Do education “officials” have tunnel vision?


Will this village school with its minimal resources be evaluated under the same criteria as an "elite" school. If so, is this a fair system?

Will this village school with its minimal resources be evaluated under the same criteria as an “elite” school. If so, is this a fair system?

It is hard to imagine why they should, but if any teacher in England had cause to read yesterday’s Times of India, they would have found an article that might just as easily have been extracted from the Daily Mail or Daily Express here in the UK a few years ago. Under the headline “All schools will now have a minimum benchmark to meet” the journalist Akshaya Mukul reported on an initiative from the Indian government aimed at “raising school standards” through a new system of school inspection and evaluation (Times of India Aug 31, 2014).

School inspection has been an ever present and at times highly valuable aspect of education life in England since the end of the nineteenth century. I recall in my first year of teaching in a school in Derbyshire, we had a visit from two representatives of Her Majesty’s Inspectors of Schools (HMI) who provided both the school and myself as a class teacher with valuable comments and feedback on teaching and the curriculum, and offered useful advice on how we might continue to develop processes to support teaching and learning. However, in recent years the supportive network of HMI, which commanded tremendous respect from all within the teaching profession, has been sadly eroded and replaced by an inspection regime which is largely held in contempt by head teachers, teachers and school governors.

The reason for this parlous state of affairs is the misguided notion that inspection is in itself a process of school improvement. Certainly an objective evaluation of the work of schools can be helpful, but is most likely to achieve positive change only at a point where support is provided to improve areas that may be in need of attention. Inspection alone cannot improve schools, it is only the work of teachers, governors, parents and students working together towards a common aim that will achieve the desired effect. To inspect schools without engaging in this process is a dereliction of duty towards children and those charged with the responsibility for their education and care.

A second misinterpretation of how effective schools operate was evident in a statement from an Indian “education official,” (who exactly this was is unspecified in the article) who is quoted as saying that

“Schools must provide evidence of continuous improvement in results. [An] External evaluator will visit the schools to validate the self-evaluation and provide feedback for improvement. Schools should be able to show it is effective (sic) and that it makes good and proper use of the resources it is given,” he said, adding that the primary objective is continuous improvement.

It would appear that this “official” is unable to see school improvement in terms other than academic results measured through a formal assessment procedure such as an examination. Whilst never doubting that academic attainment is a critical indicator of school success, a naïve reliance on this approach to defining school improvement demonstrates a narrow interpretation of the role of schools. In India, as here in the UK, I have worked with schools that have had a radical impact upon improving the lives of children and their families through social intervention and the provision of emotional support. These schools, sometimes working with children in very challenging circumstances are in danger of a failure to recognise the importance of their impact if the sole measure of improvement is one based upon academic outcomes.

I am also interested in the relationship identified by the education official between  the quality of teaching and the resources provided. In an education system such as that in operation in India, the discrepancy in resource provision between schools is more pronounced than in any other country I have visited ( I suspect that this would be equally true in some other parts of the world with which I am not familiar). Does this then mean that there will be a differentiated system of school evaluation that takes account of these inequalities? If so, how will this be managed and on what basis will judgements be made? A few of my colleagues in India work in schools with resources that would be the envy of many teachers here in England. However, these are the exception and far more work with minimal provision and often perform near miracles with those resources with which they have been provided.

Throughout the world national governments feel the need to be seen to take action for the improvement of teaching and learning. It is a laudable ambition to strive to improve education for all children. However, I suspect that this latest Indian initiative, like its counterpart here in England will lead to increased teacher anxiety, provide an inequitable approach to understanding what works in schools and will continue in its failure to support teachers in addressing the needs of the most disadvantaged children in society. Surely a broader view is required?