The numbers just don't add up

It is unlikely that I am alone in experiencing a mounting sense of unease each time another HMI report on a council's education department is added to The TES Scotland league table. I may well be suffering from "cognitive dissonance", unable to reconcile the penchant an otherwise well-informed and intelligent publication has with ranking councils in order.

The whole process is highly questionable. Not only are the numbers, 1-4, ascribed by HMI within their quality indicators, of dubious validity, but simply to add them up, irrespective of the relative importance of the categories, and rank the councils accordingly, is astonishing.

But the issue is more serious than statistical validity or reliability. There is a moral dimension to education which has never been served by league tables of any kind. Michael Fullan has written most persuasively of this in recent years. He argues that everyone in education has a moral duty not just to improve his or her own practice, but to contribute to the improvement, wherever possible, of others.

Thus teachers, and headteachers, working within a collaborative culture would share successes and failures and would be supported by others as a consequence. Directors of education, looking down the league table you printed, should avoid any feelings of triumphalism or despair.

But why does any system or organisation which purports to trust its staff need external inspection at all? If indeed, in the last decade or so, we have put in place a coherent strategy of self-evaluation, audit, development planning and continuous improvement, is there really a continuing role for an external inspectorate?

It would appear that council education officials spend a huge amount of their time and energy preparing their schools for inspections and then supporting them afterwards. Surely, if we have created a collaborative culture, inspection is rendered redundant.

The abandonment of the current round of inspections would have a number of positive spin-offs. It would certainly reduce stress across the community. It would free up time and energy to be given over to positive actions rather than those which intend simply to protect one's back.

Most important of all, it would release the inspectorate to do the job they once excelled at, namely working in the spaces between schools, local authorities and other agencies, talent-spotting, sharing good practice and acting as a ginger group for change where it is needed.

I am convinced that the focus of directors of education has never been to climb up the The TES Scotland league table. Rather, there is growing evidence that they are looking at learning as a holistic endeavour, using new knowledge about the brain, about the importance of arts and culture and about the role of health and well-being in learning.

The need now is for a national approach to bring these ideas together in a coherent strategy which will see an end to crude league tables and the establishment of a moral dimension leading to genuine achievement for all.

Brian Boyd

Faculty of Education

Strathclyde University

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