Tuesday 19 June 2018

Parents need to read between the lines of school inspection reports

Education Minister Richard Bruton. Photo: Colin Keegan / Collins Dublin
Education Minister Richard Bruton. Photo: Colin Keegan / Collins Dublin
Katherine Donnelly

Katherine Donnelly

A lot of boxes have to be ticked if Ireland wants to deliver on Education Minister Richard Bruton's ambition to have the best education system in Europe within a decade.

At its most fundamental is delivering the highest standards in primary and post-primary schools, where children spend up to 14 of their formative years. Research tells us that the better their experience of the system, the longer they will stay in it.

What happens in school, from the earliest ages, is crucial to shaping a child's future.

It is not only about acquiring subject knowledge, but building confidence and esteem, and developing citizenship skills.

Schools play an important role in smoothing out different levels of disadvantage that children may bring into the classroom, such as a deprived socio-economic background or special need that requires them to have additional support.

It takes resources, such as funding for day-to-day running costs, a considered curriculum, a supply of well-trained teachers working under the stewardship of good principals and boards of management. It also needs a system of checks and balances to ensure everything is working, and if it is not, to take the necessary action.

School inspection reports offer an invaluable bird's-eye view of what is happening on the ground. Among recent improvements is a breakdown of the language used to enable them to be better understood.

There was a time the inspection reports were kept under wraps, but, since 2006, they have been publicly available on the Department of Education website. They are essential reading for parents with a child at school, or one who will soon be enrolled.

Reading a recent report about a school in which a parent has a child, or intends to send a child, will deliver pointers. As well as seeing what it says about teaching and learning, parents should be watching for what it says about issues such as the atmosphere in the school, and the arrangements for the care and wider development of students.

Even if a recent report about a school of interest does not exist, careful reading of a random selection of others will provide a picture of what to expect from a good school.

It also becomes clear how and where schools fall down, and whether there is a capacity, and a will, to drive necessary improvements. Sometimes a report may highlight how teaching quality is very good, but that leadership is weak. Ultimately, poor leadership will drag a school down.

It is the hope, and intention, that a critical report will be followed by a concerted drive for improvement, that could quickly turn the school into a model. The ongoing evolution of the inspection regime in recent years has included the introduction of follow-through inspections to check up on whether recommendations have been implemented.

There was a disappointing example this year of the system not delivering.

Despite a critical whole school evaluation (WSE) report last spring, parents withdrew their children from Scoil Bhrighde, Faughart, Co Louth, in September, because of lack of action to address concerns.

The WSE highlighted issues about teaching standards, lack of leadership and poor oversight by the board of management.

The more people who read and heed inspection reports, the less likely it is that such a case will be repeated in future.

Irish Independent

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