heart of all school evaluation activities. The OECD review team identified the following priorities in making school evaluation fit for continuous improvement:
- Clarify the goals of school evaluation and how different types of evaluation fit together
- Continue to invest in school leader and teacher capacity to conduct evaluation and use its results for improvement
- Increase the objectivity of evaluation procedures and ensure they promote improvement and excellence
- Increase the use of information (collected by schools and the Flemish authorities) for both internal and external school evaluation
With collective commitment to working on the above priorities, we have no doubt that our Flemish friends will be well on their way to becoming the “Flemish Professional Learning Community” of Belgium.
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Photo: OECD Flanders Review team
from left to right Louise Stoll; Deborah Nusche; Claire Shewbridge; Marian Hulshof
Photo credit: Louise Stoll