Teachers ‘have to take risks’, says inspection boss

Schools and national bodies must give teachers space to try new things – and accept that some won’t work – says chief inspector

Teachers ‘have to take risks’, says inspection boss

“We trust our teachers.”

That was the punchline to a story I’ve heard twice recently at education events, once from education secretary John Swinney and once from Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the EIS teaching union.

Recently, they travelled to Finland together to see how its education system worked – in a country where there is no national inspectorate. Both told the tale of a Finnish government official who, when asked how on earth they got by without inspection, replied: “We trust our teachers.”


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There is, however, no huge groundswell of opinion to scrap Scotland’s national inspection body Education Scotland (debate on that topic in England is a bit more lively), although it is certainly far from uniformly popular.

Gayle Gorman, chief inspector for Scotland and chief executive of Education Scotland, has heard the same story about the Finnish official’s pithy take on an effective education system, but she insists that her organisation is at the forefront of establishing the same sort of trust in teachers.

She spoke to Tes Scotland at a recent “sharing the learning summit” event in Glasgow for Education Scotland’s Teacher Leadership Programme, where the fruits of “practitioner enquiry”, were on display.

Some 260 delegates were there, from as far afield as Shetland, many of them sharing how their own practitioner enquiry had had an impact in their school and classroom.

Dig beneath the rather jargony term, and, says Ms Gorman, it reveals a new determination among many teachers to think deeply about their practice and make changes that will have direct benefits for the pupils they see in front of them.

“Many practitioners will have heard me say, ‘If it doesn’t change what happens in a classroom today at 11 o’clock, why are we doing it?’” she says. “As a profession we ask that quite a lot, but maybe we need to ask it more.”

There is no set way to do practitioner enquiry, she stresses – what matters most is that the education system, and the schools they work in, give teachers breathing space to try new things, even if they might not ultimately work. That could mean small-scale, classroom-based research, but it could also mean analysing academic papers or discussing ideas with other teachers – “We need more collaboration,” says Ms Gorman.

But how do you know if any of this is effective?

“I think the thing is, there’s no right model…it’s about the practitioner finding the one that works for them – the one that connects with their line of enquiry or where they want to go. And really, they’re the judge of how effective it is,” she says.

This onus on the teacher to innovate is what Ms Gorman calls a process of “continual enquiry”, where teachers constantly ask “I wonder why…” and “What would happen if…”; the role of a body like Education Scotland, which oversees curriculum development as well as inspection, then, is “supporting and embedding” that sort of mindset.

Teachers will gauge whether practitioner enquiry is successful, says Ms Gorman, but from the vantage point of Education Scotland, she detects “a real community feeling” that has emerged, visible in a proliferation of WhatsApp groups and online networks of teachers.

All of this, however, is supposed to happen at a time when local authority budgets are under extreme pressure and schools are feeling vulnerable as a result.

“We’re always really mindful of that because lots of us, we’ve worked in those environments really recently,” says Ms Gorman.

However, she adds that most of the projects on display at the recent event in Glasgow did not require much funding. Budgets aside, she says what is important is that schools are “creating space” for teachers and “valuing professional learning”.

Ms Gorman regularly meets with other chief inspectors in the UK and, when she spoke to Tes Scotland, she had just returned from Belfast, where she heard much discussion about investment in Scottish education, through, for example, the Scottish Attainment Challenge and the Pupil Equity Fund (PEF).

“That’s a significant investment…that has allowed there to be innovations,” she says.

Schemes such as PEF have, of course, courted some controversy for the way money has been spent – John Swinney was forced to step in last year and underline that it should not be used to compensate for budget cuts – and for the perception that some PEF projects have had limited benefits, if any.

For PEF to make good on its promise to usher in innovation, believes Ms Gorman, there has to be an acceptance that some things will not work.

“That’s inevitable – that’s learning. And, actually, out of that learning comes then an improvement. Yes, people have to take risks, because if we just do more of the same with PEF money it’s likely that it’ll not have any impact.”

But she says that there are plenty of PEF successes to point to, such as Renfrewshire’s focus on community learning. She has been encouraged by the growing involvement of parents in some Scottish schools, as well as a greater emphasis on “pupil voice”.

On pupil voice – or student voice – Ms Gorman is hopeful that the lip service often paid to this idea is becoming a thing of the past. Previously, for example, she has heard of pupils who were only asked to help design the playground and what colour of rubbish bins were best – “Which is all fine, but actually, it isn’t really proper pupil voice.”

She adds: “Where we see the most effective practice is where young people are able to hold adults to account.”

This, says Ms Gorman, might entail pupils having the confidence and opportunity to ask in a school meeting why something they asked for did not happen. And she rejects any suggestion that this might be giving too much power to pupils.

“Education is all about children and young people, so you can never shift the dynamic too much towards children and young people – because ultimately that’s who we serve.”

On the overall purpose of a national inspection body, Ms Gorman rebuts the suggestion that Education Scotland is remote and aloof.

“What we’ve got to remember is the inspectorate is made up of teachers [some who] very, very recently were leading schools and teaching.”

The day before our interview, a teacher tweeted about how scared they were about an upcoming inspection. Ms Gorman says that, while she accepts inspection can still seem daunting, Education Scotland has carried out longitudinal surveys about the impact of inspection, which show that the more collaborative approach between inspectors and teachers vaunted by her organisation is well received: the “fundamental thing that comes out of [the surveys] is that people value the professional dialogue ”.

Over the coming months, Education Scotland is going to try to do some “myth-busting” around perceptions of inspection – so what is the top priority?

“The biggest myth is that there’s a whole list of things ‘the inspectors want to see’,” says Ms Gorman. “We want to see effective teaching and learning and improved outcomes for young people – that’s it. There’s no big checklist of resources or policies [and] that’s certainly one of the biggest myths we’d like to debunk.

“‘Your children are your evidence’ is a phrase I often use – don’t be creating other evidence for inspection, regardless of what other people tell you.”

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