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School peer review beats high stakes external inspection

In this Teaching Times article, professional development consultant Graham Handscomb shares his observations of the school system collectively moving toward a self-evaluating approach where teachers feel empowered to exercise their own professional judgment, to the greater good of their schools.

 

In its 30 years of operation, Ofsted has been painfully slow to embrace reform by moving towards greater emphasis on school self-evaluation. Graham Handscomb argues that the era of peer review has arrived and trumps outmoded adversarial inspection.

The experience of inspection

One advantage of being a person of “senior” years is to be able to reflect on changes in educational developments that have been lived and worked through with the passage of time. It provides perspective. Trajectories can be traced; bold cutting-edge initiatives falter…and re-emerge in new guises; movements in education wax and wane.

During the early 1990s I recall the school I then managed being one of the very first in the country to be inspected by Ofsted. I consciously decided that if at all possible, rather than passively feeling “done to,” the school should have a degree of control over the experience. My situation was somewhat fortunate in that most of the inspection team, including the lead inspector, were recent
former colleagues of mine (I was previously part of their local authority adviser team.) So in these early halcyon days, when Ofsted inspection was still bedding down as it were, I was able to forge a collaborative approach – jointly shaping the framework and conduct of the inspection with the team.

As the years progressed the nature of Ofsted inspection undergone by many schools was in marked contrast with this early experience. Increasingly it was felt to be an externally imposed, combative and even traumatic event. Worse still, the spectre of inspection was casting a deeper shadow over school life, indelibly affecting long term school culture as reflected in reviews undertaken by professional associations.

Ofsted has produced a compliance culture: school leaders seek to provide what they think inspectors will want rather than what they think is good for pupils and learning. At the same time teachers comply with instructions from leadership and too often do not feel suitably empowered to exercise their own professional judgement. 

Ownership and Partnership

Concerns were not just raised by teachers unions but at times were also shared by Ofsted itself, depending it seemed on which Chief Inspector happened to hold the reins. When David Bell was appointed to this role in 2002 he was invited by Professor John MacBeath to meet at Wolfson College, Cambridge, with a range of educationalists from all tiers of the system to have an open Chatham House rules discussion about inspection – warts and all.

It was a small select group of teachers, school leaders, and me – as a then senior Local Authority leader. What powerfully emerged was a consensus around the need for inspection to be a partnership and founded on the school’s capacity to evaluate itself.

Hopes raised led to some welcome shifts in subsequent reviews of the Ofsted inspection framework (in particular the revised framework published in 2003 emphasised the importance of the school’s own monitoring and critique)…but these tended to be modest rather than extensive; transitory rather than imbedded. With successive Ofsted regimes there was little fundamental
change.

Meanwhile many voices, including my own, continued to press for recognition of meaningful self-evaluation as an essential part of understanding how well a school is performing. As I reflected with a headteacher colleague in the early 2000s, ownership of the process and of data was crucial:

+ what data and whose data?

+ how is information gathered, and by whom?

+ what counts as evidence?

+ self-evaluation seen as scrutiny of others or a collaborative process
participated in by all?

+ how to foster a climate of ownership of self-evaluation?

And above all:

+ how to equip schools and individual staff with the tools and skills needed for
effective self-evaluation?

The rise of peer review

So, by the second decade of the twenty first century there remained a strongly held view within the profession that, as the National Association of Head Teachers put it, we still had “a system that has relied for too long and too heavily on external inspection with an adversarial tone if not culture,” and the union cited peer review as the way forward: “So, NAHT believes the time is right to see greater peer review within the inspection framework."

Peer review then is the focus of the special issue of Professional Development Today (Vol. 22, Issue 3). Its range of articles is developed from chapters in the recently published book, School Peer Review for Educational Improvement and Accountability: Theory, Practice and Policy edited by David Godfrey.

In his introductory article, Godfrey points out that accountability relationships in peer review are quite different to those between external evaluators and schools. Therein lies its attraction and has resulted in peer review, once the preserve of higher education, proliferating across the globe in the school sector. Indeed I remember leading an early exploratory initiative in 2004 in which a triad of secondary schools worked in collaborative teams on school improvement through peer evaluation. The research report on this development concluded that it was: "…a powerful model of how schools can examine their practice through a three-stage process of self-audit, peer review and applied learning for further improvement."

As this issue of PDT reveals, in recent years peer review has now been incorporated into whole scale large school improvement programmes. Examples of these, like Challenge Partners and the Schools Partnership Programme, have grown rapidly.

This burgeoning of interest and participation has however raised some concerns. Across the world, and even within specific countries, the increasing prevalence of peer review has tended to reveal variations in practice; as Godfrey points out “at present peer review practices are patchy worldwide, leaving significant, untapped potential for it to grow and with England a trailblazer.”

Similarly there is a paucity of research in this area, and claims made for the benefits of peer review have been insufficiently available for public scrutiny.

Positive accountability

Perhaps the most important quality of peer review is that it is built upon collaborative foundations and forges an inclusive ethos. The OECD echoed this in a 2013 report that challenged traditional often coercive approaches to evaluation, which foster passive compliance. Instead it extoled partners working in synergy to secure real quality in school improvement and better learning. Peer review has the real potential to do this as Peter Earley has recently reflected:

Peer reviews, in theory if not always in practice, enable schools to reassert their priorities and focus on the perceived needs of the children and their communities. Schools are able to select their own areas of focus or they are offered a framework to derive their own specific enquiry questions for peer review.

Since the advent of Ofsted, accountability has been bedevilled by a top down adversarial culture. The hope is that as we learn more about approaches like peer review, as practice in them becomes more consistent and evidence-based, then they will exercise increasing influence on how the profession effectively evaluates itself.

Understanding and developing peer review

The articles in this issue of PDT aim to rectify this. They emphasise how important it is to understand the principles behind peer review, and the wide range of contexts in which it occurs. They report on how the authors’ recently published book explored cases from across world – set against a coherent theory – and presented new empirical evidence.

The most alluring aspect of school peer review is the personalisation and ownership that it affords. It puts the participating schools at the heart and in control of the school improvement and accountability process. The focus of a peer review is self-chosen and the form of the evaluation is framed by the host school itself. Whilst the outcomes of peer reviews can be as rigorous and credible as external inspection, they are designed to inform the school’s own improvement efforts rather than feed public performance league tables.

However, this highlights important implications for how peer review programmes are constructed, who is allowed to participate, and how people are professionally equipped to carry them out: “Reviews, like other forms of effective internal evaluation, require school staff with a good level of evaluation literacy and knowledge in the use of research.” So, within these PDT contributions there is also helpful guidance on how schools and groups of schools can embark upon peer review – providing detailed professional development advice on both planning and implementation.

 

References

1. Henshaw, P. (2015) Call for overhaul of 'ineffective' Ofsted Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) SecEd 5th March 2015. Call for overhaul of ‘ineffective’ Ofsted (sec-ed.co.uk)

2. Handscomb, G. and Ramsey, D. (2008) Meaningful Evaluation: Using reflection for self-evaluation and the SEF. Forum for Learning and Research/Enquiry (FLARE), Essex County Council. Handscomb, G. and Ramsey, D. (2009) Meaningful Self-Evaluation Professional Development Today. Vol 11 Issue3.

3. Russell Hobby, General Secretary NAHT Education Select Committee,
02/03/2016

4. Godfrey, D. (Editor) (2020) School peer review for educational improvement and accountability: Theory, practice and policy implications. Springer.

5. Handscomb, G.; Myer, K. and Prince, R. (2004) School Improvement
Through Peer Evaluation. Forum for Learning and Research Enquiry
(FLARE) Essex County Council.

6. Berwick, G. (2020) The Development of a System Model of Peer Review and School Improvement: Challenge Partners, in Godfrey, D. (ed.) (2020) School peer review for educational improvement and accountability: Theory, practice and policy implications, 159-180, Cham: Springer.

7. Godfrey, D. (2021) Understating Peer Review And Its Benefits. Professional Development Today. Volume 22. Issue3.

8. OECD. (2013). School evaluation: From compliancy to quality. In Synergies for better learning: An international perspective on evaluation and assessment (pp. 383􀆪485). Paris: OECD Publishing. https://doi.org/10.1787/9789264190658

9. Earley, P (2020) Foreword, in Godfrey, D. (Ed) School peer review for educational improvement and accountability: Theory, practice and policy implications. Springer.

10. Anne Cameron and Maggie Farrar, Peer Review in the Time of Pandemic, Professional Development Today, Issue 22.3 https://www.teachingtimes.com/category/professional-development/

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