Gábor Halász


The quality of education: reflections on policy implications


Quality as an education policy goal

Assuring quality, efficiency and effectiveness is generally seen as an education policy goal that comes necessarily into conflict with the goals of equity or equal chances, on the one hand, and freedom and democracy, on the other. These three sets of policy goals form a kind of triad the poles of which can always be played out against the two others. Experience shows that the need to improve quality has often legitimised state intervention leading to the restriction of school and local level freedom. Similarly, efforts to provide equal chances in the education system has often been made to the detriment of quality, and quality schools have often been described as selective institutions disliked by egalitarians.

This dynamic of the three sets of complementary education policy goals seems, however, to have been changed in the last one or two decades. In many countries quality and efficiency problems have been imputed to the state playing a too strong role, and giving more freedom to schools or introducing market mechanisms have been seen as a powerful instruments to assure better quality and efficiency. And similarly, it has been discovered that the capacity of a system to compensate disadvantages depends very much on the quality of teaching in terms of adequate pedagogical methods, differentiated learning and well focussed institutional management. While in the past quality was a synonym of academic excellence it is now more and more connected with various educational goals, including the efficient treatment of school failure or the successful compensation of social disadvantages. Today – even if this is not always present in the everyday practice - it is widely recognised that schools catering for difficult student populations can be qualified as high quality institutions. Naturally, the criteria of quality and effectiveness are not the same in these schools than in those which cater for the academically talented.

All these changes show a radical shift in the definition of quality and also in the conception of the instruments that can be used to reach quality education (I shall come back to these later). This shift has also changed the dynamic of the three major policy goals. The broadening of the definition of quality and effectiveness and the new ideas on how to reach them have made from this education policy goal an integrative one. Quality and effectiveness (together with efficiency) have became in our modern education system those goals that may receive support from almost all actors of the policy scene. Egalitarians and those committed to fight against school failure, selection or exclusion are now more and more often looking for quality schools that are specially equipped to cope with these issues. An similarly, defenders of autonomy, freedom and consumer liberty can more and more often see themselves as the most efficient supporters of quality.

The themes of monitoring, evaluating and assuring quality, as it has been pointed to by many, have come into the focus of education policy in most developed countries since the middle of the seventies. This has been a major policy shift after more than two decades of major structural reforms, democratisation and expansion being the key policy concepts. The profound causes of this shift have been frequently described by many authors: long lasting economic crisis and waves of financial austerity measures following the 1974 oil crisis bringing the accountability and “value for money” philosophy to the fore of government policies; the failure of social-democratic and Keynsian welfare state policies to cope with the crisis and the emergence of new liberal-conservative solutions; the disappointment with the results of the great structural reforms of the sixties and seventies and the search for new, alternative ways to change the education system; the legitimation crisis of the modern capitalist state, the participatory movement and the growing difficulties to govern huge and complex social systems efficiently and to sustain social support for them etc. The changing dynamic of education policy goals is, in fact, part of this story. If the goal of quality and effectiveness is capable to integrate various policy orientations we can count on this goal remaining a major axis of education policy on the long term.

With some delay Central and Eastern Europe seems to follow the same trend. It is not surprising that from the triad of equality/equity, quality/effectiveness and democracy/freedom the last one was considered as the most important one in the early period of establishing political democracy. In this period the goals of emancipating education from under political tutelage, reaffirming national identity and restoring the autonomy of schools, local communities and the teaching profession have naturally prevailed over the other goals.

In this region quality was generally not a priority even for the re-emerging conservative thinking – to which the stressing of this goal is often associated – or at least not in the same sense as for their Western European counterparts who sought alliance with the market-oriented liberals. While the latest understood quality as it is perceived by the consumer of the education service for many Central and Eastern European conservatives quality education appeared as the synonym of the traditional academically oriented education.


A changing definition of quality


The current thinking on quality puts the stress on the public service dimension of education. This way of looking at education is different of what we have been used to for centuries since it expects that schools not only transmit universal and national cultural values, socially relevant knowledge and their mission is not only to develop the individual capacities of children but they also have to satisfy the various needs of different users, that is parents, students, employers, local communities and others. This way of thinking considers user satisfaction as perhaps the most important criteria for quality. According to this education as a public service can be qualified as of good quality if its various users or consumers are satisfied with it.

Our traditional mind is often shocked at first if somebody talks about consumers in connection with education. But those who do so can say: consumers – that is parents, students, employers or local communities – do not expect other things from schools than educational leaders. What do the parents, for instance, expect in general? They expect that schools do the best for the intellectual, moral and psychological development of the child, that they transmit those values and intellectual contents that are relevant in our societies, that the child becomes motivated to learn, that he or she become prepared for professional life. In fact what the consumer expects is generally not very different from what we professional teachers and educationalists do. Therefore, if we give him the possibility to formulate and express its expectations and we demand schools to listen to them we release a powerful instrument for the achievement of our goals.

Those who accept this may be surprised why the consumer has received so little attention so far in connection with education, contrary to other services. Why such a powerful instrument to improve the quality of education has not been used in a much wider way? The answer to this question lays partly in the well known desire of the nation state and the national political elite to have the monopoly of defining what quality in education is.

The greatest challenge for a state education policy that places quality at the top of its priority list is that not everybody understands the same thing when speaking about the quality of education, that is there are concurring quality notions. The problem seems, however, to be less severe if we realise that there are some common points almost everybody can accept. One of these common points is that quality, whatever it means, must be permanently assured, or that its presence must be rewarded while its lack must be sanctioned. The question is not whether the efficient transmission of natural science knowledge or the successful development of co-operative skills leads to better quality education but whether educational activities, independently of the educational goals that are pursued, are done effectively, with openness to self-correction etc. or not. Or, to  put it in a very simple way from the point of view of the consumer, the question is whether the service is provided so that the consumer is satisfied. It may happen that the consumer can not define exactly what he or she desires but it is always easy to decide whether he or she is satisfied.

When thinking about quality we cannot avoid reflecting on some other notions that generally appear in the vocabulary of quality oriented education policies. Earlier we mentioned quality together with the notions of effectiveness and efficiency. The literature of the Anglo-Saxon countries makes the difference between these two notions always very clear. It is evident that a school may be very effective – that is it realises successfully the educational goals assigned to it – but still it is inefficient – that is it pays a too high price in terms of resources for its success. This distinction between effectiveness and efficiency is much less emphasised in some other countries, sometimes the translation of these notions itself is difficult.

Education policies focussing on quality pay logically a strong attention also to evaluation and measurement of results. This is not surprising since evaluation and measurement are, by no means, among the most efficient instruments to achieve quality. Here again, however, there are some problems that are worth being reflected to. When speaking about evaluation and measurement educators often limit the scope of their attention to learning achievements. Learning achievement are certainly among the most important outcomes of education that have to be evaluated but they are not the only one. If evaluation is seen as an important function of education systems it is necessary to construct a register of all those factors which can and should be evaluated and also a register of all those actors who can play a role in evaluation. The same is valid, off course, also for quality. If quality is to be assured in an education system, there is a need to list all those elements of the system which may have good or bad quality, and to define the desirable action of all those actors who may have an impact on quality (I shall come back later also to this).

Learning achievements are, again, only one these factors, and supervisors or administrators are only one category of potential actors. Beyond the learning achievements evaluation should be directed to such factors as teacher work, educational leadership, schools as institutions, teaching programs and materials, support mechanisms and so on. But even if we limit our attention to pupil achievement, we must have a broader view: not only factual knowledge but also general competencies must be measured. This requires, of course, more sophisticated measuring instruments. 

A further concept that must be taken into consideration is that of added value. There is a growing awareness of the importance of measuring not only outcome indicators in themselves but also their relationship to input indicators. The effectiveness of schools or pupils producing similar measured results may be very different if these results are produced on the basis of different inputs. The recognition of the importance of the concept of added value may also lead to the reduction of the traditional conflict between policies aiming at improving quality and those aiming at creating equal chances. If added value is measured instead of outcomes in absolute terms schools catering for disadvantaged students groups may achieve similar or better results than those receiving academically motivated students. In fact, schools working with socially handicapped or less motivated children often do high quality work which cannot be measured through learning achievements. If quality is understood in a narrow academic sense these schools may be discouraged or disqualified in spite of the high quality of their work (which is a logical explanation for the typical resistance of those committed to equal chances policies against narrow minded quality policies).

All what we said shows how difficult is to find a generally accepted meaning for educational quality. This difficulty was convincingly demonstrated by study prepared by an expert group for the European Commission on quality management and quality assurance in higher education[1]. The study quotes the hero of a book written by Robert Pirsig in the early seventies who was looking in vain for the essence of quality. When he finally though to find it he got mad. The expert report formulates the conclusion: there is no sense in looking for the essence of quality, nobody never will find it. Instead of following the essentialist efforts it is better to follow a nominalist approach and to accept the definition given by C. Ball in 1995 in his book “Fitness for Purpose”. According to this quality is fitness for purpose, that is its meaning always depends on the goals in given circumstances. The question of who defines the goals of course remain a key question.

Actors, levels and areas

The question of who defines the goals brings us back to the concept of consumer as the key actor who is capable to compare products or services with his or her needs and goals. Putting the consumer in the focus does not solve our problems since in the case of education it is not evident at all whom we should see as consumer. So far we have given attention mainly to parents but parents are only one of the potential consumers of education. We have to take into consideration other groups as well, like local and national communities, local and state authorities who are legitimately mandated to represent the interests of these communities, civilian organisations or the business community and the different representatives of the world of economy. They all take part in the definition of quality therefore the definition we give to this notion depends on all of them. Since no single definition of quality can satisfy the needs of all these various actors there is no other choice as to accept the co-existence of divergent quality definitions. The conclusion we can draw here – and this is probably one of the most important statements we can make – is this: more an education system is capable to meet the educational needs of various social groups, mot it is capable to produce quality. A precondition of producing quality in our modern, multifunctional education systems is encouraging diversification that is the possibility of satisfying a great variety of educational needs. We have, therefore, to create such organisational and regulatory conditions that allow the highest number of needs to be satisfied.

This necessarily directs our attention to the institutional level. If we accept the approach presented above the institution inevitably becomes a key actor. It is only at institutional level that the needs of particular consumer groups can be identified, analysed and particular adaptation strategies can be elaborated. The most important condition for producing quality education services is the commitment of individual institutions towards quality improvement, that is the presence in every school of a conscious effort to improve quality. This effort should appear as continuos organisational actions aiming at evaluating quality and improving it. The quality awareness of a school organisation is almost necessarily leading to better quality even if external quality definitions are not given. It is evident that the management has a key role in creating and sustaining this organisational level quality consciousness. It is probably not an exaggeration if we say that this task of raising and reinforcing the quality awareness of schools is among the most important tasks of educational managers.

Stressing the importance of the institutional level does not mean that we can neglect the role of those professional and administrative players who operate above the level of the school. If there are no well founded national standards to be followed by every school that particular institutions can refer to, institutional level efforts alone will not create good quality education in any country. Similarly, if the teaching profession as a whole does not see quality and quality improvement as a highly ranked priority that must strongly influence professional preparation and practice at all level, single institutions will not be able to make a counterbalance. Forces at the institutional (micro) level and those at national (macro) level, including the teaching profession as a whole must mutually reinforce each other.

This leads us to a second major conclusion that can be formulated here: a policy of educational quality can be successful only if it creates a synergy between micro and the macro level actions. Even a very high level school level quality awareness cannot produce good quality in an educational system if no reference can be made to well founded national standards, and if pursuing quality is seen as highly ranked professional priority within the teaching profession as a whole.

Our reflection on the meaning of quality has led us to the conclusion that not single and simple definition can be given. In fact, a key element of any policy of educational quality is a permanent questioning on what quality is. Any discourse that uses the notion of quality or quality improvement in a general way is somehow suspicious. When speaking about the quality of education we should always put the question: it is about the quality of what concretely. This is fundamental since the quality problems of different things necessitate very different interventions at very different levels. There is no general quality problems and no general answer can be given to different quality problems.

It is particularly important therefore that – before evaluating, criticising or praising the quality of an educational system – we do the detailed analysis of all those areas in connection with which it is meaningful to talk about quality and – before initiating policies of quality improvement – we think about the specificity of strategies to be used. The meaning and the way of improvement of quality is not the same when we talk about the learning process in the classroom and individual pupil learning, the individual and collective work of teachers, the operation of the school organisation, the activity of the maintainers of schools, local school networks or national education systems, curricula, teaching programs and textbooks, and so on. If we look only at one or two of these and forget the others it is improbable that we can pursue efficient actions for better quality. This is however quite typical. It is not rare, for instance, that people make tremendous national level efforts to improve educational programs, curricula and textbooks and forget, that all these material will not produce quality learning and teaching if the quality of the school organisation remains bad or – especially – if teachers are not prepared to use the high quality material. The opposite form of mistake is also frequent. School level organisation developers and those committed to the improvement of management often neglect the importance of the nationally set curricular and evaluation standards.

Finally, we also have to think about all those actors who may have an impact on quality, that is those who can improve or damage quality. A special attention has to be given to those who may have an active role in a policy aiming at assuring quality. One sided thinking is not rare in this respect either. Many of those who are concerned about quality tend to limit their reflection to what the state could or should do and forget the other potential actors or management levels. They do not see how tremendous role, for instance, the school level management or the local community institutions can play in this area. Those who believe in community actions – should they be local or national –tend to forget the possible impact of assessments made by individual consumers. There are also those who think local and individual actions can solve all quality problems and do not see the huge potential of state actions. If we want a really efficient policy of quality assurance the better is to go through all the possible actors and think about what particular action they may efficiently pursue in what particular area. If, for instance, we want to improve the quality of the textbook supply probably we shall come to the conclusion that national level actions are more efficient than school level ones (although the latter also may have influence). On the contrary, if we want schools to be more open to their environment we probably shall be in favour of school level actions. And if, for example, we want active teaching methods to replace passive ones, we have to combine national and school level actions sine none of these would be effective without the other.

Further policy implications

A policy of quality in the education sector has some preconditions. One of them is that there should be a demand for improving and preserving quality in other sectors as well. A certain social climate is needed for a policy of quality becoming successful. If people are satisfied with education or if they are preoccupied by other kinds of problems – for instance with problems of basic democracy, religious freedom or equity – a policy of quality improvement does not have much chance to be implemented. According to what has been said in the first section of this paper it is logical to think that those committed to improve the quality of education have to find allies. The way we define quality will also define who our allies will be. But here I would like to stress again: the policy of quality improvement has become something that has a great chance to win the support of others.

It comes from what has been said in the previous section that a policy for improving the quality of education should be a complex one taking into consideration (1) the complexity of the notion of quality and its possible different interpretations, (2) all the different fields and functions of education in connection with which it is meaningful to talk about quality and (3) the high number of actors and players which have an impact on quality and which may play an active role in improving it.

One of the key conclusions we can draw from the considerations above is that a policy of quality improvement and assurance has to start with a public debate on what quality is. In fact, this debate is part of the policy of quality, since the debate itself contributes to the improvement of quality. If a narrow quality notion is imposed without public debate the risk of important groups becoming disinterested or even destructive will grow.

Many of those who are concerned for quality think that a policy of quality improvement is a policy of strengthening control. Some think that if control is reinforced, quality is immediately assured. I think, they are wrong. It is evident that control mechanisms are essential for quality assurance but there is no equality between the two. On the one hand control may be used for many purposes and not only for assuring quality. On the other, there are a number of instruments besides control that should be used. The policy of improving and assuring quality necessarily contains elements of introducing new control mechanisms and reforming existing ones. But this policy will be efficient only if it takes the form of a complex development program containing a number of elements like modifying existing regulations, establishing new incentives, developing new institutions and new competencies, increasing resources for certain functions, letting or encouraging new actors to enter the scene, looking for new allies, the use of communication and training to change the behaviour of certain actors and so on.

Let me give just a few examples on the basis of our recent reflections and experiences in Hungary. We are spending millions on new programs and textbooks but we have very little knowledge on how the influence the teaching learning process. Why should not we spend some of these resources on investigating the impact of different programs and textbooks. Some people rightly point to the shocking contrast between the health and the education sector. In the health sector a new medicine is introduced after years of experiments. When the future users receive the medicine they also get information on its appropriate use which is based on the preceding research. In education we introduce new teaching materials without any similar testing and the teacher who starts working with the material does not necessarily know in what conditions it works and in what conditions it does not. Producing more relevant knowledge may be a key factor of quality.

Another example comes from teacher initial and in-service training. A policy of quality improvement and quality assurance will probably have very weak impact if it does not take teacher training as a strategic area. Teachers, in general, are very little taught on how to evaluate their own work, how to use feedback coming from different directions to improve their work or how to take an active part in those school level activities that serve the improvement and maintenance of quality. Most teachers understand only when they leave training and enter the real school that teaching is not an individual but a collective work and that the quality of teaching can be assured only through collective action.

Thinking about instruments and mechanisms that can assure quality we often forget how powerful simple communication is. Putting teachers and schools into communicative relationships may improve their involvement, their information on the value of their own work, their knowledge on what other people expect from them, and so on. Communication puts into motion this way a number of factors that have a direct impact on quality. Co-operation has a similar impact. Co-operating with others gives us feedback, challenges us, makes us to improve what we bring into co-operation. If two schools have to realise a common project it is almost certain that they will work better than if they had to work alone. If teachers have to solve a problem in a team they certainly will come to a higher quality solution than if all of them work separately. If there are working education media, if there are permanent forums for discussing education problems, if new ideas are rapidly communicated within the teaching profession quality will improve even if this is not an explicit goal. Probably improving and enriching communication and co-operation in the education system itself is one of the most efficient ways to improve quality.

The example of communication and co-operation shows well that we have to seek linkages and synergies between policies and we should find the potential positive or negative impact of actions in other policy areas for our own policy goals. The teacher profession was also mentioned in the previous paragraph. In fact the process of professionalisation of teaching is again a powerful supporter of quality. If teaching becomes more professionalised, that is a professional identity becomes stronger, informal professional control mechanisms start working, standards are more carefully defined and sanctioned and a vivid professional public emerge quality will certainly improve. Here again, we can conceive a strong policy of quality without pronouncing the word quality. This is an example which also shows the risks. Strong professionalism, especially if the profession becomes too closed and tradition oriented may block development processes. In the case of the policy of quality improvement this may make it more difficult to adapt quality definitions to recent social challenges.

The risks of a two narrow professional definition of quality may be reduced if the reinforcement of professionalisation is accompanied by strategies leading to open schools to their environment and letting new actors to enter the scene. This is also in harmony with what has been said earlier on the role of consumers. If the consumer has to receive a key role in judging and improving quality the institutional framework for this role has to be created. When we do this we always have to keep in mind the potential conflict between professionals and consumers. In fact, the goal is the create an alliance between those professionals who think their mission is to provide high quality service to their users in a professional way and those consumers who know that the quality they wish can be produced only by professionals. This coalition represents probably the most powerful support for a policy of quality improvement and assurance. We have to know that professionals who deduce their mission from broader national, religious or other general societal goals will be more reluctant to enter such user oriented coalitions.

One of the most important elements of policies of quality assurance is institutional evaluation and self-evaluation. In this area there appears a particularly strong need for development. On the one hand new instruments and techniques have to be developed, on the other hand administrative and institutional mechanisms have to be changed so that they encourage the use of these new instruments. There is also a danger in over-emphasising evaluation, should it be external or internal. Evaluation is normally periodical while quality has to be assured on a permanent basis. Therefore it is not enough to introduce and reinforce evaluation, but there is a need for daily mechanisms that assure quality on a continuos basis. Quality experts make a deliberate distinction between quality control and quality assurance. Evaluation is always used for the first but not necessarily for the second. Organisations need mechanisms that are build into their daily operation which assure quality almost automatically, even if nobody thinks of it.

If institutional evaluation and internal quality assurance mechanisms are is to be generalised, there is a need for well trained specialists who have the appropriate expertise and practice in this area. A training background for these specialist has to be created within higher education or elsewhere. Part of the special knowledge in this area can be found outside the country. International co-operation should be used to import this knowledge.

This leads us again to the question of creating synergies not only between different policy areas but also between different administrative lines. It is quite typical that while those in a ministry who are responsible for school education try to mobilise resources for a policy of quality improvement, those who are responsible for international affairs in the same ministry do not know anything about it. International communication if, from many respect, a powerful instrument in quality improvement. Not only as a way to import and export relevant knowledge but also as an instrument to establish and strengthen standards, to make judgements more objective or simply to motivate actors to improve their results through the challenges of international communication.


[1] Quality management and quality assurance in European Higher education – methods and mechanisms, Comission of the European Communities, Brussels, 1993