School Evaluation Policies and Educating States

Trends in Four European Countries

by Hélène Buisson-Fenet (Author) Xavier Pons (Author)
©2014 Monographs 212 Pages
Series: Action publique / Public Action, Volume 11


Are we witnessing the decline of state involvement in education or is it being reshaped, and if so how? Surprisingly, this question has received little attention from researchers in education studies, sociology and political science.
This book aims to fill this gap by exploring school evaluation policies in four European countries: England, France, Scotland and Switzerland. It shows that the same policy tool – promoted in many European and international arenas concerned with good practice in educational governance – can actually give rise in each system to a variety of policy configurations in which forms of state control can differ. Written from a policy sociology perspective, the book aims to go beyond the decline/permanence dichotomy and proposes a specific conceptual framework within which to consider both contextualised forms of state intervention and their potential similarities and combinations. By doing this, the authors not only aim to counterbalance or supplement dominant views on the Europeanisation and transnationalisation of education policies but also to imagine new possibilities for state policy analysis.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction
  • Part I The Research
  • Chapter 1 Theoretical Approach
  • Education and Stateness
  • Theoretical Stakes
  • Educating States
  • Policy Configurations
  • Chapter 2 Methodology
  • Strategy of Comparison
  • A Qualitative Comparison of Five Education Systems
  • Field Survey
  • Part II Policy Configurations
  • Chapter 3 Contexts
  • England: Towards a Systematic Inspection of Schools for a Reinforced Central Government
  • France: New Purposes of Evaluation in a Growing Differentiated System
  • Scotland: “The Same, But Different”. Toward a Local Appropriation of the Quality of Education
  • Switzerland: Recent and Contrasted Cantonal Initiatives
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter 4 Institutional Designs
  • England: a Highly Formalised Inspection Process by a Non-Ministerial Government Body
  • France: New Official Texts and Recurrent Pleas For Change
  • Scotland: A “Remote Control” Based on a Demanding Self-Evaluation Process
  • Switzerland: the External Evaluation of Schools as “Collateral Harmonization”?
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter 5 Interdependencies
  • France: Vague Directions and Resistance of Professional Identities
  • Scotland: Renewal and Consolidation of Professional Roles in the Evaluative Devices
  • England: the Structuring Power of a Procedure
  • Switzerland: Devalue the Assessment, Evaluation Anyway?
  • Principles of Interdependence and Types of Convergence: a Critical Approach
  • Conclusion
  • Part III Selective Comparisons, Transversal Analyses
  • Chapter 6 Europeanizations in Education: States in the Background?
  • Policy Transfer Studies and Europeanization
  • Europeanizations in Education
  • Logical Discussion and Empirical Cooling
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter 7 Bringing the Professionals Back In?
  • Skip From the State to its Professionals: Differentiated Research Traditions
  • The Contribution of a Comparative Study on the External Evaluation of Schools
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter 8 Towards Figures of Educating States
  • The Evaluative State: the New Educating State?
  • Three Contemporary Figures of the European Educating State
  • Coexistence and Combination of Figures
  • Conclusion
  • Conclusion
  • References
  • Appendices
  • Series Index


For several decades the educational systems of developed countries have been through deep structural transformations (decentralization / centralization, merchandising, privatization, opening to contracts, development of evaluation strategies and of quality assurance methods, etc.). These are said to be linked to the influence exercised by organizations like the OECD1, the UNESCO2 or the World Bank (Henry et al., 2000; Jakobi, 2009), which at an international level promote “new educational policies” such as decentralization, free choice, or differentiation of the compulsory school (Mons, 2007b). They are also said to be the result of the local and intermediary regulations being better taken into account (Maroy, 2006). Some see this process (that is found in areas other than education) as being the death of traditional State schools which can be described as “compulsory school[s] [which are] founded on a procedural logic and respect for equality, [which are] state-provided, culturally unique, territorially homogeneous and, over the last few years, pedagogically undifferentiated thanks to the progressive disappearance of the alternative routes.” (Mons, 2007b: 8) The State would be losing its educating mission to other actors (local authorities, families, autonomous schools, private funding, etc.), moved by the quest for manifold interests. In England, for example, several research works mention how private interests are increasingly taken into account in the working out of educational policies (Ball, 2007), leading some inspectors to talk about the privatization of schooling (Green, 2005).

Should this then be seen as the decline of the educating states, which can be defined as modes of regulation in which state organizations (departments and ministries, administrations and bodies of State, government agencies, commissioned organizations etc.) wish to control as much as possible the organization, the content and purposes of education, this being done through different ways (production of norms, curricula, providing of managing tools and of policy instruments etc.)? The thesis we wish to put to trial throughout this work and that we voluntarily state synthetically at this stage is that we are not witnessing the decline of these educating states, but their recomposition. The problem is that this recomposition is often contingent, unstable and multidirectional and that ← 11 | 12 → it depends on policy configurations in which these States are led to act or react.

That is why, in order to account for it, this work compares the policy configurations that become knotted when external evaluations of schools are conducted, in England, in Scotland, in France and in Switzerland; it is based on a two-year qualitative and exploratory survey composed of interviews (n = 101), of reviews of scientific, institutional and professional literature, and of some observations. Here the “schools” designate general state establishments, or private ones with state contract, mainly in primary education and lower secondary education (UNESCO’s ISCED 2011, levels 1 and 2)3. School evaluation is broadly defined as a reflexive and collective process of the production of feedback on the functioning of schools which allows policy actors to appreciate, in reference to various political values (efficiency, equity, quality, relevance etc.), both their organization, their results and the effects of the various measures implemented to reform and regulate them or the education they provide to their pupils. External evaluation can be understood as an evaluation conducted by people coming from outside or as an evaluation not commissioned by the school itself4.

Studying the school external evaluation process seems particularly relevant when questioning the current evolutions of these educating States. Globally, political scientists who deeply analysed the forms and evolution of New Public Management clearly stressed that evaluation was a key principle of this doctrine since, by quantifying performance and measuring the outcomes of public organizations, it is supposed to invite the latter to increase accountability and to shift to an obligation towards results (Hood, 1991, 1996; Christensen & Lægreid, 2001). In the educational sector in particular, the external evaluation of schools was described as one of the six new education policies implemented in European countries that had contributed to progressively define new models of post-bureaucratic regulation of educational systems (Maroy, 2006) and as one of the major devices at the origin of new accountability policies (Harris & Herrington, 2006; Dupriez & Mons, 2011; Meuret & Lambert, 2011). Evaluation as a business was also described as a professional space contributing to the diffusion of a new soft governance of education at the European level (Lawn, 2006; Normand, 2010). Closer to our reflections on educating States, another conception of evaluation ← 12 | 13 → sees it as a contemporary and renewed form taken on by the control of teaching in this context of transformation of the modes of regulating and governing (Revue internationale d’éducation, 2008). Complementarily, this research on the external evaluation of schools is also a way of questioning the empiric relevance of an “evaluative State” studied particularly by education researchers (Neave, 1988; Broadfoot, 2000; Maroy, 2006; Van Haecht, 2007; Dumay, 2009; Pons, 2011).

This book is thus composed of three parts. The first one aims at presenting our research work. In chapter 1, we will explain our theoretical approach. It is a manifold approach which stands at the crossroad of policy and State analysis in political science, of a sociology concerned with public action and its professionals, and of educational sciences. In order to try and answer the different scientific questions raised by a comparative sociology of the recompositions of State in the education field, we shall propose a comparative analysis of the different figures taken on by the contemporary educating States in several European education systems, these figures designating the particular forms of State and its action in policy configurations which shall themselves be studied through three of their dimensions (institutional, professional and cognitive). In chapter 2 we shall present the methodology of our research, meaning our comparison procedure (case oriented), the reasons for selecting the studied countries, education systems and territories, and the means of selection, the means of access to field study, the research methods at work, and the way we processed them.

In a second part, we shall describe, analyse and compare the policy configurations themselves, relying on three analytical transversal approaches. Chapter 3 deals with the historic and political contexts in which school external evaluations have been implemented in each country. Our purpose here is not merely to recall the weight of past upon present, but to show the different forms of the historicity of public action at work in every system, and their influence on the definition of interdependencies between the actors. Chapter 4 introduces the institutional designs at the origin of the evaluation processes in the countries. The purpose is not merely to describe the formal organizations in presence – even though the sharing of this type of knowledge often is a necessary prerequisite to comparison – but to show, on the basis of planned evaluation processes (their degree of codification, their varying frequency, the extent of the consequences they are associated to), to what extent they can frame the relations between the actors. Chapter 5 will finally question the actual foundations of interdependencies between these actors in each educational system. It stresses contrasting situations between England, where these interdependencies strongly depend on a specific inspection process, France, where the weight of the professional identities of the ← 13 | 14 → actors remains deciding, and Switzerland, where interdependencies mainly happen when specific policy instruments are implemented, Scotland being an example of hybrid interdependence.

In the third part, we shall start from the configurations thus brought to light, in order to question more deeply one of their dimensions, and in so doing wonder about the evolution of an aspect of State action, with a comparative purpose. Chapter 6 deals with the cognitive dimension and raises the question of the actual Europeanization by numbers and measurement instruments of European education systems as far as school external evaluation is concerned. Although not denying the supranational normalization that comes with the creation of a European space for educational policies, we stress that this normalization is of unequal importance from one educational system to the other, and that it is still difficult to conclude that the educating States are withdrawing. Chapter 7 develops the professional dimension, and questions the relations between State and professional groups in every country. Contrary to the idea that the transformations of public action would harm the closing bureaucratic strategies of professional groups, and that the new public management would further condemn the central part of these groups in the policy process, we shall show that within each configuration, specific models of professionalization can develop, being coherent with different roles for the State. Finally, chapter 8 focuses on the institutional dimension. Disagreeing with the idea of the convergence, as partial or unequal as it may be, of the European educational systems toward modes of post-bureaucratic institutional regulation similar to the evaluating State’s mode, we shall conclude that there exist various forms for the educating State (the evaluating State being only one of its manifestations), between the educational systems as well as within each of them. ← 14 | 15 →


  1  Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

  2  United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization.

  3  However, the possibilities offered by the field research mentioned in Chapter 2 have sometimes led us to incorporate in our field of analysis establishments that do not strictly belong to compulsory education, mainly lycées in France and Sixth form colleges in England.

  4  For a better writing, we shall sometimes refer to this external evaluation of schools as defined here as “evaluation” in the course of this work.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2014 (August)
governance Europeanisation transnationalization sociology
Bruxelles, Bern, Berlin, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 212 pp., 8 tables

Biographical notes

Hélène Buisson-Fenet (Author) Xavier Pons (Author)

Hélène Buisson-Fenet is Senior Researcher at the Ecole Normale Supérieure of Lyon and a member of the Laboratory Triangle (Political Sciences, National Centre of Scientific Research (CNRS)). She works on the administrative modernisation of education and has published more broadly on the relationship between the state and the professions, particularly in the French context of New Public Management. She is currently involved with several comparative research programmes. Xavier Pons is Associate Professor at the University of East-Paris Créteil (UPEC, France), a member of the Laboratory of Research on Governance (Largotec) and Associate Researcher in the Sociological Observatory of Change (OSC-Sciences Po, Paris). He has participated in a number of comparative research projects and has published several books and articles on evaluation and New Public Management in education, inspection bodies and experts in the policy process.


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