When Quality Assurance Goes Wrong

In this post I hope to diagnose some of the common reasons why school quality assurance fails in its aims. Before I get to that, however, what do I mean by quality assurance? I am thinking of activities undertaken in schools to enable leaders to make judgements about how good the school’s provision is, based on the idea that these judgements will support with raising standards. I am not suggesting that this is the only available definition of quality assurance, or even the best one, but I have chosen it because it is what I recognise. Quality assurance of this type, also referred to as self-evaluation, has been ubiquitous in school leadership practice throughout my career. It has frequently included lesson observation, work scrutiny, student consultation, staff consultation, data analysis and various other practices, although it is important to note that these things can be done for other purposes too.

On the surface, it makes sense for school leaders to gather evidence so they can draw conclusions about how good things are. It seems like a valuable way for them to spend their time, but my experience tells me that the process is ineffective far too often, and can even cause damage.

This post briefly introduces some of the main problems associated with quality assurance, before linking to subsequent posts, in which I explore the challenges of two specific types of quality assurance in more detail, offering suggestions about a more effective approach.

I think quality assurance frequently falls short of the mark in the following ways:

  1. Quality assurance often involves looking in the wrong place.

As commonly practised in schools, quality assurance involves those higher up the formal leadership hierarchy making judgements about the work of those lower down. There are many things we could question about this model, but the one I want to draw attention to here is the fact that it seems to rest on the assumption that the work of those lower down is the most useful focus of our attention in seeking to secure improvements. I am far from convinced that this is the case, because the culture we promote as leaders, the policies we implement as leaders and the incentives (and disincentives) we offer as leaders all have a huge impact on what teachers do. There is a good chance that, when we look at things going on at department or classroom level and are not happy with what we find, we are seeing the symptoms of a problem further upstream, rather than the cause of the problem. We might well exert more leverage by quality assuring our own leadership practice, and seeking to improve in this area first. At the very least, when we investigate what is going in within classrooms, we should be asking why we might be seeing things which are not ideal, rather than rushing to condemn or prescribing remedies for the teacher’s or department’s action alone.

2. Quality assurance often involves seeking the wrong thing.

Experience tells me that when we say and think we are conducting honest evaluation, we are actually doing something different. Instead of seeking truth, we are seeking comfort, by finding evidence which supports the view of the school we already hold, and which enables us to show that we are rigorous leaders. It leads to a neatly completed checklist, some WWW/EBI feedback, or perhaps a score on a spreadsheet, all of which appear to offer precision, but in reality only create an illusion of certainty. Much of this culture was driven by earlier generations of Ofsted’s EIF, in which the job of inspectors was essentially to evaluate a school’s self-evaluation, thus creating an incentive for leaders to do as much quality assurance as possible and to make it highly visible. When we reflect honestly about this type of leadership, we can see that it is not really quality assurance at all, but quality reassurance. We are looking for a security blanket rather than running the risk of exposing ourselves to information which might challenge us and from which we could learn.

3. Quality assurance methods and personnel are often insufficient for the task.

Before we conduct any quality assurance activity, we should ask ourselves whether we are capable of doing it accurately. It is, after all, a form of assessment, so it must offer reliability and validity if we are to draw conclusions from it and ask others to take action as a result. We must consider whether we are trying to measure something which is measurable, whether we have the knowledge and skills to assess it competently, whether we are taking a broad enough range of evidence into account and whether the act of assessing will skew the evidence available to us. If all these things were taken into account more frequently, I suspect senior leaders would be forced to conclude that much of their self-evaluation is a good deal less robust than they might previously have thought.

4. Quality assurance can easily have malign effects.

Quality assurance incurs costs as well as benefits, including the opportunity cost of carrying it out. It can take up an awful lot of leaders’ time observing lessons, scrutinising books, consulting students or doing whatever else the activity involves. We need to be confident that this is a more valuable thing for them to do during this time than all the alternatives. The same applies to those on the receiving end of the quality assurance activity: a teacher may devote an hour to writing up a detailed lesson plan for an observation, for example. Once again, we have to ask if this is the most valuable thing they could do with that hour.

But it goes further. In addition to the opportunity cost of the activity itself, quality assurance has a wider impact. The things we choose to judge and the ways we choose to judge them convey messages about what we value and what we condemn. If we praise lots of red ink in exercise books, we cannot be surprised if teachers prioritise this over curriculum planning. If the sound of a leader’s footfall in the corridor provokes a feeling of dread in the minds of teachers in their classrooms, we will see a knock-on impact on the culture of trust, communication and ultimately staff retention in the school. All of these potential consequences should be taken into account when we make decisions about whether to quality assure, what to quality assure and how to go about it.

In the next two posts I aim to apply these considerations to two of the most common forms of quality assurance in schools, drawing on talks I have given recently for ASCL’s Leading On series of webinars and the Chartered College of Teaching’s Chartered Teacher (Leadership) Programme.

Further posts in the series:

Image found here and labelled as available for noncommercial reuse.

12 thoughts on “When Quality Assurance Goes Wrong

  1. Really good post, thank you. I think this offers an important questions for SL to think about. Given our inevitable fallibility, where do you think the ‘best bets’ lie in pursuing QA?

    Like

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