This paper presents the results of case study research into area (polycentric) inspection of schools in an area of Northern Ireland called West Belfast. The case study forms one part of an Erasmus+ funded project that involved four countries; Bulgaria, England, the Netherlands and Ireland.
Prior to this research, the project partners had conducted research on the impact of inspection of individual schools and established the value of inspection as both a tool for accountability and improvement in education (Brown et al. 2016; Ehren et al., 2013; McNamara & O’Hara, 2012). The research also indicated the limitations of single school inspections where schools working in isolation are limited to solving certain problems and improve performance. However, where improvement might best be achieved is through cooperation with other schools and other types of institutions such as training agencies, employers and social services.
For these reasons, the idea of linking schools and other stakeholders in networks has become influential. On the other hand, for networks to achieve their potential, there clearly has to be mechanisms for cooperation, knowledge exchange and evaluation. One proposed mechanism, which has received little or no attention in the research literature, is through inspecting networks as a whole, or what is described in this research as polycentric inspection. The theoretical proposition is that polycentric inspection might act as an enabling agent or catalyst to effective networking.
West Belfast was chosen as the Irish case study for this research because it has a flourishing community education network under the Area Learning Community and the Inspectorate of Northern Ireland has conducted area based inspections of this network. West Belfast, therefore, presented a perfect opportunity to study the working of a geographically based educational network, and the impact that area based or polycentric inspection has had on the development of the network.
The significance of this study involves a conceptualisation of how networks of schools and other agencies, supported by an external actor such as a school inspectorate, can make progress on areas beyond the capability of individual schools acting alone. There does not seem to be any reason why such networks could not work as well in other places. Certainly, West Belfast has, for a variety of reasons, a history of educational community cohesion but evidence suggests that other networks in Europe have also achieved good outcomes. As stated by one interview participant, “we think that these concepts have a wider application towards improving standards across our system and in other systems We have started something here”.