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Could do better... report urges shake-up of school inspections

By Lindsay Fergus

The body responsible for school inspections has itself been found wanting following an independent inquiry.

A radical overhaul of the Education and Training Inspectorate (ETI) has been recommended by Stormont's education committee after a six-month review.

Sixteen key recommendations include renaming ETI as the Northern Ireland Education Improvement Service (NIEIS), and making it independent of the Department of Education.

ETI has in the past provoked the wrath of teaching unions, with several refusing to co-operate with inspections.

Committee chairman Mervyn Storey MLA explained the reason for the proposed rebranding of ETI was "in order to reboot key relationships and draw a line under the past". Other key recommendations include:

  • The new NIEIS should be heavily focused on improvement through inspection.
  • Provide more support to help struggling schools improve – before they reach formal intervention.
  • Greater and more effective cooperation and communication between inspectors and schools.
  • Revise the current format of inspection reports including a detailed report for schools and a second synopsis of a school's strengths and weaknesses in "plain English" for parents.
  • Use less pejorative descriptions in inspection reports, such as 'inadequate' and 'unsatisfactory', when describing the likes of leadership and performance.
  • A far greater parental contribution.

Mr Storey said: "One-word evaluations of schools clearly do not provide a full picture of a school's overall performance.

"As well as highlighting where improvement is required, it is crucial that the inspection process properly recognises the areas where schools are performing well and adding value."

The 1,300-page report, collated from evidence gathered from more than 60 organisations and individuals, was presented to the Assembly yesterday, with a call being made for Education Minister John O'Dowd to implement the proposals.

The committee inquiry was launched in response to departmental proposals to increase the powers of ETI and following concerns that some schools serving deprived areas or particular sectors were not improving.

Mr Storey added: "We believe that the end result is a radical report which contains a number of innovative proposals for school improvement."

Speaking during the Stormont debate, SDLP education spokesman Sean Rogers criticised the inspection process for being "data-driven" instead of "data-informed", and described some of the data used as "suspect", in particular end of key stage results.

He said a bad inspection was "devastating for staff", and after ETI had left the "principle and senior management team have to pick up the pieces".

The UUP's Jo-Anne Dobson, who sits on the education committee, described the inspection process as "stressful" and "critical", saying "a change in mindset must come sooner rather than later".

Welcoming the report, Mr O'Dowd said some of the recommendations would require legislative change.

"Therefore I think the Assembly should be given much longer to debate the relative merits or otherwise of such proposals before being asked to endorse them," he added.

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