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The arguments for and the meaning of quality

Helen Thomas

Teachers, lecturers, heads of schools and departments, directors of studies, and managers, are all familiar with the idea of quality, and interpret it in a variety of ways in their own working context. This article explores the background to the quality debate as it aects both the private and the state sector, noting similarities and dierences between them; it looks at denitions of quality as they manifest themselves in schemes of quality assurance for the private language school sector, and for the state further and higher education sector, and seeks a rationale and meaning for quality for all practitioners.

Introduction

It is not only in the eld of English language teaching, whether in a private language school, a state secondary school, or at higher education level, that we come face to face with quality; the concept surfaces in all kinds of context. We talk about the quality of life and quality time, we drink quality wine and are pressed to buy from the company that oers a quality service. Education has been increasingly beset by the quality debate over the last 15 years, and there is a wealth of literature exploring denitions of quality, its implementation, and frameworks. In the context of our private lives it is easy to accept that individuals may have quite dierent denitions for the quality of life, or for what constitutes quality time. The concept of quality within education, however, is more complex, yet there is need for consistent interpretation and understanding. Accreditation schemes in the eld of ELT are relatively old, but literature on quality in ELT is somewhat sparse. White (1998) notes the lack of literature on quality in language teachinga situation which has not changed much in the past three or four years. However, the October 2001 conference of the British Association for State English Language Teaching (BASELT ) did have a focus on quality. In trying to grasp the concept of quality in education, one starting point is to look for a denition. Theoreticians have struggled and come up with a variety of denitions, including quality being determined by the degree to which set objectives are achieved, tness for purpose, added value, and client satisfaction (Vroeijenstijn 1992). A straw poll among practitionersteachers and managersat a seminar I ran elicited the following denitions of quality: excellence, improvement, andwhen given the analogy of a Rolls Royce versus a Trabant cartness for purpose. Improvement strikes immediately as a comfortable and
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acceptable interpretation in the context of education which is, after all, about developing and improvingimproving knowledge, skills, and opportunities in life. However acceptable it may be that improved lessons, improved results, and improved resources, for instance, mean better quality, interpreting quality as improvement also leaves unanswered questions. What exactly is it that is being improved? If it is lessons, how do we know they are improved? Is it really the teaching, or is it the learning? How is improvement demonstrated? League tables for schools are based on the assumption that better exam results mean higher quality, but the validity of such league tables, and the comparisons they invite, are easily questioned. The British league tables for performance of secondary schools look at exam results, and assume that the schools with the highest number of high grade GCSE s are the best. From the teachers perspective the criteria may be rather dierent, and school pupils are unlikely to list examinations statistics as their criteria for improvement or quality. For the headteacher, exam performance statistics not only inform a view of improvement, but may have a direct bearing on budget. To take improvement as a denition for quality leaves many unanswered questions. As with other denitions, it fails to capture some of the important whys of quality. By looking at what lies behind quality, we can reach a better understanding and denition.

Economic arguments Within the world of English language teaching there are a number of
bodies which play a role in quality. These include ACELS , EAQUALS , NYESZE , and IALC in Europe, NEAS in Australia; AAIEP and UCIEP in the United States, while in Britain there are ABLS , BALEAP , and the largest such bodyEiBAS . These acronyms are those of associations or schemes that accredit language teaching organizations and award a quality seal of approval. It is worth asking the rather crude question: why do language teaching organizations want to be accredited and carry a quality seal? As educators, we are likely to believe that it is because they want to improve for the good of the students and teachers, and because of a belief that education is always about improvement. This may indeed play a part, but perhaps more important for the individual schools is the desire to improve their share of the market. Language teaching organizations have to assure their business and generate income. This is not to suggest that private language schools are cut-throat businesses, there simply to make money: they are not. None the less, all private language schools are businesses, and can only carry out their business if they have sucient income to enable them to do their job well. Students fees provide the income, and by being accredited, schools believe they will be more attractive to students. Being able to demonstrate quality is an imperative for keeping business going. Thus the development of accreditation and recognition schemes, I would claim, has an economic rationale. If we look at the mission statement of EiBAS , as a large and well-established accreditation scheme, however, there is no suggestion that it has anything to do with economics. The aim of the English in Britain Scheme is to protect international students studying or planning to study English as a foreign language
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in the UK , by oering access to a range of services which meet agreed quality standards.

Political arguments

This statement focuses on protecting students, and assuring their access to language education that meets agreed quality standards. One of the concerns behind the development of some accreditation schemes was the presence in the market of cowboy language schools, which paid poor wages to unqualied teachers, and made money from unsuspecting students without due regard to the value of the language learning experience oered. This was clearly wrong. Schemes were needed which would enable students to select institutions, knowing they would oer a good learning experience; at the same time such schemes operated to exclude the cowboys, thus increasing the market share for respectable schools. The EiBAS scheme was set up and run by the British Council who, it could be argued, did not seek a share of the market. This undermines the economic argument. If we consider the cultural diplomacy role of the British Council, however, we can see how the accreditation scheme can be interpreted as one way of achieving friends forand promotingBritain, in a political (with a small p) aim, which arguably may also have nancial spin-os. The EiBAS mission statement also includes the phrase agreed quality standards, a concept shared with other accreditation schemes. Whose, however, are the agreed standards? One interpretation is that the standards are those of a self-selected group, which may include teachers, directors of studies, directors of schools, and members of professional bodies, who together believe they know what the standards should be, and who then develop the schemes with their standards in mind. One perspective is that they set themselves up as a superior constituency, putting themselves in the position to assure their business. This statement of agreed standards thus has a professional political undertone.

The state sector

I have argued so far that nancial and political aims have underpinned the development of quality assurance schemes within the private language school sector. What parallels are there, if any, in the state sector? Until relatively recently, British schools and higher education institutions enjoyed a high degree of institutional autonomymuch higher than in many European states. The what and when of the curriculum was decided primarily by the individual school and the teachers, the main external inuence coming from exams such as the 11+, the grading exam, and O and A levels. With the advent of the national curriculum, and its associated tests, the pendulum has swung from autonomy to a signicant degree of centralized control. In 1992 OFSTED (the British Oce for Standards in Education) was set up by the government, with the aim of Improving standards of achievement and quality in education. The national curriculum limits dramatically the traditional autonomy in the system, and OFSTED is there to monitor what is happening in each school across the country. These changes originated in government. Higher education has seen a similar shift in Britain, a pattern shared with the higher education sectors of some other countries such as

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Sweden and the Netherlands. Universities in Britain were highly autonomous, and able to do pretty much as they liked, with a very limited degree of external involvement in them. Quality was assumed; the external examiner system, with peers conrming the standards in the institution they visited, was the only formal quality mechanism. This, however, was within an lite system of higher education based on trust and paternalism. The last few decades have seen immense changes in higher education; Britain has moved from an lite to a mass higher education system; polytechnics and colleges of higher education have gone in the development of a unitary higher education sector. This massication of higher education is a political goal, the achievement of which requires signicant investments of public funds. Public money, however, has to be accounted for, the argument being that the public needs to be assured that its money is being well spent. The means used to provide this accountability is quality. By requiring external quality assurance, the government responds to the public demand for accountability. Just as the school sector is subject to quality assurance through OFSTED , the university sector is subject to quality assurance through the QAA (Quality Assurance Agency), a quango funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for the purpose of monitoring the quality of higher education. The Agencys mission is: to promote public condence that the quality of provision and standards of awards in higher education are being safeguarded and enhanced. A comparison of the aims of EiBAS , OFSTED , and QAA shows some similarities: all three bodies make statements about standards, with both EiBAS and QAA aiming to safeguard and protect. The underlying motivation for the development of these three bodies may be dierent: more nancially driven, in the case of EiBAS , and politically, in the case of the QAA and OFSTED . In either event, they arrive at similar overall aims.

Quality goals

The same question can be asked in respect of standards as could be asked in the discussion of quality. What are these standards? I suggested that the groups setting up accreditation schemes decided upon the standards themselves. This, however, is an inadequate account of standards. By looking at the process of accreditation run by these schemes, I think we are oered some insight into possible interpretations of standards. To become recognized by EiBAS , for example, institutions have to provide a great deal of documentation covering all aspects of the school or institution. The inspectors look at management, including the recruitment, employment, and training of sta; they interrogate nancial management and marketing materials. They examine the pedagogic side, the qualications of sta, the teaching resources, the teaching in action, and the size of classes; they look at the teaching space, library facilities, social space, and so on. It is a comprehensive inspection of everything involved in the teaching of English within the institution. To be accredited, the institution has to demonstrate that it carries out the processes to the standards set out: a dened percentage of teaching sta must be TEFL qualied; all sta must have a contract; teaching observations must be part of the schools regular activities; publicity
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materials must include maximum class size. In other words, the accreditation process operates on a threshold basis. The institution must demonstrate that it reaches the prescribed minimum standards and, if it does, it will gain accreditation. The standards describe what is considered to be t for the purpose of teaching English as a foreign language in Britain. At the heart of the accreditation scheme lies a denition of quality, one which incorporates threshold or minimum standards, and tness for purpose. Does the denition of quality implicit in QAA processes similarly incorporate minimum standards and tness for purpose? As in EiBAS recognition, a great deal of documentation is involved for a QAA subject review. During the QAA review visit, there are meetings and teaching observations and, apart from nancial matters, broadly similar things fall within the review. At the end of the review, the institution is not accredited, but receives grades for each of six dierent areas of the provision. A grade of 1 in any area means that the area is unsatisfactory. Otherwise the subject is approved. The basis by which the reviewers reach their judgement is not with reference to external standards, as in the case of the accreditation scheme, but with reference to what the institution itself says it is trying to do. The questions the review asks are: is the institution doing what it says it is doing in relation to this subject, and how well is it succeeding? While there is no agreed threshold or minimum standards, there is a statement of how t for purpose the provision is. Underlying QAA s approach is a denition of quality as t for purpose, where the institution itself denes what that purpose is. There is no externally agreed set of norms against which provision is measured. Part of the recent controversy in the higher education sector centres on the set of norms (the Code of practice, the qualications framework, and subject benchmarking statements) which will impose threshold standards on universitiesan imposition to which much of the sector, with its long tradition of autonomy, is deeply opposed. Implicit within the QAA subject review process, then, is a denition of quality as tness for purpose, to which the notion of threshold standards is now being added. Within EiBAS there is now a strong threshold denition, with tness for purpose embedded in it.

The time frame

A common characteristic of accreditation and inspection schemes is that the processes operate within a dened period. Documents have to be submitted to deadlines, visits are planned for given dates, and the outcome of these visits informs the verdict. The visits are demanding and stressful. Part of the work is the collection of all the relevant documents. It is not only collecting them, however, since there is the writing of them, toothe retrospective minutes of meetings, policy statements, and so on. This is part of the wet paint syndrome. Inspection visits can beand often arecarefully stage-managed events at which institutions become successful. What the inspection visits provide is a snapshot of the institution at a given time; there is nothing to say, however, that this given time is truly representative of the institution during the rest of the time. The dynamics of change in any educational setting will not be incorporated into the picture gained during the visit; in
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the same way, many of the weaknesses may not be revealed because the institution is procient at covering them up. What doubters and cynics say is that such visits are not a true reection of the quality at all. There is more than a grain of truth in this view, and valid questions are: do accreditation visits really get to the quality of what is going on? Could schools slip back into another mode of operation once the inspection team has packed its bags and gone?

Professionalism

From my experience of visiting and of working in institutions, I believe that most teachers and lecturers mostly want to do a good job. They want to improve, and they want their students to acquire the skills and knowledge they are trying to teach. Inspection and review visits are a snapshot, but in most cases the picture gained is not a temporary one created for the review. Certainly activity will have been undertaken in preparation for the review: discussions and self-reection that only took place because a visit was looming. The important thing is that they did take place, and that once they have happened, they cannot be undone. Debates about what we teach and how, for instance, are stimulated by the quality inspection, and these debates are valuable. And here is one of the benets of quality, and accreditation processes: they do have an impact on quality, and this is a lasting impact. The real picture may not be exactly as that painted for the inspection, but the developments and reection undertaken in preparation will not disappear. Teachers are professional, they want to do well and improve, and be sure that whatever they do is t for the purpose. There is another angle to quality that teachers, lecturers, and managers need to be aware of, however. I noted in relation to the QAA Subject Review process that what is being taught in the university is not determined by external reference points. The department decides what it is going to teach and how. What is evaluated is the extent to which the institution does what it says it is doing. In a ctional department somewhere in the heart of England, the aims of the course are to teach the history of English as a foreign language, to inculcate a thorough knowledge of English descriptive linguistics, and of the dierent Englishes to be found globally; to familiarize students with the great works of literature, and enable them to transpose between Shakespearean English and American English. The department excels in this, and in the review scores top marks. Were the students to be invited to have a conversation about British politics, conduct business, or watch a lm, however, they would be thrown into diculties. In theory, a QAA subject review takes no account of this. The ctional English language department does exactly what it sets out to do, and does it very well. There is tness for purpose because the curricula and their delivery enable the students to achieve the intended aims. There is something uneasy about this, however, which suggests there is yet something more to quality than tness for purpose. Surely there is no point in the language programme being excellent in the way dened by the subject review, if what it oers is inappropriate or irrelevant to the needs of the students and to society? The relevance or appropriateness of what we teach is also part of the quality. In other words, it is not just tness for
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purpose which is important, but tness of purpose. Ensuring that our programmes are t of purpose is also part of professional behaviour. In thinking about quality within our own work context, we must look at the how, the what, and the what for: quality is process and product, and the relevance of the product.

Conclusion

Quality for the professional teacher means being committed to dierent interpretations of quality, not only to improvement but to standards, tness for purpose, and tness of purpose, too. This holistic view of quality needs to be embedded into any education institution. In seeking to manage and enhance quality in our practice as teachers, educators, and managers, we must commit ourselves to an ethos in the institution which encourages everyone to reect on themselves in the context of the institution, the sector in which they work, and in the broader economic and political context. It is no longer possible to decide, as universities in Britain could do in the past, to teach what we want. To be fully professional we must account for all of what we do, and do it with full awareness of the context. This, I believe, is how quality is achieved, and only by all of us taking responsibility for understanding the full complexity of quality will our practice continue to improve, and reach the excellence which many of us seek to attain. Final revised version received March 2002

Notes 1 AAIEP American Association of Intensive English Programs. ABLS Association of British Language Services. ACELS Advisory Council for English Language Schools (Ireland). BALEAP British Association for Lecturers in English for Academic Purposes. EAQUALS European Association of Quality Language Schools. EiBAS English in Britain Accreditation Scheme. IALC International Association of Language Centres. NEAS National ELICOS Accreditation Scheme. NYESZE The Association of Language Schools (Nyelviskolk Szakmai Egyeslete) (Hungary). UCIEP University and College Intensive English Programs.

institution, which received money from the HEFCE to teach these subjects was subject to a review. The last round, for example, included education, philosophy and theology, as well as business, management, and politics. Modern foreign languages, with English and linguistics, were reviewed in 1995 and 1996; education was reviewed in 2000 and 2001. Some MA in ELT/TESOL courses were reviewed under English, some under linguistics and others under education. See www.qaa.ac.uk See also www.ofsted.gov.uk References Fry, H. 1995. Quality Issues in Higher Education. Viewpoint 1: 14. London: Institute of Education University of London. Harvey, L. 1996. Question of Denition. Managing HE . 2: 245. The British Council. The Accreditation Scheme. www.britishcouncil.org/english/courses/accredinfo. htm Pickering, G. 1999. Accreditation Schemes in ELT . London: The British Council. The Quality Assurance Agency. 2000. Subject Review Handbook 20002001. See www.qaa.ac.uk Vroeijenstijn, T. 1992. External Quality

2 QAA Subject Review. Subject review was a


rolling programme whereby all taught programmes in every subject for which the institution received funding from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE ) was reviewed in a 7-year cycle which started in 1994 (under the name TQA ) and ended in 2002. In any one cycle, there were maybe a dozen subjects being reviewed, and any
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Assessment, Servant of Two Masters? The Netherlands University Perspective, in A. Craft (ed.). Quality Assurance in Higher Education. Brighton: Falmer Press. White, R. 1998. What is quality in language teacher education? ELT Journal 52/2: 1339. The author Helen Thomas taught EFL in Finland and Hungary before joining the British Council, where she served in London, Zambia, and Hungary.

From 1996 to 1999 she was head of the School of English Language Education at Thames Valley University, before transferring to Kings College London School of Education in 1999. She has been involved in quality management since 1997, and acted as chief academic auditor for Kings College. Since 1998 she has been a review coordinator for the Quality Assurance Agency. She now works as a freelance in quality assurance in higher education. Email: helenthomas@onetel.net.uk

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