Institute of Education

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Dr. Bill Maxwell on Best Practices in Regulating Educational QA

Dr. Bill Maxwell on Best Practices in Regulating Educational QA


From December 16 to 20, IOE is hosting its International Week of Education Law 2019, a prime venue for global experts in law and policy to exchange perspectives on how best practices across dimensions of educational governance are designed and deployed at both international, national, community, and institutional levels. We have talked to Dr. Bill Maxwell, former Chief Executive of Education Scotland who is among the key presenters for this year’s Law Week, about what he thinks of the regulatory reform in the dimension of educational monitoring and assessment that has been unfolding in Russia, his conception of how a robust schema of authority and accountability in educational QA should be configured, etc.

On the ‘guillotine’ approach in reforming how educational monitoring and evaluation is regulated  

The term ‘regulatory guillotine’ was new to me but as far as I understood it from the discussions, it implies that the government is keen to cut back on the necessary regulations, as was done once in the UK. We used the phrase ‘bonfire of regulations’ in the UK, which was a process driven in the context of private business and commercial areas that were concerned about too much regulation on them. I think it's interesting to be engaged in discussion about what that might mean, I think it presents a great opportunity for the Russian education system to shift how the quality assurance is done in Russia away from a model that might be rooted in a regulatory compliance to one that really encourages the growth of self-evaluation and quality led by schools with support from the center, so the system can move from the top-down to bottom-up approach to quality control. I think this approach might fit very well as it involves stripping off some of the state requirements and therefore the checks on its compliance to dedicate more time to helping school create and develop quality.

On how the modern model of QA in education should look like

In my view, the modern quality assurance model should involve state developing and exercising the model with all the stakeholders in the system. It also should involve the general public in agreeing to what the high-level purpose and outcomes for education should be and, therefore, getting an alignment in all levels in the system around this agreement and various inputs. It also should work with practitioners to set guidelines rather than prescriptive rules, and to focus on the outcomes to be achieved in each respective area of education and creativity to develop the way the practitioners work, so outcomes better suit the needs of particular pupils. Government, on the other hand, should be collecting data, partly perhaps through inspection process and focus again on the results of that inspection in a coaching way, while also encouraging practices of school driven self-evaluation. It should help foster teacher skills development and developing the confidence and skills to drive quality on schools while sharing peer-to-peer best practices in furthering quality education and implementing them. 

On tools and mechanisms in educational monitoring and evaluation that Russia may consider implementing

I'm not that familiar with the Russian system, but, to me, the two best tools are as follows. The first thing is some sort of Quality Toolkit for schools, which is a set of quality indicators covering different aspects of schools performance along with guidance on how to use that information in particular school environment to drive quality. Such things exist in a number of quality systems and it's really something that schools can use and adapt to local circumstances.

The second way is to create a really good feed of data back to school, for example of the National Exam results that come out at the end of the basic or general phase of education and then there's more at the complete secondary education phase, which, probably, only people going to university will take, but they're very helpful in such assessment. 

Some states have begun to prepare packaged analysis of data and give it back to schools to help them identify problems and compare themselves against other schools. In Wales, for example, it takes into account social circumstances so it's not about just making straight mechanical comparisons. Ultimately, schools there can understand themselves better with this performance benchmarking approach across a network of peer schools. 

On the Russian regulatory model in educational QA vs. other nations

As far as I can say, it seems that the Russian system is one that has set about transitioning from mostly top-down control to more of a bottom-up model. I guess it does remind me of other East European countries that used to be confronted with similar problems and changed respectively, as for example, the Czech Republic, which rebuilt their system from the Soviet punitive style to more of a modern and cooperative one. In case of Russia, I think it is on that journey as well. Things that I’ve heard being articulated about Russian education are very positive and there have been strong statements about the humanistic nature of the education, along with the focus towards the whole development of the child, not just the academic results. I feel that this kind of fundamental vision is now in place, and the challenge now, I guess, is to get schools to take ownership of the quality process themselves to a degree, since I was struck a little bit by the terms used in the conversation around: ‘punishment,’ ‘punitive,’ ‘strict rules’ and so on. I think it should be much more about building support to the professionalism of the teacher as long as you are investing in supporting that professionalism.

On the top-down vs. bottom-up power model in administering educational evaluations  

I believe it's a big delusion to think that a top-down ‘punitive’ approach invariably delivers better results. By contrast, this approach only disempowers teachers and harms their capacity for research and innovation. It prompts them to focus solely on the things that they are directly mandated to do while taking little freedom and initiative because they feel they are going to be judged by this threatening system. Fundamentally, you need to get the whole thing to transition from being something that the state imposes on the teachers and schools to the system that simulates the professional community of teachers, so that teachers unleash their capacity to be creative and develop in a self-propelled fashion. Teachers and school leaders should be able to play a more decisive part in QA in a transparent environment. Yet, I’m not suggesting all power should be left entirely to the profession, some accountability and some sampling (not blanket!) checks by the central authorities are always implied.

On why schools that pursue educational entrepreneurship and experimentation are often subject to suspicion and more rigorous QA by agencies in charge    

I think that a situation like this primarily arises where there is a highly standardized, overly controlling central regulation at the national level. It naturally generates problems, as people would be risk-averse. I think what should be changed is that the regulatory authority positively shifts from a kind of QA approach that is looking for compliance with standardized processes and schools to focusing more on the educational outcomes and being more open-minded about the methods while positively seeing efforts to go beyond regular frameworks by fostering innovation as long as these efforts produce results. Any school that really thinks that it can achieve better outcomes by doing something different should have the courage, and be encouraged, to do so. Hopefully, it would be much more common to see this kind of approach of prolific diversity in the curriculum and method instead of merely imposing top-down regulation on everybody in the same way across the country.