Article

A European Dimension to Educational Quality Assurance?

Robert Miklós Babirad

1          Introduction

A Eurydice report released on February 10, 2015 offered a review of how schools providing compulsory education across the EU’s Member States are being evaluated in order that future educational quality may be improved through the development of effective quality assurance systems.[1] The report’s paramount goal is that of providing information concerning how schools are being evaluated with the objective of providing for the future enhancement of the educational quality being offered to students throughout the EU.[2]

The report also importantly acknowledged recognition at the European level, for achieving the objective of enhanced educational quality assurance.[3] The European Commission was invited by the Council in 2014 to support and strengthen Member States in developing their respective quality assurance arrangements for schools providing compulsory education.[4] Support was also offered by the Council for promoting quality educational assurance with a “European dimension” that would facilitate the evaluating of schools across Member State borders, and which does not appear to be limited any longer to institutions of higher education.[5]

However, the issue arises whether there can actually be a meaningful “European dimension” to educational quality assurance (particularly with regard to schools providing compulsory education), given the differing interpretations of quality assurance, which presently exist across the EU’s Member States.[6]

2          A “European Dimension” to Quality Assurance in Education

The Council’s support for greater European level quality assurance for education comes in the wake of its recognition of the challenges faced by education and training systems throughout the EU.[7] These challenges include a need to improve rates of student retention, broaden access to education, encourage the development of learning that is innovative, and to provide for learners to obtain necessary competencies, skills and knowledge.[8] The Council has also crucially recognised that there is a “considerable scope” of availability, in all areas of training and education, for quality assurance approaches that provide greater efficacy.[9]

Cooperation at the European level was also emphasized by the Council, extending through the year 2020, with a focus upon providing support for Member State training and educational system development.[10] The Council has also encouraged the use of European quality assurance instruments by the Member States, in order to support the development of quality assurance mechanisms in education that promote improved teaching and training in schools.[11]  Additionally, cooperation at the European level has been encouraged, which is “pertinent and concrete,” as well as the production of outcomes that are evident, visible and provide a foundation for ongoing evaluation in the area of training and education.[12]

Member States have also been encouraged to consider the potential for designing their policies, in the field of training and education, based upon “inspiration” and shared learning, which is derived at the European level.[13] All of these measures are with the objective of developing systems for educational assurance that are of greater efficacy, while according to the Council, respecting Europe’s diversity and the responsibility, which has been entrusted to the Member States for their own respective systems of educational provision.[14] There is clearly evidence of a move toward an expanded European role for the provision of quality educational assurance for schools throughout the EU’s Member States.[15] However, it is debatable as to whether there can be effective educational quality assurance at the European level, which could effectively extend to each school, which provides compulsory education throughout the EU’s Member States, and also offer meaningful support for educational improvement.

 

3          Differing Interpretations of Quality Assurance

Educational quality assurance is interpreted differently depending upon the Member State.  However, there are two shared methods, which are predominantly utilized for assessing schools throughout the EU. Educational quality assurance is conducted through internal and external school evaluations.[16] An internal school evaluation is carried out predominantly by personnel at the school being assessed.[17] An external evaluation is executed by evaluators who do not comprise members of the school’s personnel.[18] Both methods of school assessment are given varied and differing interpretations based upon the Member State where they are being applied.

 

A         External Evaluations

The focus of an external evaluation can differ between the EU’s Member States (even with regard to whether a nation chooses to employ this method for assessing its schools, which some Member States do not).[19] It is therefore an ineffective indicator for EU level purposes.  If each Member State provides differing standards and criteria for conducting an external evaluation, there can be no standardised set of criteria, which can be relied upon at the EU level, for determining whether or not an external evaluation has meaningfully measured the educational quality of a Member State school. In summary, there would be no method of comparing these results with an assessment conducted under different external evaluation standards in another Member State.

An example includes the fact that the final report of an external evaluation is made publicly available, such as on a governmental or school website, only under certain Member State educational administrations, while others permit this information to be disclosed only when requested or only to specified parties.[20] An existing informational inequality is subsequently created, because of the varying degrees of disclosure given to the results of external school evaluations. If there is inequality in the degree of disclosure being given to the results of an external evaluation’s findings, there cannot be meaningful EU level data, nor can there be reliable data, which may be used at the EU level for the future improvement of schools providing compulsory education.

It has also been importantly recognised that favorable or negative school evaluations, based upon external assessments, as well as their attendant degree of public exposure, can have the potential of leading to “socio-economic shifts” with the possibility of neighbourhoods being depreciated and expanded social division.[21] An additional critical aspect is that even if there is an external evaluation, directed at improving a Member State’s schools, the focus of that evaluation can differ.[22] The focus of an evaluation may be based upon the educational administration of the Member State and its respective goals, which may subsequently lead to a neglect in the evaluation of more relevant concerns, which could have otherwise had the potential, if recognised, to lead to the meaningful improvement of underperforming schools.[23]

An external evaluation may in certain Member States hold formal student assessment scores as its predominant consideration in determining whether a school is performing effectively.[24] This can be presently seen in the United States, where a movement in this regard, has led to great debate as to whether formal assessments, through application of the Common Core State Standards testing model, should be the predominant consideration for assessing student learning ability, as well as the quality of a school.[25] However, as has been correctly noted, this may not be an accurate measure of the actual quality of a school or the capability of the educational institution’s students.[26]

It is also of interest that the responsibility of assessing and implementing educational quality assurance for external school evaluations may vary.[27] This responsibility is held by sub-regional or regionally organised bodies in Austria, Turkey, Poland, Estonia and Hungary.[28] Due to the decentralized nature of these evaluative bodies, school evaluative approaches will be varied, rather than unified, or based upon commonly standardized parameters for assessing educational quality assurance.[29]

In France, a central and standardised set of criteria and framework for establishing and defining an effective school is not available or relied upon for making school assessments, as is the case in other Member States.[30] An external evaluation of a school’s quality, is in France, not subject to any “standardised protocol,” which would otherwise provide criteria and methodologies to be used in evaluating schools for educational quality assurance.[31]

Alternatively, an external evaluation may be directed at identifying a school’s weaknesses or instead employ the approach of Lithuania and Poland, which is to also make visible those schools and their educational practices, which are achieving positive educational outcomes.[32]  Member State external school evaluations will also vary based upon whether the State holds the responsibility for educational quality, whether accountability is public or market based, or whether neither approach to accountability is adhered to by the Member State’s educational system.[33] In Turkey and France, the State is responsible for the accountability of schools while an approach to accountability that is market based is exhibited in the Netherlands.[34]

Additionally, the results of an external evaluation are also used differently with regard to improving education quality throughout the Member States.[35] An example includes the Czech Republic where the recommendations of an external evaluation do not place a corresponding obligation upon the schools assessed, unless there are “serious failings.”[36] Meaningful EU level educational quality assurance is made difficult due to the great disparities existing throughout the Member States, as to how and whether an external school evaluation is conducted, as well as how the results of that evaluation are employed.

 

B         Internal Evaluations

The application and interpretation of internal school evaluations also differ throughout the EU’s Member States. In France and Bulgaria, internal school evaluations are not required, while twenty seven other Member State educational systems make this type of evaluation mandatory.[37]  Additionally, even under Member State educational systems where internal evaluations for school quality assurance are mandatory, the implementation requirements that are employed “vary widely” between Member States.[38]

This degree of variation extends to the school level, with many Member States permitting their schools to operate independently, with regard to their conducting of internal school evaluations.[39]  In comparison, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Romania, require their schools to use a framework for educational quality assessment, that is the same as that employed by those conducting an external evaluation.[40] The frequency of internal evaluations, where required, also varies, as in Sweden, Hungary, Lithuania and Croatia where there are no regulations pertaining to the frequency required for administering internal school evaluations.[41] However, in Germany, internal evaluation frequency is determined by each Land.[42] Finally, the use of internal school evaluation results varies.[43] However, in most Member State schools, use of the results of an internal school evaluation, is predominantly left to the staff’s discretion at each school, thereby leaving it unknown, as to whether actual improvements to educational quality are subsequently being achieved following the educational quality assurance assessment.[44]

 

4          Conclusion

An increasing emphasis appears to be placed on greater European level involvement in education quality assurance throughout the EU’s Member States. However, due to continuing differences in how quality assurance is interpreted and applied by each of the EU’s Member States with regard to their respective school systems, a shared European definition or “dimension” of quality assurance, will in all likelihood continue to pose a significant challenge for the foreseeable future.[45]

[1] European Commission/EACEA/Eurydice, 2015. Assuring Quality in Education: Policies and Approaches to School Evaluation in Europe. Eurydice Report. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union., p. 7, 13.
<http://eacea.ec.europa.eu/education/eurydice> Accessed 11th of March 2015.
[2] Puhl, A and Crosier, D., Turning Tides in School Evaluation, 29 January 2015, p. 1. <http://eacea.ec.europa.eu/education/eurydice/focuson/Turning_tides_in_school_evaluation.php> Accessed 11th of March 2015.
[3] Eurydice at p. 13.
[4] Ibid. at p. 7.
[5] Council Conclusions of 20 May 2014, Quality Assurance Supporting Education and Training, C(2014) 183/07., p. 2.
< http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=CELEX:52014XG0614%2807%29> Accessed 11th of March 2015.
[6] See Quality Assurance, p. 2.
[7] Quality Assurance, p. 1.
[8]  Ibid.
[9]  Ibid. at p. 2.
[10] Council Conclusions of 12 May 2009, Strategic Framework for European Cooperation in Education and Training, (ET 2020) C(2009) 119/02., p. 2.
<http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal content/EN/ALL/%3bELX_SESSIONID=R1JdJhlPvvvnXXdCyr3ZvZ2yBxBq44pJ1w2rvvK6tr8tsS6JJJhh%21444153091?uri=CELEX:52009XG0528%2801%29 > Accessed 11th of March 2015.
[11] Quality Assurance, p. 2.
[12] Strategic Framework, p. 2.
[13] Ibid. at p. 5.
[14] Ibid. at p. 2.
[15] Ibid. at p. 5.
[16] Eurydice at p. 7.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Turning Tides, p. 1.
[20] Ibid.
[21] Turning Tides, p. 1.
[22] Ibid.
[23] Ibid.
[24] Ibid.
[25] See Common Core State Standards Initiative, <http://www.corestandards.org/> Accessed 11th of March 2014.
[26] Turning Tides, p. 1.
[27] Eurydice at p. 8.
[28] Ibid.
[29] Ibid.
[30] Ibid.
[31] Ibid.
[32] Ibid. at p. 9.
[33] Ibid. at pps. 9-10.
[34] Ibid. at p. 10.
[35] See Ibid. at p. 30.
[36] Eurydice, p. 30.
[37] Ibid. at p. 10.
[38] Ibid.
[39] Ibid.
[40] Ibid.
[41] Ibid. at p. 41.
[42] Ibid.
[43] Ibid. at p. 50.
[44] Ibid.
[45] See Quality Assurance, p. 2.