Can HMI get rid of its seven-year itch?

24th October 2003 at 01:00
The cycle of inspections will become crushing unless inspectors share the burden, says Brian Boyd

Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Education earlier this year unveiled its "proportionate" approach to school inspection. In essence, HMI will give less attention to policies and paperwork, concentrating on "outputs and impact". It seems churlish, therefore, to be critical of a move which many in education have been advocating for years, but one wonders what kind of consultation preceded these changes. Professor David Hartley once said that in Scotland change was characterised by a process of debate followed by consensus. Then, in the Thatcher years, it became consultation followed by imposition. Now it seems that central institutions such as HMI have embarked on a process of change followed by post hoc rationalisation.

The main changes to the new regime which will impact directly on schools revolve around how successful the outcome of the "core" inspection is.

Instead of the present "follow-up" visit to the school, perhaps some 18 months after the core inspection, there will now be a "follow-through" which is "proportionate" to the outcome of the core inspection. Presumably, the better the inspection report, the shorter and less thorough the "follow-through", and vice versa.

There is also to be a change of focus in the inspection process.

"Attainment" is to be replaced by "achievement". The noise you hear at this point may be a loud chorus of "we told you so" coming from teachers across Scotland. Now, instead of looking mainly at exam results and 5-14 levels, HMI is to consider pupil attitudes, personal and social skills, extra-curricular activities, citizenship and health. Indeed, it would seem that the inspectorate is beginning, at last, to take heed of its own report on primary education, Educating the whole child (2000).

It is not clear yet whether new quality indicators will be produced, based on the current, flawed 1-4 scale, or whether new, qualitative indicators will be developed in partnership with the profession. But for many headteachers and their staff, it is what the inspectors will not be doing that will cause most concern. It would appear to be a rerun of the fate that befell secondary maths, when HMI, having imposed individualised learning in the early 1980s, then did a volte face and recommended "direct interactive teaching".

Yet again inspectors are telling schools that development plans, forward plans and policy documents are not nearly as important as what goes on in classrooms! Could we do a rewind to the 1990s when the audit unit's writ ran large, and schools and local authorities were inundated with demands to implement development planning, to have policy documents for every aspect of school life and to audit performance at every turn? It was this climate of accountability that stifled creativity and flexibility - two traditional qualities of Scottish education which are now having to be revived.

But perhaps the most interesting change is hidden within the phrase "follow-through". Does this imply that HMI will actually stay on and work with the schools which are deemed to lack capacity for improvement? Will it "put its money where its mouth is" and lead by example, working with headteachers and their staff on how their school might improve?

It is difficult to see how the present force of inspectors could do so if it is to maintain the seven-year cycle of inspections, while continuing to inspect local authorities and initial teacher education. HMI will also need to recruit people with the skills to act as "critical friends" to schools.

But there is another solution, and it involves trust. If the work carried out by HMI in the 1990s in partnership with local authorities has indeed led to a culture of school improvement, do we really need a seven-year cycle of inspections? Do we still need a national inspectorate? If the answer is "yes", would it not be enough for them to work with local authorities to identify good practice and to supplement this with a light touch schedule of unannounced visits to schools to monitor progress in meeting the national priorities? Thus the authority would have prime responsibility for assuring quality and the inspectorate would be charged with ensuring that good ideas were shared nationally.

We have to applaud a reduced emphasis on bureaucratic development plans (I have often felt that all a school needs is a one-page mind map, maybe with some commentary on the flip side), less reliance on detailed forward planning formats and policy documents, and a sharper focus on learning and teaching. What is needed to complete the package is a change in style.

A humbler, more collegial approach is needed if anyone in schools is to take seriously the idea that inspectors will "stay on" to work alongside staff and senior management. It would have been nice if, before the announcement of the changes, HMI had invited the teaching profession to engage in a debate about how inspections could help schools to improve.

Once consensus was reached, the new regime could have been introduced in a spirit of collaboration and trust.

Schools will breathe a sigh of relief that they will no longer have to provide a lorry load of documentation in advance of an inspection. But the changes will need to go deeper than that if partnership in pursuit of school improvement is to be the eventual outcome.

Brian Boyd is reader in education at the University of Strathclyde and a former secondary headteacher.

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