QA must die

QA warps time, trust, thinking, teaching, leadership and learning. Dismantle it.

Beloved of bureaucrats, the central problem with Quality Assurance (QA) in schools is that it is for top-down management and overrated compliance, and not for frontline teachers or staff. 

Let’s stay alert to the problems, complications, unintended consequences, repercussions, adverse side-effects and damage that treatments for compliance or conformity bring about. 

Where does ‘QA’ come from? Originally, industrial-commercial manufacturing, aiming to get to ‘zero-defect’ products for customers through standardised controls and defect detection. It’s an industrial, bureaucratic, commercial, profit-hunting mindset.

Not the best starting point for us in schools, where children, teachers and staff all have our own very human foibles and idiosyncrasies that make us unique! 

The QA treatment is worse than the problems it’s trying to solve. Like trepanation, a medical-mystical treatment from 7,000 years ago, boring holes in the skull *intended* to treat ailments, relieve epilepsy and mental disorders, remove evil spirits or ‘confined demons’ and address health problems – but resulting in severe repercussions, complications, infections, brain trauma and brain damage. 

Like trepanation, it’s better to give up QA altogether. And replace it with a much more humane, people-centred approach.

We need QA about as much as we need a hole in the head.

QA warps our time. 

Time is scarce: draining it to monitor over-centralisiing compliance is not good use of it.

QA warps trust.

Trust helps teamwork: scrutinising people scuppers it in vicious cycles of mutual mistrust. 

QA warps our thinking.

Narrow metrics and ‘QA brain’ narrow and contort our horizons, imaginations and creativity to the measurable, the collectible, the quantifiable.

QA warps teaching.

Teaching children is complex and subject-specific; QA compliance distorts the ten-to-twenty different subjects we teach into single, oversimplified common frameworks that amputate and elide subject differences.

QA warps leadership.

Leaders fearing and fixating external scrutinizers like inspectors, lose sight of what matters most: supporting teachers to teach really well. 

QA warps learning.

QA rubrics, no matter how byzantine, can’t capture the ever-evolving complexity of 30 students’ learning, beliefs, pasts, motivation or knowledge in classrooms or lessons. 

What if we let go of QA altogether? And just sought feedback on our leadership, CPD, teaching and impact really well?

Devil’s Advocate: 10 best reasons used to justify QA 

Problems we’re trying to solve

How can school leaders know:

  1. What’s happening in lessons and the school 
  2. How far staff have clarity
  3. How far staff have the knowledge & CPD they need 
  4. How far staff have the beliefs and unity they need to succeed
  5. How far staff achieve consistency together 
  6. How far staff have the support they need


  • making workload, overload and overstretch worse
  • taking staff time away from their core purpose
  • making staff feel mistrusted, scrutinised or pressurised 

How can school leaders keep learning to:

  1. Set and keep high standards of excellence
  2. Identify (and support decision-making on) priorities for improvement 
  3. Support staff in implementing, planning, reviewing and trouble-shooting
  4. Support staff culture, teamwork, dynamics, interactions 

Slaughter the Sacred Cows: what we should *not* do

Evidence: spend time to collect extra, superfluous data to get unneeded ‘evidence’ or numbers to evaluate how good (or not) things are. Examples: asking teachers to log behaviour or assessment data for leaders that we don’t act on. 

Monitor: scrutinise people’s actions to enforce compliance onto staff. Examples: ticking and crossing checklists of what ‘should’ be happening in all lessons, that drain time and trust. 

Prove: try to ‘prove’ quality or ‘demonstrate’ competence to inspectors, governors, trustees, trust leaders, local authorities. Examples: writing long SEFs, or complicated spreadsheets that drain huge amounts of time. 

Pander: appease external scrutinisers’ perspectives – governors’, trustees’, parents’ demands – over frontline staff. Examples: writing long reports with lots of evidence, data, justifications and corroborations. 

Fear: worry about inspections, league tables, governors’ meetings. Examples: meetings about (and laborious, time-draining preparation for) inspections; predicted grades analysis; responding to invasive demands for scrutinies. 

What should we do instead of QA?

1. Go upstream

Leaders’ knowledge, cohesion, strategy, clarity, unity, learning, line-management, CPD provision, communications and support are all upstream of wider-staff consistency. Upstream affects downstream more than downstream affects upstream.

How to go upstream – build high-impact knowledge, appreciation of, feedback loops, and support for each of these areas preemptively before, and reduce low-impact time downstream on, reviewing lessons, assessment data, league tables; build a supportive ecosystem, institutional infrastructure and intellectual and emotional environment for school leaders. 

2. Build knowledge

Leaders and teachers’ knowledge about what the best schools do, and what the best research suggests, and what the best teachers and leaders in the school are doing – this knowledge influences our decisions, conversations, comms, teamwork, relationships, learning and impact. 

How to build knowledge – selecting, prioritising, sequencing concepts, examples, modelling, practising, observing to learn, deep thinking, discussing, problem-solving, sharing pitfalls/misconceptions/scenarios, writing, reviewing, feedback, coaching. 

3. Walk and talk, ask and see 

Who we choose to talk to and what we choose to ask about are crucial decisions in school leadership.

How to walk the school: use a handy longlist of questions to keep asking ourselves together. 

4. Appreciative enquiry

Start reviews from a place of appreciating strengths and bright spots to share, recognise and celebrate, alongside providing enquiry questions to keep asking as genuine development for people’s thinking.

How to lead appreciative enquiry: domain-specific, expert-led time together to think about curriculum, attendance, safeguarding and behaviour will look very different – but can start with asking leaders of an area about strengths and priority areas for development.

5. Feedback loops

Feedback loops, when designed to be minimally invasive and for genuinely two-way learning, can help all participants.

How to design feedback loops: ask – what’s the most minimalist feedback cycle that can best be acted on for incremental improvement?

6. Follow Up support

Support, when genuinely backing staff to succeed, can improve follow up in schools and stop stalling.

How to design followup: ask what series of preemptive and responsive nudges, starting with the lightest-touch possible, could best bring support for us as frontline staff?

7. Sense-making and dialogue

Reality is complex, messy, evolving, highly-interactive, often confusing and can’t be fully anticipated. Sense-making and dialogue is time invested in exploring how reality is emerging and confounding our plans and planning, which don’t survive contact with reality intact.

How to sense-make: take time together to explore how it’s going.

CPD is better than QA

CPD, in its broadest sense of continuous people development, is better than QA, because it better addresses the problems that QA sets out to bore into. With fewer complications and less damaging side-effects – with less brain damage. 

CPD, at its best, helps school leaders with all the top things QA is supposed to do but does badly, because QA is a low-trust model, predicated on proving, pandering, monitoring, evidencing and fear. 

CPD, intelligently designed, can help leaders learn about:

  1. what’s happening in lessons and around school 
  2. staff clarity
  3. staff knowledge 
  4. staff beliefs and unity
  5. staff consistency together 
  6. the support staff have
  7. staff trust and feeling trusted
  8. staff time on their core purpose 
  9. staff workload, overload and overstretch 
  10. staff standards of excellence
  11. identifying (and support decision-making on) priorities for improvement 
  12. supporting staff in implementing, planning, reviewing and trouble-shooting
  13. supporting staff culture, teamwork, dynamics, interactions 
  14. the impacts, complications, repercussions and side-effects of our CPD!

Is there anything that CPD, if well enough designed and developed, can’t do, that QA can?! 

With CPD, we can genuinely involve people together in our learning, by sharing the approach, selection, sequence and feedback sought, well in advance, and by inviting input, challenge, suggestions, ideas and changes.

CPD is better than QA. 

QA is top-down, fearful, shoulder-glancing, bureaucratising and fear-inducing.

CPD can be grassroots, frontline-led, forward-thinking and forward-looking. 

It’s time to dismantle an outdated practice. 

And let go of it. Fear less! 

QA must die. 

About Joe Kirby

School leader, education writer, Director of Education and co-founder, Athena Learning Trust, Deputy head and co-founder, Michaela Community School, English teacher
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