Update after one year studying school inspections in Northern Ireland

Introduction and Background

Barber et al. in Mckinsey (2010) sparked a debate in many European countries about a lack of improvement in many education systems across the continent. The report argues that the education systems in many countries are ‘good’ but fail to improve to ‘great’ as schools are not aiming for higher achievement and fail to innovate their teaching and learning. In the case of Northern Ireland for example, the Chief Inspector of the Education and Training Inspectorate (ETI), states that, although a significant number of education providers have been evaluated as ‘good’ or better as result of the hard work of leaders, educators and trainers. On the other hand, and resonating with the view of Barber et al (2010), the Chief Inspector is also of the view that, ‘Northern Ireland’s education and training system has unacceptable variations and persistent shortcomings, which need to be addressed urgently if we are to improve our provision and outcomes from average to world-class’(ETI 2014, p.4).
One potential mechanism to make this final but difficult phase “from good to great” is through the process of poly-centric network evaluation that countries and regions such as England, the Netherlands and, Northern Ireland have begun to experiment with.

Polycentric Network Evaluation in Northern Ireland

Area based inspections as developed in Northern Ireland evaluate and report on the quality of provision directly or evaluate the quality of support services in a geographical area, across a number of phases and are, to a significant extent, based on the capacity of organisations to carry out their own evaluations. There are two main types of Area inspections. Area Youth inspections, inspect support services provided in a Library Board region, most often in the youth sector. Polycentric inspections or full Area inspections as known in Northern Ireland, directly report on a particular aspect of education across different stages of schooling in a geographical area.

Polycentric Network Evaluation in Context

Full area inspections have been in existence in Northern Ireland since 2005 with, the last Full Area inspection occurring in 2009. The focus of Full Area inspections varies. However, in the case of West Belfast and Ballymena (ETI, 2010a, 2010b), the focus of Full Area Inspections related to: strategic planning for education and training within the Area Leaning Community; the quality of learning for young people within the Area Learning Community; and the effectiveness of the transition arrangements for young people within and across the various sectors.

There are 30 Post Primary ALCs in Northern Ireland, where according to DENI (2010): ‘ALCs are voluntary coalitions of schools which can be a useful forum for planning collaboration to meet the needs of pupils in an area and for focusing on quality and sharing good practice.’ (DENI 2010, p.4). ALCs also work together to provide a broad and balanced curriculum and to deliver on the requirements of the Entitlement Framework. The Entitlement Framework requires schools to provide pupils with access to a minimum number of courses at Key Stage 4 (24 courses) and a minimum number of courses at post-16 (27 courses). To reach these targets, Article 21 of the Education Order 2006 enables schools to secure course provision for students at other institutions within the ALC.
In the case of West Belfast, from the time of the first Area Inspection, the Area Learning community has evolved considerably to include all school types and organisations from nursery through to Post Primary Education who collectively form part of the West Belfast Partnership Board Education Practitioner’s Forum. Indeed, having already established the Area Learning Communities initiative, Brown (2011) in reference to the system of school self-evaluation in Northern Ireland states, ‘Although tensions inevitably arise; looking forward, schools in Northern Ireland now appear to be in the process of asking the question: “How do we as practitioner researchers improve the quality of education not only in our schools but also in our communities?”’ (Brown, 2011).

The purpose of this project is to look at the mechanisms and context of the impact of polycentric evaluation in West Belfast and other areas of Northern Ireland in order to ascertain what working methods of polycentric evaluation within these Area Learning Communities are transferable to other areas of Northern Ireland, international contexts and systems? More specifically the study also seeks to investigate the following aspects of Polycentric Evaluation as it applies in practice:

  • What role can school inspectors have, and which working methods can they use in enabling/facilitating improvement/innovation and complex problem solving in networks of teachers and schools?
  • What roles and working methods of Inspectorates of Education are effective in promoting improvement/innovation and complex problem-solving in schools?
  • How are these roles and working methods related to the structure and context of the education system in which they function?
  • What aspects of Area Learning Community networks enable an agreed agenda for change among internal and external stakeholders associated with the network?

For more information on polycentric inspections in Northern-Ireland see this presentation: ESAI 2015 - Schoolinspections Northern Ireland


Barber, M., Chijioke, C., & Mourshed, M. (2010) Education: How the world’s most improved school systems keep getting better. London: McKinsey & Company

Brown, M. (2011) The interplay between evaluation and school development planning and improvement. Educational Studies Association of Ireland 36th Annual Conference, 14th–16th April 2011. Church of Ireland College of Education, Dublin.

Department of Education, Northern Ireland (2010) Delivering the Entitlement Framework by 2013: Guidance for Schools on the Next Phase of Implementation. Bangor: Department of Education Northern Ireland.
Available at: http://www.deni.gov.uk/entitlement_framework_2010-11_guidance_-_english_version__193kb_-5.pdf

Education and Training Inspectorate (2014) Chief Inspector’s Report 2012-2014. Bangor: Department of Education Northern Ireland.
Available at: https://www.education.ie/en/Publications/Inspection-Reports-Publications/Evaluation-Reports-Guidelines/Chief-Inspector%E2%80%99s-Report-2010-2012-Main-Report.pdf

Education and Training Inspectorate (2010a) An Evaluation of the Quality of: Strategic Planning; Learning; and Transition Arrangements for Education and Training in the BALLYMENA AREA. Bangor: Department of Education Northern Ireland.
Available at: http://www.etini.gov.uk/an-evaluation-of-the-quality-of-strategic-planning-learning-and-transition-arrangements-for-education-and-training-in-the-ballymena-area.pdf

Education and Training Inspectorate (2010b) An Evaluation of the Quality of: Strategic Planning; Learning; and Transition Arrangements for Education and Training in the WEST-BELFAST AREA. Bangor: Department of Education Northern Ireland.
Available at: http://www.etini.gov.uk/an-evaluation-of-the-quality-of-strategic-planning-learning-and-transition-arrangements-for-education-and-training-in-the-west-belfast-area.pdf

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