Sleeping with the enemy

Inspectors who pounce on schools should put down the blunderbuss and try a lighter touch based on trust and openness, says a suffering spouse

I have only recently found out that my wife of 24 years has been sleeping with an HMI. In fact, she has been sleeping with a whole team of them. Lest you worry that this might lead to the breakdown of our marriage, let me put your mind at rest. Her problem is not infidelity, it is insomnia.

You see, the letter arrived in school a week ago. The inspectors are coming in a month's time. And for the past few nights she has not slept properly, sometimes sitting bolt upright in bed, having remembered something else she has to do, sometimes tossing and turning, talking in her sleep.

What is going on? Here we have a highly respected professional working as part of the senior management team in a school trying its best to create an ethos of achievement, to tackle social exclusion and to implement the McCrone agreement in the best interests of pupils, staff and parents.

The school has not been inspected since the 1970s and schools all around have been visited recently. The net was closing in.So why have some staff already toyed with the idea of cancelling their bookings for forthcoming long weekends? Why is there an air of heightened tension in the school?

It was Yeats who wrote, "The best lack all conviction", and it seems to be a truism that it is often the best teachers who are among the most likely to be stressed at the impending visit of HMI. It is almost as if they are the ones who can see what could be achieved with more time, more support, more resources and so they worry about the gap between their practice and the ideal. For some, the anxiety spills over into home life.Experiencing this stress vicariously leads me to question the process of inspection as it is currently carried out.

In an education system which has prided itself on self-evaluation at a national and a council level, which has developed world-renowned instruments such as "Ethos Indicators" and "How Good is Our School" and which has established school development planning across the country, why do we still need a heavy-handed, stress-inducing system of inspection? Councils now have their own quality assurance systems, with link advisers, challenge and support teams and comprehensive documentation. At school level, senior managers work alongside middle managers, union reps, classroom teachers and support staff to ensure that quality assurance is a team effort.

And yet, HMI inspects school "randomly" as part of a rolling programme. For what purpose? Is it really just to advise ministers, to gather "intelligence" and to maintain standards? Or is there another agenda, namely, to ensure that schools are doing what HMI thinks is right and in the ways it thinks it should be done?

Surely we need only a "light touch" approach on the basis of trust - that schools are indeed doing their best, supported by councils and with advice from HMI. Instead of inspections being a blunderbuss, looking at everything at the same time, greater use could be made of "aspect" inspections. In addition, "good practice" inspections would shift the balance, recognising the achievements of schools, and changing the tone and style of the inspection process itself.

Too often, teachers on in-service courses talk of heavy-handed, over-formal and brusque treatment. The concept of trust must surely entail coming to schools with an open mind, with no preconceived notions based on test performance and targets, and with a willingness to acknowledge that there are many ways of being an effective school.

But I fear I am dreaming and I really should stop. I'm unlikely to get an uninterrupted night's sleep for some considerable time.

The writer is involved in Scottish education. He does not wish to prejudice the inspection of his wife's school and has asked not to be named.

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you