A collaborative, collective response can ensure quality for children’s learning in a COVID-19 world

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The closure of schools due to the COVID-19 pandemic meant inspectors were unable to work with teachers and principals in their schools. Nevertheless, their support of continuity and high quality of students’ educational experience was more important than ever. Chief Inspector Harold Hislop outlines how the Irish Inspectorate has responded to the situation.

School closures have made everyone realise how vital schools are, not only because of the opportunities for academic learning that they provide, but also for the social and emotional well-being of young people and their families.

When schools had to close in Ireland on 12 March, many teachers and school leaders worked hard to respond quickly to provide online or distance learning to students at home. As in other countries, the quality of that provision varied greatly from school to school.

Both school self-evaluation and inspection are seen as significant contributors to the quality of educational provision in Ireland. Visiting, evaluating and advising schools regularly is at the core of the Irish Inspectorate’s work. The Inspectorate is also a division within the Irish Department (Ministry) of Education, and works closely with policymakers and school support services in an integrated way.

In response to the pandemic, the Inspectorate built on the strong collaboration that we have fostered over many years with student groups, parents’ organisations, teacher unions and school management bodies. Working with these groups and with officials in the ministry, inspectors led the development of advice for schools on the many practical actions that schools needed to take to ensure continuity in children’s learning. We also made contact with as many school leaders as possible by telephone and online – ensuring they were aware of the advice issued by the ministry, asking them about what they were doing and the challenges they were encountering. We used this information – and data from surveys conducted with parents – to refine the ministry’s guidance to schools. We drew on the examples of good practice that we identified, and we advised schools that were struggling on how they might establish and maintain better contact and learning for their students.

Inspectors were also deeply involved in developing an alternative to Ireland’s end-of-schooling examinations for 17- and 18-year-olds, which had to be cancelled.

I think we were able to adopt this broader approach to quality assurance because we could build on a tradition of collaborative working with stakeholders in the system, and on our record of working within the ministry with officials. We were still able to provide strong evaluative information that challenged schools and the education system. We highlighted, for example, that some groups of students, such as those with special educational needs and those from disadvantaged backgrounds, have been disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 closures. We have also emphasised the importance of schooling for students’ well-being. This learning is helping to inform the development of advice and guidance for schools as they prepare to reopen in September.

Next term we are going to focus on advisory visits and online meetings with teachers to support schools in reopening. Additionally, we will conduct research on how well the reopening is happening across the system. We will also be carrying out a limited number of inspections, but our primary focus will be on ensuring that the most vulnerable students are reintegrating. This will be a real challenge for schools and for the students and parents involved.

Ultimately, I believe that assuring quality is about using a range of evaluative and supportive measures to make sure that students have enjoyable and productive learning experiences. The COVID-19 crisis shows that this demands a collaborative, collective and flexible response from all of us in our respective education systems.

Harold Hislop

Harold Hislop is Chief Inspector and a member of the Management Board of the Department of Education in Ireland. A former primary school principal and university lecturer, he has led the development of a collaborative approach to school evaluation in Ireland. He was closely involved in the development of Ireland’s successful national literacy and numeracy strategy for the period 2011-2020. He is a member of the European Commission’s ET2020 Working Group Schools and the Governing Board and Bureau of the OECD’s Centre for Educational Research and Innovation.

Further examples of quality assurance processes across Europe can be found in the new publication Supporting school self-evaluation and development.