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Right in the eye of the inspector

After the outstanding HMI report on Beeslack Community High last month, Sheilah Jackson talks to headteacher Dick Staite about the inspection process

Beeslack Community High in Penicuik, Midlothian, has been given one of the best school inspectorate reports to date, with 18 out of 21 quality indicators classed as very good and good and my friend Dick Staite, the headteacher, praised for his outstanding leadership. So, what is his secret?

Dick says he found the inspection process was much more fully understood by the school prior to inspection than when it was last visited.

This time, issuing schools with the templates of Standards and Quality inspections, materials such as the six most commonly used performance indicators and the themes and illustrations of How Good Is Our School? were all helpful to an understanding of the processes of formal evaluation. But no one is ever fully prepared, he believes, because "that would suggest that everything is wrapped up, certain, finalised, at a terminus rather than on a series of stepping stones, some of them a bit shoogly". So it was that the school was in the midst of some developments and reviews at the time of the inspection.

Dick's first reaction when the inspection was announced, was "a quickening of the pulse beat, followed immediately by putting into place practical plans of action for all the main players in Phase One".

Although the inspection was never felt to be a threat, there was a residual, often unspoken, anxiety, he says. The HMI team was at pains to reassure, to explain processes and engage in dialogue which shaped the evaluation. But despite the reassurances, adrenaline levels were raised "if only because the report will be part of public record".

However, Dick also found that the inspection provided an opportunity for the processes and systems in which the staff believed - and which they believed were working well - to be corroborated.

Asked what three key pieces of advice he would give a newly appointed headteacher seeking to develop an effective school, he was wary. "There's the danger of what Norman MacCaig calls 'climbing into the pulpit I keep in my mind'," he says.

The running of a school is now the running of a big business, he says.

"Even in personnel terms we are an institution with more than 1,000 people in daily interaction, most of them children, emerging adolescents with their potential for hormonal high noons. And we interact with a wide range of different associations of groups outside school, often with divergent views about what we should be doing.

"So it's messy, it's complex, can be contradictory and cannot be reduced to aphorisms, shibboleths or sound bites."

When pressed, he concedes the following advice: l Take every opportunity to reinforce in policy and practice the basic principles of learning and relationships. Return to this again and again in in-house staff development.l Meet with your senior management team for at least 20 minutes at the start of each day; pupil business should be the starting point on the daily agenda.l Wear down your shoe leather - in the school - daily.

"And read Norman MacCaig, starting with 'Smuggler'."

Not wanting to underplay the research evidence on the lead role of headteachers in school improvement, Dick believes teachers retain high levels of self-motivation provided they are supported by and help to shape the physical and psychological conditions in which they operate.

"Most teachers arriving in school each day are not thinking about management issues, but about what classes they will be facing that day," he says. "So the systems we have all tried to create in Beeslack retain a clear focus on learning and relationships, and essentially try to buffer as best we can the teaching and learning process in the classroom.

"Whole school systems and the consistent and insistent application of school policies help to buffer from distractions, including the time-consuming, nerve-jangling uncooperative behaviour of some pupils. The joint responding to such frustrations helps motivate us all."

The more onerous aspects of the inspection process were lightened by some amusing incidents with children, he recalls; "the misjudged but endearing attempts at protective empathy by pupils towards their teachers, obviously seeing them as victims in front of the investigators (as one pupil called the inspectors, without a trace of irony)".

Overall, Dick found both the inspection process and the published report valuable. The detail of formal feed-back from the inspection was "impressive, and instructive and reinforcing" and gave the staff an understanding of comparative measures, while the finer, often informal picking up of information about, say, another method to try, was part of a helpful two-way interaction.

"The published report is very positive and with considerable detail to the observant reader," he says. "It has been valuable to the emotional health of the school, especially the recognition given to the contributions made by staff at all levels and in all categories (teaching and support)."

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