Book of the week

16th March 2001 at 00:00

THE INSPECTORS' CALLING: HMI and the shaping of educational policy 1945-1992. By Stuart Maclure. Hodder amp; Stoughton pound;25.

This account of the post-war role of Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Schools effortlessly conveys a mass of information in an elegant style, as befits the work of a man who edited The TES for 20 years. This is not just about inspection. It is a perceptive account of educational policy since the Second World War and the place of HMI in the policy-making process.

The book follows the desire of a group of HMIs, led by Brian Arthur, to tell their story. Fortunately, they recognised that the story would be better told by Maclure than by themselves, although each chapter ends with extracts from the personal accounts written by more than 200 inspectors (now lodged in the library of the Institute of Education, University of London) and the book draws heavily on this information.

Maclure is no apologist for HMI and subjects the inspectors' side of the story to proper critical analysis, weaving it into the history of post-war education. Maclure's other sources include the autobiographies of Baker, Butler, Healey, Lawson, Major, Thatcher and Shirley Williams.

The contribution of HM Inspectorate to the policy-making process was greatest when the government was interested in curriculum, assessment and teaching. Consequently, in the immediate post-war period, when a rapid increase in the number of schools and teachers was the priority, HMIs continued with many of the administrative tasks they had carried out during the war.

The strong progressive influence of such HMIs as Robin Tanner and Christian Schiller contributed to the revitalisation of primary education after the war, although some HMIs with a background in secondary schools felt uncomfortable inspecting primaries. When secondary moderns, technical schools and, later, comprehensives were introduced, the HMIs had no experience of the type of school or of most of the pupils in them. Maclure notes the lack of dynamic leadership during the 1960s, when the role of the Inspectorate was almost continually under review, but understates the extent of the negative influence of senior HMIs on the early development of the comprehensive school. Most HMIs then had been teachers in grammar or independent schools, addressed each other by surname and were asked to inspect the major public schools only if they were on a special list.

The "benign, optimistic, supportive" culture of the post-war inspectorate was epitomised by the 1955 edition of the Inspectors' Handbook, which stated that, in an inspection report on a school, "a final note of encouragement may well be appreciated, provided that it does not go beyond the evidence". HMIs were supposed always to leave teachers feeling better for having been inspected.

Maclure identifies the mid-1970s and the leadershp of the formidable Sheila Browne as a turning point for HMI, which moved from being a locally controlled service with general inspectors having a good knowledge of the schools on their patch to a national body focusing predominantly on surveys. The information from these surveys was fed continuously into the government policy-making process.

During the 1980s, HMI produced the three Red Books on the curriculum and the 12 "raspberry ripples" on each subject from five to 16. Although teachers were suspicious of the motives behind this attempt to describe a framework for the school curriculum, HMI's lack of power contributed to the failure of schools to adapt to this mild form of central interference. This opened the door for Kenneth Baker to introduce the national curriculum. Ministers and civil servants relied heavily on HMI, but gradually came to have more confidence in their own judgments, and turned increasingly to political advisers with little or no first-hand knowledge of schools.

One of the book's major themes is the nature of HMI's independence. Kenneth Clarke "found it irritating to determine policies for education and then `have HMI running around the country critically commenting on them'", as Eric Bolton recalled in 1998.

Maclure regards the creation of Ofsted as an independent body outside the department as a serious error. He attributes the outspoken comments of the Ofsted HMCI less to his independence from the department than to his desire to please the Prime Minister. He believes HMI served ministers well between 1976 and 1992 and forcefully points to the loss of professional advice within the department since 1992. In the words of a former permanent secretary, HMI "is the way the department knows what's happening". The many education initiatives since then have been formulated without the benefit of the solid evidence from HMIs within the department, and the system has suffered as a consequence.

Maclure catalogues the attempts by Eric Bolton to put HMI in a position to respond to the growing pressure for accountability of individual schools. He regards the failure to produce a two-tier inspection system of HMIs and local authority inspectors as inevitable, as Conservative ministers did not want to give credence to LEAs. This led to Kenneth Clarke cutting the size of HMI with surgical brutality and the creation of the part-time army of Ofsted inspectors of varying quality that we have today. Maclure points out that the loss of the mystique of HMI inspection methods and the greater openness of criteria had begun much earlier.

At a time when the future style of school inspection is under discussion, this book provides an invaluable reference point, clearly identifying what has been gained and lost in the change to Ofsted.

John Dunford is general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association.


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