Parents often have different criteria when it comes to selecting a school for their child. For some, teacher quality and educational achievement will be a key measure while, for others, the school’s ethos, language of instruction and approach to inclusivity will be an important consideration. For many, it will be a combination of multiple indicators.
For parents seeking an analysis of a given school, the first port of call will often be Whole School Evaluation (WSE). WSEs are inspections carried out in primary and post-primary schools by a branch of the Department of Education known as the Inspectorate.
The quality of the school is evaluated, as well as its management and leadership, the quality of teaching, learning and pupil achievement, support for students and the school’s own planning and self-review.
The Inspectorate also considers how successful the school has been in implementing relevant recommendations made in previous reports and inspection visits, where this applies.
The majority of evaluations conducted are now known as WSE-MLL (management, leadership and learning). In a minority of WSEs at primary level, specific focus is placed on some curriculum areas including English, Irish, mathematics and one additional subject.
Normally schools are notified 10 working days in advance of the evaluation and the inspector will liaise with the principal to outline the format of the inspection, schedule meetings and make arrangements for the completion of teacher and parent surveys.
Once the required report is located, which is usually found on the school and department’s website, it is recommended to go towards the back of it where the Inspectorate’s Quality Continuum is outlined. Here the inspector’s rating of very good; good; satisfactory; fair; and weak are described in detail.
“Very good applies where the quality of the areas evaluated is of a very high standard,” says one such report. “The very few areas for improvement that exist do not significantly impact on the overall quality of provision.”
Meanwhile, weak is described as where there are “serious deficiencies in the areas evaluated”.
“Immediate and co-ordinated whole-school action is required to address the areas of concern. In some cases, the intervention of other agencies may be required to support improvements.”
It is then advised to go back to where the summary and recommendations sections are located. These are easily digestible and talk about the teaching, learning and general standards within the school. From there, the report goes into much greater detail about the quality of school leadership and management; the quality of teaching and learning, and where it can improve.
The Department of Education says recommendations in inspection reports provide “important direction” for the school community as it seeks to bring about “ongoing school improvement”.
An interesting part of the report, which generally runs to 12-15 pages, is the school’s own response to the inspector’s findings. This section is a chance for the school to say whether or not it felt the report was fair and accurate, and it also outlines what steps the school has taken since the inspection, or plans to take, to improve on areas highlighted by the inspector.
Gerard McNamara, professor of educational evaluation in the School of Policy and Practice, DCU Institute of Education, says inspection reports are now “shorter and sharper” and contain “much clearer language”.
It’s a pity that more parents don’t tend to look at these reports and to query them and ask questions about them— Prof Gerard McNamara
McNamara says they are “well worth reading” by parents as they provide “interesting and useful” comments on the performance of their child’s school.
“The inspectors are fairly honest at pointing out issues in schools and things that need to be looked at, things that need to be improved,” he says.
“You can tell an awful lot about a school by closely reading the inspection reports of one sort or another and particularly when your kids are already in the school.
“It’s a pity that more parents don’t tend to look at these reports and to query them and ask questions about them because the school is supposed to consult with parents both in the formulation of the school plans and in terms of letting them know what the inspectors thought of the place.
“What happens in most schools is they’re stuck up online and parents, if they’re interested, have a look at them. But I think schools could do a lot more to warn parents about these reports or tell them that they’re available. Then it’s up to the parents whether they want to read them or not.”
McNamara says the Inspectorate “really covers everything and can ask about everything” adding it doesn’t “have a narrow frame”.
This may include areas such as the availability of resources, particularly around the use of ICT [Information and Communications Technology], the standard of discipline in a school along with the quality of teaching, which is usually broken down into subject departments at post-primary level.
Curriculum provision, including the timetabling of subjects, the school’s governance, the role of principal and vice-principal, support for students with special educational needs and the option of transition year (TY) can also be examined.
“To give a good example, there has been a lot of pressure put on some schools, where the inspectors felt that while the kids at the top end were being well looked after and the weaker kids were being well looked after, the middle kids weren’t being driven hard enough,” McNamara says.
“In other words, a lot of them [students] were being allowed to take pass subjects and, if they were pushed a bit harder, they could take honours subjects.
“The Inspectorate pushed that quite hard in a lot of schools and one principal said to me the other day ‘the inspection report gave me the armour to encourage or maybe even coerce the teaching staff into pushing more of the middle ability kids into honours classes’. That’s the kind of stuff the Inspectorate will look at.
“Then they will also look at the school’s own evaluation report. Every school now legally has to conduct a school self-evaluation [SSE], usually taking a particular area, such as quality of literacy teaching, the quality of numeracy teaching, areas like that.
“They have to investigate themselves, do a bit of research, compare themselves to other schools and do a report which is then part of the inspection system, or they give it to the Inspectorate.”
Deirdre Matthews, principal at St Vincent’s Secondary School in Dundalk, Co Louth, says whole school evaluations are “absolutely important” for parents to read.
“They are the only kind of professional independent research that’s in the public domain for parents to access,” she says.
“However, the evaluations are from one particular viewpoint so I would caution against it being the only piece of research that a parent would do on a school.
“It is very difficult to know whether many parents currently look at them or not, we don’t have the facility, for example, on our website to see how many clicks it gets.
“I suppose you’re also considering whether parents are using them when choosing a school or is something that people look at when their child is in a school. It really depends on what you’re looking for, both are equally important aspects.”
Inspectors and inspection reports provide judgments on the quality of provision in a school, affirm the aspects of practices that are working well, and help to inform and complement school self-evaluation— Department of Education spokesman
Matthews adds that when looking at a whole school evaluation, it is helpful to examine it “side by side” with the department’s Looking at Our School document, which is also available on its website.
“That’s the framework from which the Inspectorate is supposed to work from, and in that framework you will see it has itemised standards and domains and have described what effective practice is, what very effective practice is, etc. That piece does definitely help in trying to interpret a WSE.”
The Department of Education says responsibility for school improvement rests “primarily with the board of management, principal and staff of individual schools”.
“External inspections of schools also facilitate improvement and change in schools,” a spokesman for the department says.
“They provide an external perspective on the work of the school. Inspectors and inspection reports provide judgments on the quality of provision in a school, affirm the aspects of practices that are working well, and help to inform and complement school self-evaluation.”
The spokesman also says that “from time to time” the WSE-MLL may incorporate the evaluation of a specific theme or issue, for example, the collection of specific data for a national thematic report which may be published by the Inspectorate.
The Inspectorate also carries out inspections in Early Years services participating in the Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) programme. During these inspections, the quality of the nature, range and appropriateness of the early educational experiences of children participating in the ECCE programme are evaluated.
All Whole School Evaluation reports can be found online at: https://www.gov.ie/en/school-reports/