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Alarming number of Northern Ireland's schools not being inspected, warns expert

'Unacceptable' figures raised in Assembly inquiry

By JOANNE SWEENEY

The standards achieved by four out of 10 schools across Northern Ireland would trigger an investigation if the English inspection model was applied here, an international educationalist has warned.

Sir Robert Salisbury said probes would be ordered on this "alarming" number of schools, after he carried out extensive research on standards here.

His claims are based on the percentage of students gaining A-C grades in GCSE maths and English for 2011-12, supplied to him by the Department of Education.

The list showed that 85 out of the 215 post-primary schools in Northern Ireland failed to have over 40% of their year 12 students gain these grades.

Ofsted, the independent schools inspection service in England, now only grades schools as 'good' or 'outstanding' in relation to this key post-primary achievement marker and other key considerations. It no longer rates schools as satisfactory.

Any school falling below the 'good' standard (40%) would trigger an investigation, with follow-up action ranging from requiring some further improvement, being given notice to improve and special measures to be undertaken to the lowest performing.

The data also shows the lowest-scoring secondary school in 2011-12 was Ballee Community School in Co Antrim, where 9.3% out of its 270 pupils gained these grades at GCSE.

The gap between English and Northern Ireland school performance was further amplified by the fact that Ofsted most recently rated 78% of maintained primary schools and 71% of maintained secondary schools in England to be good or better.

Sir Robert revealed the worrying statistics while giving oral evidence to the Assembly's education committee's inquiry into the organisation which inspects schools, the Education and Training Inspectorate (ETI).

"It is totally unacceptable that some schools can go many years without experiencing an external inspection," said Sir Robert.

"This information is quite alarming when you compare it to the English model."

Yesterday, he accompanied two mothers from the lobby group ParentsOutLoud at Stormont.

ParentsOutLoud revealed to committee members its concerns that many primary and post-primary schools had not been fully inspected by ETI for more than a decade.

DUP MLA Jonathan Craig said last night: "I firmly believe that any delay or gap in a school being fully inspected is not in the best interests of the school."

In carrying out a sample survey of 23 schools in Belfast and Omagh, the mothers uncovered no full inspection reports for leading Belfast grammar school Methodist College from 2001.

Furthermore, two primary schools in Omagh – Loreto Convent and Omagh Integrated – had not been inspected in 15 and 14 years respectively.

Sir Robert, who is already on record as saying that our high education performance was a "myth", believes that inspections should be viewed as a "positive external audit" by schools. He also advocated self-evaluation by schools and said a culture needed to be created where every school operated "as if they will be inspected tomorrow".

"In schools of all types, where self-evaluation is carried out honestly, fully and regularly and can be endorsed by ETI, only 'light touch' inspections need to follow," he said.

"Self-evaluation which is found to be misleading or limited should automatically trigger a full inspection."

He added that the best practice models from high-performing schools is being lost due to the lack of regular inspection, as it could be further disseminated to other schools to help improvement.

Discussing the new Ofsted classifaction, Liz Fawcett (below), Northern Ireland representative of ParentsOutLoud, firmly told committee members that for schools here to be deemed "satisfactory was not satisfactory."

She and Roisin Gilheaney believe ETI needs to undertake full inspections of every school, ideally once every four years, and make its findings more transparent.

She added: "We also want to highlight the fact that a long gap in inspections doesn't automatically mean that a school's provision is going to be poor.

"And for those schools that have improved since the last full inspection, that information is not available to parents."

A renowned Mr Fix-It in field of education

Sir Robert Salisbury is an international expert on education who is credited for the turnaround of what was known as the seventh worst school in England.

A former professor in the School of Education at the University of Nottingham, he has been based in Northern Ireland since 2001, after his Co Tyrone-born wife returned home to work in integrated education in Omagh.

He has carried out a number of educational sector reviews for NI Executive departments and was chair of the review of the common funding formula for schools in NI and recently led a review of further education colleges in NI.

When Sir Robert became head of The Garibaldi School in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, in 1989, the school had a somewhat chequered history.

By 1989 it was losing a large number of pupils to neighbouring schools and expectations were low.

It had problems with vandalism and a very negative image within its community.

But under his leadership, the situation at the school changed dramatically and Garibaldi is now recognised for its success.

My View: Sir Robert Salisbury - External assessments should be viewed in positive light

Improving performance in our schools is essentially about concentrating on what happens in the classrooms, and to achieve this the most effective leaders try to build a culture of regular 'self-evaluation' to define the strengths and weaknesses of their organisations.

Teachers, students, governors and parents must all be involved in this process, and see it as an integral part of life in any modern school. Once rigorous, regular and honest self-evaluation systems are in place, external inspections become much less threatening.

Practical strategies such as agreement about what constitutes 'a good lesson', regular 'mini reviews', frequent lesson observations, student and parental feedback and systematic data collection will all help towards a clear understanding of how well the organisation is working. Strategies for tackling areas for improvement are then much easier to put in place.

Self–evaluation found to be misleading or limited should automatically trigger a full external inspection. In the future we need to create a culture where all inspections are seen not as an exercise to criticise or pillory teachers, but as a positive audit which will be helpful in setting the future direction of the school. Notice of any impending inspection should be shortened to at most a few days and schools should always operate as if they were being inspected tomorrow.

I leave the final word to my sons when their post-primary was being inspected.

Youngest son: "What is this inspection stuff all about anyway?"

Elder brother: "Don't worry about it. All you need to know is if there is a suit at the back with a clipboard, you're in for a good lesson!"

A sticking plaster approach that instils anxiety - Jonathan Craig

Having served for many years on the boards of governors of several schools, the general opinion of school heads and teachers that I have spoken to is that the Inspectorate in Northern Ireland is very much a sticking plaster approach to education, coming in when it is almost too late to help and support those schools and pupils that need it most.

The current approach installs fear and trepidation amongst senior management and teachers whenever it happens.

It can lead to a fractured relationship between the inspectors and the school and does not always lead to an improvement in the school, but most importantly, for the pupils involved.

Within the education committee at Stormont, we are beginning to see that some of the schools are not inspected often enough. There is no consistency given to the approach of how or why schools are inspected. More importantly, there is no real engagement between the inspectors, senior management and the boards of governors of schools.

Over the past 11 years as a member of the board of governors of three schools, I have only engaged with the inspectors on three occasions.

This goes a long way to explain the fear factor by the education and inspection system.

A lot of the work done by the inspectors when they come to the school is incredibly useful and should be used by the board of governors and teaching staff to make decisions that will improve the running of the school and help its future development.

I feel it is vital that whatever comes out of this inquiry, that the inspectors engage more fully with the senior management at the school and the board of governors, and become an integral part of the education system, which will allow them to make decisions to improve education.

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