Is it possible at all to measure the goodness of a school?
There are different ways how to understand what a good school is like. We are convinced that it is necessary to keep in mind the differences between a good basic school, a good upper secondary school, a good vocational school and a good preschool as they all can be good in different ways.
The aim of the good school project initiated by the Centre for Ethics of the University of Tartu is to discuss what conditions need to be fulfilled, in addition to good academic results, in order for a school to be a good school.
Discussing the Good School Model is different from discussing a good wine or a good theatre performance. Goodness of a school is not a question of taste because there is an agreement about the aims that a school has as an institution. Accordingly, it is possible to evaluate how well a school’s achievements conform to these aims. The aims of a school are described in the national curriculum that schools further adapt to their particular circumstances.
As a school has both educational and character building tasks, it is not sufficient to evaluate solely students’ academic achievement. It is also necessary to evaluate how well the school fulfils its aim of helping students to develop as well-rounded creative persons that can fully realise themselves in the different roles in their family, at work and in their community.
For evaluating the goodness of a school, one should take into account the following aspects:
- Academic achievement: Is learning successful, are students’ academic results good? This category also covers the questions of the methods used in teaching and the activities to support learning that the school offers, from the activities aimed at gifted and weak students, to the employment of mentors and the educational activities aimed at parents.
- Participation: What are the attendance and drop-out rates among students?
- Education process: Does education process support the personal development of students and the discovery and development of their gifts? To what degree are students active participants in the education process, capable of setting their own aims? To what degree is students’ interest towards learning supported and encouraged? How successfully are students’ self-esteem and self-confidence developed? How well is the development of creativity, critical thinking, discussion and presentation skills supported? How are students’ special needs taken into account?
- Successful and inclusive management: How open, inspirational and inclusive is the school governance? How efficiently are resources used?
- Evaluation practices: How extensively are the principles of formative assessment applied? How is the feedback given? What feedback do students and teachers receive?
- Disciplinary policies: What methods of maintaining order, giving recognition or punishment are used and how do they support the development of the attitudes in the sphere of values?
- Cooperation and relations between different parties: How pleasant is the school environment? What are the relations between different parties? How effective is cooperation between teachers and students, teachers themselves, teachers and the school administration, teachers and parents, teachers and support staff, school and community?
- Common activities: Do different parties at the school have a strong sense of belonging? How varied are extra-curricular activities?
- Physical and psychological environment: How pleasant is the school environment? How safe is the school? What relations dominate at the school? Do students like going to school? How the problem of bullying is addressed and what preventive measures are taken? How actively are healthy lifestyles popularised? What sporting facilities does the school offer? How healthy is the school food? How functional and aesthetically pleasant are the school rooms?
- Common aims: Does the school have shared aims explicitly formulated so that all parties are aware of them and work to achieve them? Is there systematic values development?
The Centre for Ethics supports the process of self-evaluation (feedback to the written self-analysis, meetings, trainings, critical friend programme etc.) Instructors from the Centre for Ethics, University of Tartu give written feedback to the school’s analysis, calling attention to parts that need improving, to methods of data gathering and deficiencies. After giving this feedback, the critical friend and a member of the Centre for Ethics visit the school with the purpose to give a feed forward – how do different aspects look to the critical friend and how are these in accordance with the aims, principles and values that the school finds to be important. Critical friend helps the school to reflect on different aspects, helps to sort activities, aims, and helps to bring out the strengths and points for improvement for the school.
During the period of 2009–2019, 98 schools and 113 preschools from all over Estonia have sent their self-analysis reports. With the permission of the acknowledged schools, good examples from the self-analysis reports have been published in the Ethics in Estonia portal (Eetikaveeb). A best practices database is being compiled with the aim of sharing the valuable experiences of schools, supporting the creation of a cooperation network and disseminating the notion of good school and its different viewpoints.
The whole-school approach of the Good School Model is described in its four fields and aspects of those four fields. Educational experts in Estonia developed the aspects to support the national curricula and life-long learning policies the best way possible. However, not all fields and aspects described are country-specific. One could easily adapt the model to support the aims of whichever other country in Europe. In doing so, all four fields and aspects should be revised and if necessary reorganized by adopting country’s educational experts to best fit their national context.