The carrot or the stick? School inspection vs quality assurance

| November 12, 2015 | 0 Comments

By Sandile Ndaba

This article explores the often-posited dichotomy between school inspection and quality assurance.

It begins with a cursory look at school inspection and quality assurance respectively. It then goes on to discuss quality assurance for public and independent schools in South Africa and examines the Council for Quality Assurance in General and Further Education and Training’s (Umalusi) quality assurance system. It ends by considering an alternative quality assurance approach for independent schools.

How to scrutinise schools

Governments, education experts and the public in general all agree that it is important for schools and the work they do to be put under some form of scrutiny or the other. How this is done was not in dispute for the better part of the 19th and 20th centuries. However, in recent years, the supervision of schools has generated a lot of debate and controversy. In the last two to three decades, the debate has centred on what the most effective form of school supervision should be.

School supervision arrangements serve two purposes: keeping schools accountable and helping them to improve. The extent to which traditional school supervision has been successful in achieving school improvement has come under fierce debate.

Research on the supervision of independent schools is very sparse, suggesting that governments in the past have tended to leave independent schools alone. However, in recent times, countries where governments provide funding for independent schools, such as Australia, have begun to subject independent schools to similar supervision arrangements as public schools.

Literature on the issue of school supervision all points to evaluation as the appropriate process for establishing whether schools perform the respective functions they set out to achieve.However, there is general disagreement about the form this evaluation should take.

The traditional inspection model, with external summative evaluation as its dominant approach, has come under heavy criticism in the last two or three decades, leading to the development of other models of school evaluation. The alternative evaluation models have emerged under the banner of quality assurance, whose dominant approach is internal self- evaluation/review.

The discourse on school supervision places inspection and quality assurance on opposite ends of the spectrum, thus creating a dichotomy between the two. While there is a distinct difference between the two, both in terms of approach and outcomes, I believe the dichotomy that has been created between them is a false one.

Inspection

The first recorded development of formal school inspection is attributed to England in 1839. Interestingly, this change took its cue from industry, where new legislation created an inspectorate for factories.

For several decades, school inspection was based on the connoisseur model. There were no formal criteria or guidelines. Inspectors relied on their knowledge, expertise, experience and general personal wisdom. The approach was top-down and judgemental.

In the 1970s and 1980s, school inspection became more streamlined. Clear and transparent criteria and guidelines were drawn up. With that came a rigid and cumbersome system, with strict processes and procedures.

School inspection has evolved since the early 1990s. There were two significant developments: the first was the introduction of self-evaluation as part of the process of external evaluation. The second was the addition of school improvement planning as a product of the external evaluation exercise.
School inspection has, therefore, evolved over time. However, the basic purpose and approach remain the same to this day.

Quality assurance

Quality assurance is a relatively new kid on the block. It emerged in the mid- to late 1980s, following on the advent of quality assurance (as opposed to quality control) in industry. When applied to school supervision, quality assurance signalled the most credible challenge to traditional inspection as an alternative form of external evaluation.

Quality assurance was hailed as a complete departure from traditional school inspection practices, both philosophically and in terms of its methodology. It was meant to be democratic, collaborative, school-driven, use clear criteria and key quality indicators, and focused on improvement rather than accountability.

Viewed in this way, quality assurance gained immediate intellectual appeal and was adopted by many education systems in the world. School inspection units within departments of education soon changed to quality assurance units. However, when one scratches below the surface and examines some of the school quality assurance processes closely, they look suspiciously like the good old school inspection.

School supervision in South Africa

In South Africa, there are
different school supervision
requirements and systems
for public and independent
schools. This is incongruent
with developments in other
countries. The rest of the
world expends maximum
resources, effort and energy
into developing viable quality assurance systems
for public schooling. In our country, the reverse is true. Supervision for public schools is negligible at best and, at worst, non-existent. For independent schools, though, it is staggering! Let us briefly explore each of the two.

Quality assurance of public schools

The mandate given to the Council for Quality Assurance in General and Further Education and Training (Umalusi) in the South African General and Further Education and Training Quality Assurance (GENFETQA) Act of 2001 to quality assure the public school sector was, in reality, stillborn, because it was never exercised and was eventually removed from Umalusi in the 2008 amendments to its founding Act. The removal of this mandate left the quality assurance units within the provincial education departments (PEDs) using a whole school evaluation approach, as the only quality assurance ‘agencies’ for public schools. Their efforts have never gone to scale, and their attempts to establish themselves as credible quality assurance agents have produced modest results. Enter the National Education Evaluation and Development Unit (NEEDU).

The brief given to the Ministerial Committee, established in 2008 under esteemed South African education analyst Jonathan Jansen, was to investigate the establishment of a quality assurance body for the public school sector. When the National Alliance of Independent Schools Associations (NAISA) requested the minister to allocate it (as the representative body for the independent school sector) a seat on the committee so that it could contribute its experience of quality assurance to the committee’s deliberations, she declined on the grounds that its brief was restricted to the public school sector only.

However, in its final report (2009), NAISA discovered that, at the eleventh hour, the committee had added independent schools to the mandate of a proposed NEEDU for public schools, largely as a result of pressure from the teacher unions. As this was a last-minute addition, the report provides no content as to how NEEDU would carry out its mandate in the case of independent schools.

The quality assurance discourse relating to public schools

Since 1996, the quality assurance discourse in South Africa has been dominated by dysfunctional, poor-quality township or rural public schools as its focal point, because of the significant negative impact of these schools on the government’s drive for equality of education provision, better pupil achievement and high-level skills development. The legacy of apartheid and its stark inequalities of education provision, coupled with the huge influence of the unions, produced a developmental approach to quality assurance in public schools. This prioritises development and support over accountability and evaluation. The very first report on NEEDU’s evaluation of 100 schools, published in September 2011, clearly indicates this bias towards the problem of dysfunctional, poor-quality public schools. NEEDU used the systemic evaluation approach (using tests at key stages of the primary schooling phase) as a means of testing the quality of primary schooling, ostensibly with a view to improving its performance. The publication of the last report was mired in controversy, and NEEDU seems, for all intents and purposes, to have ground to a halt.

This leaves the modest efforts of the quality assurance units within PEDs as the only school supervision effort for public education.

Quality assurance of independent schools

By contrast with the public school discourse, the initial discourse over the quality assurance of independent schools was driven by the determination of the democratic government to prevent independent schools being used to ‘buy’ apartheid in racially exclusive schools. This led to a ‘policing’ approach to independent schools. For this reason, ‘accreditation’ – meaning the conferring of formal authority to operate and provide education programmes – was the term used in the original GENFETQA Act 58 of 2001, where the mandate to quality assure independent schools was given to Umalusi.

Still a ‘policing’ approach

The ‘policing’ approach prioritises compliance with legislation and policies, rather than evaluation using key quality indicators, as a measure of education quality. However, there was promise of a change in the original ‘policing’ approach in the 2008 amendments to the GENFETQA Act: ‘accreditation’ was substituted with ‘quality assurance’ as the new mandate of Umalusi. In its 2012 Policy and Criteria for the Quality Assurance, Accreditation and Monitoring of Independent Schools and Assessment Bodies, it also appeared as if Umalusi was moving towards key quality indicators as the focus of independent schools’ evaluation, rather than mere compliance monitoring.

This paper argues that this promise is not fulfilled in the current quality assurance arrangements for independent schools,as implemented by Umalusi. The policy talks, rather hesitantly and haltingly, like quality assurance, but walks like traditional school inspection. This is because:

1. It is parochial. It is limited to the National Senior
Certificate, its curriculum and examinations. It is confined to independent schools that follow the national curriculum. It focuses on how the national curriculum is implemented and how the school performs in the national examination. It is not capable of evaluating schools that use alternative curricula and examinations. Furthermore, it cannot deal with independent schools that implement the national curriculum by adapting it to their own philosophy of education. In short, it fails to deal with the very essence of independent schools: diversity.

2. It is authoritarian. There is no agency on the part of the school. The entire process, from start to finish, is driven by Umalusi. The ‘evaluator’ is the ultimate expert. The teachers and the principal are disempowered.

3. It is compliance-driven. Every single step in the process requires reams of evidence to show that the school complies with qualification, curriculum, assessment and examination, as well as all the other legislative requirements. Evaluators tick boxes to verify that the school has all the policies in place.

4. It is judgemental. The evaluation process focuses and highlights areas of compliance/non-compliance. The decision to accredit or not to accredit is based largely on this.

5. It is bureaucratic, complex, cumbersome and slow.

This quality assurance model is inappropriate for the
independent schooling sector because it is rigid, recognises only the National Senior Certificate as the only legitimate qualification, the National Curriculum Statement as the only acceptable curriculum and the National Senior Certificate examination as the only recognised examination. It thus fails to recognise the diversity of the independent schooling sector in South Africa. It therefore interferes with the independent schools’ right to pursue a legitimate democratic objective: the right to choose the type of education in line with their respective philosophical, religious, cultural or other persuasion.

So, what is the alternative?

External evaluation fulfils the need at centralised level to control schools. It attempts to ensure that quality education is provided, that schools use resources efficiently and that they comply with government requirements. It is largely driven by the need for accountability.

Internal evaluation is underpinned by a different rationale. While it also has an accountability purpose, its primary impulse is developmental. It is an intrinsic feature of effective schools and professional practice, but acquires an extra urgency from decentralisation.

From a policy perspective, it is viewed as a mechanism for empowering schools to improve quality from within, helping them to monitor their progress and to report accurately to their external constituencies.

From a school perspective, self-evaluation has a more

as implemented by Umalusi. The policy talks, rather hesitantly and haltingly, like quality assurance, but walks like traditional school inspection. This is because:

1. It is parochial. It is limited to the National Senior Certificate, its curriculum and examinations. It is confined to independent schools that follow the national curriculum. It focuses on how the national curriculum is implemented and how the school performs in the national examination. It is not capable of evaluating schools that use alternative curricula and examinations. Furthermore, it cannot deal with independent schools that implement the national curriculum by adapting it to their own philosophy of education. In short, it fails to deal with the very essence of independent schools: diversity.

2. It is authoritarian. There is no agency on the part of the school. The entire process, from start to finish, is driven by Umalusi. The ‘evaluator’ is the ultimate expert. The teachers and the principal are disempowered.

3. It is compliance-driven. Every single step in the process requires reams of evidence to show that the school complies with qualification, curriculum, assessment and examination, as well as all the other legislative requirements. Evaluators tick boxes to verify that the school has all the policies in place.

4. It is judgemental. The evaluation process focuses and highlights areas of compliance/non-compliance. The decision to accredit or not to accredit is based largely on this.

5. It is bureaucratic, complex, cumbersome and slow.

This quality assurance model is inappropriate for the independent schooling sector because it is rigid, recognises only the National Senior Certificate as the only legitimate qualification, the National Curriculum Statement as the only acceptable curriculum and the National Senior Certificate examination as the only recognised examination. It thus fails to recognise the diversity of the independent schooling sector in immediate purpose. Dialogue is focused more on the internal stakeholders and their contribution to school improvement.
This paper strongly argues that a marriage between external and internal evaluation is the solution. Internal evaluation should take centre stage in a quality assurance system that seeks to evaluate quality in a way that enhances the capacity of schools and teachers.

Independent school associations affiliated to the National Alliance of Independent School Associations (NAISA) have developed a quality assurance agency – the Independent Quality Assurance Agency (IQAA) – based on internal evaluation.

The model used by IQAA is a self-evaluation by the school, according to key quality criteria in the evaluation instrument, called ‘School in a Mirror’. It is supplemented by questionnaires that are sent to parents, learners and teachers, and is then analysed by IQAA. The process is monitored and assisted by an external mentor, who testifies to the rigour of the process.

To conclude:

Inspection is not monolithic. It has evolved over time. However, the philosophy, approach, processes and procedures remain the same.

The rhetoric that accompanies talk about quality assurance sometimes masks conservative quality assurance tendencies.

Quality assurance arrangements in the South African education system exhibit a schizophrenic tendency, with independent schools subjected to quality assurance while public schools are not.

Umalusi is a glorified inspectorate with a quality assurance system that does not suit the independent schooling sector.

An alternative quality assurance system that marries external evaluation with internal evaluation and puts internal self-evaluation at the centre of the quality assurance process is the most appropriate for independent schools.

Category: Summer 2015

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