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Bumf or distilled wisdom

When I give an invited lecture to an external organisation, I often start by explaining that I don't see my role as telling the audience what they may want to hear. I see it as raising challenging and critical issues which may help to inform their own internal discussions. I sometimes add that I operate on the principle that I may only be invited once, so it's important to take advantage of the opportunity while it lasts.

This principle has proved sound on at least one occasion. Some years ago, I was asked to give a talk to a conference organised by the inspectorate on proposals for curriculum development in English. I suppose I was a bit naughty and poked fun at some of the ideas contained in the documentation.

At that stage, I didn't appreciate that a humour bypass is a necessary condition of joining the inspectorate and my comments were not well received by the organisers.

I happened to mention this at another talk I gave recently to a local authority audience and one of the delegates came up to me afterwards and said: "That inspectorate conference you mentioned - it didn't by any chance take place in the Golden Lion Hotel in Stirling in 1979?" When I confirmed that indeed it did, he revealed that he was present - then as a principal teacher of English (he is now a headteacher). He was kind enough to assure me that some of those attending enjoyed my contribution, even if the inspectors did not.

In some ways, it's immensely cheering to know that my nuisance value has had such an extended shelf-life because, more than 25 years later, I am still awaiting a second invitation to speak to those guardians of standards in Scottish education. I am not holding my breath. A former member of the inspectorate, who did not enjoy working there, told me that it is a very "unforgiving" organisation to those who do not show due deference.

Another ex-inspector found the culture so alien that he left after a very short time. He offers an entertaining account of how he got off to a bad start on his first day. He was given an official briefcase with the royal insignia removed because, at that time, there was a concern that civil servants might become targets of the IRA. The thought that HMIs might merit the attention of terrorists seems a little over the top - surely recipients of negative reports would be stronger candidates as potential attackers.

Apart from the briefcase, the new inspector was presented with a complete set of all the current official reports, a substantial amount of documentation. Unwisely, he said to the senior inspector who was inducting him: "If I'd realised I was getting all this bumf, I'd have brought a suitcase. I can't even get it into the briefcase." The response indicated strong displeasure: "Bumf? Bumf? That's the distilled wisdom of your inspectorate colleagues." A mutually agreeable parting of the ways soon took place.

I hope I am not irreverent about the things that really matter in Scottish education, but I do think that certain parts of the educational establishment take themselves too seriously and continue to rely too heavily on the traditional authority with which they have been invested.

One healthy indicator of active citizenship in post-devolution Scotland would be a greater willingness to question the basis of that authority.

Walter Humes is research professor of education at Paisley University

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