Evaluation within the education system in Ireland is largely operated at a national level. The legal framework for the evaluation of the education system lies in the Education Act 1998. This was the first comprehensive educational legislation in the history of the state and it formalised and legislated much of the practice that was in operation prior to its inception.
In accordance with the Education Act 1998, the overarching responsibility with regard to evaluation and assessment in the educational system rests with the Minister for Education and Skills: '......It shall be a function of the Minister…to monitor and assess the quality, economy, efficiency and effectiveness of the education system provided in the State by recognised schools and centres for education …..and to publish, in such manner as the Minister considers appropriate, information relating to such monitoring and assessment. (Section 7/2/b)
On behalf of the Minister, the Department of Education and Skills co-ordinates and develops policy and decisions relating to the monitoring and assessment of the education system. In so doing, it takes into account advice from the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) which, in accordance with Section 41 of the Education Act, has a key advisory role in developing mechanisms for assessing standards of knowledge and skills. The Department is centralised and maintains an infrastructure to implement national policy at regional, provincial and local level. Ireland does not have regional or provincial variations in relation to evaluation of the education system. Section thirteen of the Education Act, 1998 outlines the role and functions of the Inspectorate of the Department in relation to the quality assurance of the education system at primary and post-primary level.
Traditionally, evaluation of the education system has been a combination of:
- The work of the Department of Education and Skills' Inspectorate;
- Review of the outcomes of the State examinations in post-primary schools;
- Departmental reviews and examinations within the higher education institutions;
- Review or self-evaluation undertaken by individual schools, centres for education, other institutions, and teachers at all levels of the system.
External evaluation by the Inspectorate is one measure that is used in Ireland to help to ensure improvements in the quality of educational provision. The evaluation of primary schools, post-primary schools and centres for education is one of the statutory responsibilities of the Inspectorate under Section 13 of the Education Act 1998. This external evaluation complements other initiatives, such as school self-review, the work of the support services for schools, improvements in curricula, national assessments based on sampling and state examinations. In addition, international post-primary student assessments, statistics on student attendance and participation at all levels are important components of the knowledge base. The Inspectorate also contributes regularly to system evaluation by undertaking evaluation of educational programmes designed to meet particular needs, by participating in Value-for-Money (VFM) reviews and by assessing policy implementation and impact.
In theory, the framework for school assessment is underpinned by both school self-evaluation and external evaluation carried out by the Inspectorate of the Department of Education and Skills which in turn complements the self-evaluation processes. In the absence of a policy requirement that schools engage systematically in self-evaluation, external evaluation is in practice the main form of school assessment. Nonetheless, interest in self-evaluation has been growing and the education support services and the Inspectorate actively support it in their work with schools. This is reflected in procedures that are now in place to follow up on inspections and an emerging focus on self-evaluation as part of the inspection process. The National Literacy and Numeracy Strategy also highlights the importance of robust self-evaluation and identifies a range of strategies to facilitate effective school engagment in the process.