Short historical background: When and how was the Romanian Agency for Quality Assurance in Pre-university Education (ARACIP) established and what is its mission?

As a result of the change of the regime in 2005, the leadership of the Ministry of Education (Minister being then Mr. Mircea Miclea), established by law the two agencies for external evaluation - ARACIS for higher education and ARACIP for pre-university education as part of a general policy and legislation on education quality assurance and evaluation. Under the law, ARACIP is a public institution of national interest, subordinated to the Ministry of Education, with legal personality, with its own budget of revenues and expenditures, and financed from own incomes (evaluation fees paid by schools and funds attracted via various projects).

According to the law (namely the Law no. 87/2006 for the approval of the Government Emergency Ordinance no. 75 / 12.07.2005 on quality assurance in education), ARACIP conducts the external evaluation of the quality of education provided by pre-university educational institutions and other organizations providing education, and authorization, accreditation, and periodic evaluation of schools. In the sphere of interest of ARACIP enter ante-pre-school and pre-school, primary, secondary, vocational and post-secondary educational institutions.

Did you manage to reach the main goals of the Agency until now? Please, point several important achievements of ARACIP obtained in the pre-university education in Romania.

The first Strategy of RACAIP for 2007-2010 had as an essential target the configuration of a unitary quality concept and system for the pre-university education. The major strategic goals of that period were: defining a new quality concept of education; ensuring the participation of all significant institutions and actors in quality definition and assurance; developing quality standards and quality assurance systems for each subsystem, level and form of education; developing the procedures for the authorization, accreditation and periodic evaluation of quality according to legal provisions; developing the institutional capacity of ARACIP.

The second Strategy of ARACIP for 2011-2015, aimed at reinforcing the trust in the Romanian school – an ambitious goal and impossible to be reached under economic crisis conditions. On the one hand, the crisis determined a drastic decrease of resources allocated to education and additional restrictions with regard to the operation of public institutions and, on the other hand, led to a general increase of public discontent towards the operation of state institutions. In this period, the accent moved from development and planning to implementation and evaluation (following the “quality circle”), on three strategic dimensions: developing quality tools, training of the staff involved in quality evaluation, and developing the quality culture. The process of developing the institutional capacity of ARACIP continued as well.

The main achievements in the period 2005-2015 were:

· Developing the quality tools: now we are for instance at the 5th generation of evaluation tools. To support schools (for internal evaluation / self-evaluation) and evaluators (for external evaluation) we developed an IT support application which includes, among other, a database, a methodological library (including questionnaires for teachers, parents, pupils), a standard format to write and publish (online) annual self-evaluation reports on the quality of education and external evaluation reports, a virtual space where each school can upload all the documents needed for its internal and external evaluation, etc.  

· About 5000 schools, approx. 2/3 of total, were evaluated (for provisional authorization, accreditation and periodic evaluation). On the other hand we can mention here that the main thing we did not achieve during this period is the fact that we did not manage to evaluate periodically all schools. The main causes that led to this situation were: financial and administrative constraints caused by the economic crisis, general fear of evaluation, and the resistance of some schools to introduce a quality system based on accountability of educational institutions for the results obtained and the continuous improvement of their results.

· There were trained nearly 17,000 people - of which more than 700 evaluators, 600 trainers in quality, over 900 school inspectors (with the role of quality control), the remaining of about 15,000 people being from schools - directors and members in the evaluation and quality assurance committees (which, by law, must be in place in each school).

· To develop a quality culture, there have been published more than 70 informational materials, guidelines, manuals, standards and evaluation tools, compilations of best practices, brochures, newsletters and other informational materials, research reports, national reports on quality status, activity reports - all published online. Some of these materials have been published on the classic support (paper), and were distributed in schools (with a total circulation of about 250,000 copies).

We should mention here that limited resources obtained from evaluation fees and full financing from own revenues would not have allowed us to obtain these results. Therefore, in order to fund these activities, we wrote projects (implemented in 2008-2015) by which we attracted European funding totaling over 15 million Euro.

As of 2013, based on the evolution of the Romanian society and of the education system, the experience gained, and what happens in the world in the education field, we started to outline a new generation of quality standards of education (with the associated tools). These standards, made in a first draft in 2014, were piloted in more than 600 schools and were revised in 2016, following the piloting and their public debate, and will be proposed for approval by Government Decision. The approval and implementation of the new standards and the start, on this basis, of a new cycle of education quality evaluation in Romania, form the essential elements of the new strategy of ARACIP for the period 2016-2020.

What are the most urgent problems in the Romanian education system and how does ARACIP contribute to solve them?

Much can be said – and it is not only about the Romanian education system, because problems are general. ARACIP, as an external evaluation institution, does not have powers to implement reform measures or to improve the quality because, as it is stated in a famous report in 2007, the same institutions cannot be responsible for both the improvement and to see if that improvement was made or not.

In my opinion, the main problems in education in Romania are:

· The underfunding of education (2.8% of GDP in 2014, the lowest level in the EU). ARACIP is trying to contribute to the solving of this problem both through proposed standards (proving that you cannot do quality education and cannot even fully comply with legal requirements, without adequate financial resources) and external evaluation findings in increasing the efficiency of using the (few) existing resources.

· The poor quality of education in general (even though there are “islands” of best practices and even excellence), proven by the results of the national (e.g. Baccalaureate exam) or international (results from PISA, TIMSS, PIRLS) assessments. We contribute by putting in front of the decision makers the external evaluation results (external evaluation reports and general reports on the quality at system level) and recommendations for improvement derived from the findings.

· Equity of providing educational services: there are major problems of equitable access to education and especially to quality education for children and pupils from rural areas, poor areas, Roma communities and those with disabilities. In solving this problem, we already contribute through the way we conduct the evaluation: we evaluate the results achieved, not in absolute terms, but according to the context, so we evaluate the contribution of the school (“added value”) to each pupil’s education. Thus, we found that schools operating in disadvantaged communities are better in terms of added value than schools operating in favored environments (i.e. make their pupils progress). In the same context, we introduced in the new standards the school’s obligation to achieve better results (and progress) not only generally, at the level of the entire population of pupils, but also specifically, for disadvantaged pupils identified at school level.

· Obsolete educational practices and inadequate teacher-pupil relationship in many schools. We try to improve this situation by quality standards that encourage innovative classroom practices.

· Poor management at school level - here, we can already say that we have contributed to solve the problem, since many of the requirements expressed by standards refer to the management of the school unit.

You started to cooperate with various institutions in Moldova since 1999, which means that you know the situation pretty well and also the evolution, or devolution, of the education system in Moldova. Tell us more about the activities carried out in Moldova and their impact / finality.

The first collaborations (1999-2004) carried out at the initiative of NGOs in Moldova (Pro-Didactica Center, SIEDO etc.) aimed at, especially, training of teachers, school directors and inspectors - on various topics: assessment, change management, general education management etc.

In 2012-2013, we made for the Ministry of Education, with funding from the World Bank, a full set of tools for the evaluation of constituency schools (which had to take pupils from the schools abolished as a result of the streamlining of the school network). This set contains evaluation standards, evaluation tools, a methodology and an evaluation timetable (including a budget proposal).

In the period 2013-2014, with funding from UNICEF, we developed, together with colleagues from the State University and the Institute of Education Sciences, a set of evaluation tools associated to quality standards for schools (developed based on the concept of “child-friendly school”).

In the same period, with funding from the European Commission, via TAIEX Facility, we provided consultancy for the establishment of the National Inspectorate of Education (including proposals at the level of concept, organizational structure and related legislation).

Finally, in 2016, we began collaborating with ANACIP under the project “Partnership for quality and relevance in ICT vocational education in Moldova” implemented by the Educational Center PRO-DIDACTICA with the support of the Austrian Development Agency and the Romanian Government. So far, this collaboration was materialized by two visits of ANACIP experts in Romania for training at ARACIP (May 2016), and in June, ARACIP experts will organize three training sessions for ANACIP, this time in Moldova.

ANACIP made a study visit to Romania on 10-14 May, and ARACIP was one of the institutions visited. Thus, members of ANACIP and ARACIP had the opportunity to exchange information and experience on the activities of both agencies. What is your opinion about the activities conducted by ANACIP so far? Do you have any recommendations for a better operation and implementation of activities/projects undertaken by ANACIP?

Of course, ANACIP is an institution at the beginning of its activity, which gives it both advantages and disadvantages. Regarding the advantages, I would like to mention only the opportunity to learn from others - both from good practices and from the mistakes of others. The major disadvantage is, in my opinion, the lack of experience in external evaluation based on quality standards. As a result, my recommendations would be to make use of advantages and minimize the disadvantages.

The advantage of being at the beginning of an activity can be used by an intensive learning through as many exchanges of experience and best practices with as many agencies or similar institutions. I also believe that it takes time for things to settle and develop own quality system. I want to point out that a model from outside, no matter how seductive it may seem, cannot be transposed as such in another system, with different traditions, history and culture. Therefore there is a need to adapt, learn, pilot. Basically I think that it is necessary that ANACIP undergoes itself the “quality circle”: plan activities, tools, procedures, implement them, evaluate their efficiency and effectiveness and, if needed (and there will be such a need) to review them. Time is also necessary for schools to get used to work in such a quality system which must interiorized: we have always said that where there is fear and distrust there can be no quality. But nonetheless, even after 10 years, our institution (ARACIP) is regarded by some schools with fear and distrust.

One aim of the study visit was the establishment of partnerships between ARACIP and ANACIP for future cooperation in quality assurance in education in Romania and Moldova. How do you see this cooperation and its development prospects?

The partnership began, I think, under the best auspices, as it appears from the statements of participants in the two study visits. Not least, this exchange has also given us, those from ARACIP, opportunities for learning and development. Therefore, I am convinced that this partnership is beneficial to both institutions and for this reason it is likely to continue to grow.

Thank you!