Accountability in decentralized systems: rethinking how we evaluate schools

This week, Dr. Melanie Ehren expands upon her most recent research on accountability and decentralization in Scotland’s schools. Here she provides background on a project she touched on in last week’s post, in which she explored the connection between testing and teaching in UK schools. This piece also follows a recent post IEN published on Chris Chapman’s work with school improvement efforts and learning partnerships as well as earlier posts on “centralized decentralization” in Singapore. Dr. Ehren has also written about her work in a project on school inspections in Europe and in an earlier IEN post comparing school inspections in England, the Netherlands, Sweden, Austria, Ireland and the Czech Republic.


Many countries have given schools more autonomy over the last decade, according to the OECD. Examples are the Netherlands where schools have autonomy in allocating resources as well as in making decisions about curricula and assessments and England where publicly funded independent academies and free schools have freedom in setting pay and conditions for their staff, decide on how to deliver the curriculum, have the ability to change the length of terms, and set their own school hours. The assumption behind greater school-level decision-making is to give power to make decisions to those who have first-hand knowledge of the challenges they face and what they need to solve those challenges. Greater autonomy often goes hand in hand with increased accountability as national governments want to have a safety net in case schools misuse their freedom. The combination of decentralization of decision-making with centralized accountability creates an interesting paradox of freedom with greater control, which can, according to the OECD, lead to improved student outcomes if combined intelligently.

Decentralized decision-making, centralized accountability

In a recent comparative EU-funded study we have started to look at what such intelligent combination might look like, analyzing countries that have recently implemented more locally embedded inspection models, often alongside existing centralized inspections of schools. Newer models are inspired by ‘theory-driven evaluation,’ which take the purposes of the evaluation and how these purposes are expected to be achieved, as a starting point. The foundation for theory-driven evaluation were laid by Peter Rossi, along with Carol Weiss and Huey-Tsych Chen who explained how programme theories and logic models can be constructed to guide an evaluation. Mayne’s ‘contribution analysis,’ also focuses on the causes of outcomes by gathering various perspectives on the degree of impact on observed results. Finally, Michael Quinn Patton’s developmental evaluation provides relevant approaches that help people to learn to think and act as evaluators with a goal of ensuring that evaluations have a lasting impact. This approach encourages those involved in an initiative to constantly assess their work, to reflect on whether it has the intended outcomes, and to make adjustments.

In our EU-funded study we are mapping examples of countries that have incorporated such models in their accountability systems. One of the interesting examples comes from Scotland where the Inspectorate of Education (Education Scotland) is collaborating with other stakeholders in Scotland’s ‘School Improvement Partnership Programme’ (SIPP); an approach that clearly features ‘developmental evaluation.’ In March 2013, the Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning announced the SSIP as a solution focused approach to tackle the steadfast link between socio-economic deprivation and low educational attainment. The aim of the programme is to make explicit links to strategic improvement planning in schools and local authorities. The School Improvement Partnerships is described by Education Scotland as an approach based on action research and a process of collaborative inquiry. Schools have been asked to take the lead in developing projects around a number of key themes (e.g. differences in achievement by gender, improving transition, differences between small and large schools); projects are also expected to operate across local authority boundaries (cross-sectoral, multi-disciplinary, partnerships with independent sector) and involve a partnership with local authorities, Education Scotland and other agencies. Each partnership is expected to share and try out effective approaches and to indicate what success will look like, with a strong focus on impact in making a difference to young people’s achievement and ultimately life chances. Each of the partnerships develops a structured, collaborative inquiry approach along three phases of preparation (analyzing the context and agreeing on inquiry questions and purposes), exploring the evidence and testing change.

In this approach, evaluation and accountability are key drivers for change and improvement, but they are framed by local questions and local issues instead of centralized frameworks. The programme also offers support to build evaluation and improvement capacity by a trio of named individuals from Education Scotland, local authorities and university researchers who each undertake their own inquiry to explore how the partnership project contributes to the overarching programme inquiry. Education Scotland’s role is to coordinate the development and implementation of the programme, deciding on which partnership gets funding, brokering national partnering and making links across authorities and university researchers and visiting partnerships to identify key challenges in and monitor developments of the programme. Its role is also to provide assistance in collating statistical information about the schools and partnerships to inform their decision-making; supporting a database and communication system to facilitate the sharing of knowledge and resources within and between partnerships, and bringing partnerships together to share experiences at appropriate points within the programme. According to Education Scotland, “This ambitious programme seeks to harness the professional creativity and innovation that exists within the Scottish education community. The programme provides exciting opportunities to rethink roles and relationships within the system and generate and share new practice.”

Expanding the menu of school accountability to include such decentralized approaches allows for greater flexibility in implementing evaluations that fit different purposes and inform system-wide improvement in an ever changing education landscape. The next step in our project is to understand the impact such decentralized accountability models have in improving student outcomes in schools and education networks, but initial results are promising.

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