Do school inspections have any impact?

Inspections do make a difference, says Melanie Ehren, but the process is more complex than we might think.

Male official with clipboardResearch suggests that inspection feedback is not a simple or direct driving element for school development, even though many Inspectorates of Education rely on feedback from inspections to motivate school improvement.

Instead, the recent outcomes of a large-scale EU-backed research project indicate that school inspections have an impact through more complex processes of setting and communicating clear expectations, norms and standards to schools and their stakeholders. The creation and maintenance of this context for inspection should be a key task for all inspectorates. This means in turn that many inspectorates need to look for alternative theories and practices to elaborate their operation and impact on schools.

A European study that I coordinated generated new insights into the mechanisms and impact of school inspections on school improvement in six European countries. Two years of survey data from 2,200 principals in primary and secondary education indicate that clear inspection expectations and stakeholder pressure are strong determinants of improvement actions. Principals and schools feel pressure to respond to these prompts.

Interestingly, both of these variables – inspection expectations and stakeholder pressure – are significantly related to the promotion and improvement of self-evaluation. This indicates that schools which are improving successfully see systematic self-evaluation as a vital development strategy. Our results also indicate that clear inspection expectations, communicated through inspection feedback and inspection frameworks, also affect other improvement actions for capacity building directly, particularly the involvement of teachers in collaborative planning in the school and other cooperative staff activities.

But intriguingly, the idea that expectations of inspection might have a negative impact is also borne out by this research. We found clear indications that new approaches to teaching and experimentation with the curriculum may be hindered by concerns that such innovation could distract teachers from the efforts needed to meet the standards required by inspectors. In addition, performance feedback provided during inspection visits turned out not to be a powerful mechanism for driving school-level improvement.

The results of this study suggest that inspection does result in significant impact on schools where clear expectations, norms and standards are set, and where stakeholders are knowledgeable about, and engaged with, the process. The creation and maintenance of this context for inspection is therefore a key task for all inspectorates.

Melanie Ehren is senior lecturer at the Institute of Education in London, based in the London Centre for Leadership in Learning.

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