Blog: Melanie Ehren about the Dutch inspections of school boards - changing roles and responsibilities for school improvement

In 2017, the Dutch Inspectorate of Education introduced a new framework for inspections of school boards. The new framework follows a shift in the wider governance of schools with new legislation implemented in 2010 (‘Goed Onderwijs, Goed Bestuur’) to more clearly demarcate the roles and responsibilities of school boards. The Act requires school boards to ensure a minimum standard of performance in their schools and to quality control and improve their schools. Given that school boards are responsible for school quality, inspections now predominantly evaluate their functioning instead of the quality of teaching and learning in schools.

In a study with Dr. Cor van Montfort and Dr. Marlies Honingh (PI of the study), we reconstructed the assumptions underlying the inspection framework and analyzed their consistency, completeness and empirical value. An analysis of the inspection framework, underlying strategy documents and interviews with senior policy-makers at the Inspectorate of Education revealed that the aims of inspections of school boards are to:

  • Guarantee a minimum level of quality in schools (as indicated by legislation; e.g. minimum teaching hours, standards of performance), but also 
  • Stimulate schools and school boards to improve beyond legislated standards towards a set of school/school board specific indicators of quality and a more localized quality profile.

In their inspection framework and strategy documents, the Inspectorate of Education outlines how it expects to motivate school boards to become learning organizations and have policies and procedures in place to monitor and improve their schools. The below figure summarizes their theory of change and indicates that 1) customizing inspection to school boards and their schools and 2) a yearly early warning analysis of school and school board performance is expected to lead to improvement of school boards and schools via:

  • the feedback and the motivation to implement quality assurance 
  • informing and involving stakeholders in quality assurance and improvement 
  • allowing for competition and informed school choice
  • institutionalizing standards of high educational quality 
  • ensuring learning and ownership of/for continuous improvement.

How valid are these assumptions? A survey of head teachers and teachers in primary and secondary schools and FTE colleges aims to answer these questions, but an initial literature review already offers some answers and caveats. Let me highlight two:

1. In their policy theory, the Inspectorate of Education aims to combine a standardized approach with early warning analysis and a framework of indicators to warrant a level of ‘basic quality’ in schools. School boards are expected to incorporate these in their quality assurance and ensure schools meet these requirements. At the same time, the Inspectorate of Education seeks to instill a culture of learning in school boards and their schools where both are active agents of change and engage their stakeholders in a continuous cycle of improvement. The two approaches represent very distinct ways of working and mindsets which are expected to be combined in one and the same framework and inspection. by the same inspectors in one inspection visit. The intense debate on the ‘control’ versus ‘improvement’ function of Inspectorates of Education and whether the two can effectively be combined (see f.e. Anderson, 2005) suggests that is not an easy combination.

2. A second point of critique refers to the school boards as the main object of inspection and whether this is the best locus of control for improvement of learning outcomes. As Honingh and others (2017) indicate, school boards can only have an indirect effect on learning outcomes at best; teachers in schools are after all the ones who are working with students and supporting them to learn the curriculum. School boards can only provide the environment and incentives for them to do a good job. The policy theory, as summarized in the above figure, acknowledges such indirect impact but the long chain of impact (from inspection to school board, to head teacher, to teacher, to learner) indicates that improvement of learning outcomes through a change in school board governance might be too ambitious.

Anderson, J.A. (2005). Accountability in Education. Paris/Brussels: Unesco 

Honingh, M., Ruiter, M., & Van Thiel, S. (2017). Een internationale vergelijking van de relatie tussen onderwijsbestuur en de kwaliteit van onderwijs in het primair en voortgezet onderwijs – Nederlands exceptionalisme? Instituut voor Management Research, Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen.