Damned by faint praise?

27th July 2001 at 01:00
A BORDERS secondary is demanding a rethink of school inspections after being stunned by the negativity of a report that parents and staff claim seriously misrepresents the excellent work of the school.

Graeme Mitchell, vice-chairman of Earlston High school board, said the assessment, delivered late last session, did not match parents' generally positive view.

Mr Mitchell told The TES Scotland: "While many of the comments were accepted as relevant and necessary, the feeling was that senior staff were left demoralised and parents puzzled by many of the descriptions of our school. A parents' meeting, hosted by the school board, left us in no doubt that damage had been caused by the inflexible language used in the report."

The board had gone public in an effort to change the way schools are inspected and to allow others to learn from Earlston's experience.

In his report to the board, Norman Roxburgh, the school's rector, describes the overall effect of the inspection as "unhelpful to departments and to the school". Inspectors appeared to look for things that were done wrongly, rather than done well.

He accepts formal management criticisms as valid but says: "Perhaps staff in a school which provides a very good service and achieves very good results should not have had a negative experience. Without prompting, several people in positions where they deal with many schools' inspections described the report as very unfair."

Mr Roxburgh said he had been looking forward to the inspection last September. "Although I thought we had a successful school, with a good ethos, good exam results and a good reputation, I knew it was important not to be complacent and I knew there were areas which could be improved. I found the process, the feedback and the report, to be very interesting. Some helpful advice was received and I am told the school has received a 'good report'. However, I was very disappointed that aspects of the process and the reporting had a negative effect on many of those directly involved."

The school criticises HMI's:

* Emphasis on formal methods of management.

* Unwillingness to accept informal methods might be very effective and important.

* Definition of good leadership.

* Restricted reporting process which did not seem to allow for the inclusion of achievements.

* Use of sweeping negative statements which depend on one-sided opinions or assumptions.

* Concentration on possible weaknesses in mechanisms rather than how well things were being done or on what had been achieved.

Mr Roxburgh said that a department might have good results, development work, course uptake, morale and teamwork and still only be judged "fair" if there was no formal review by the principal teacher, or no formal monitoring, and if planning was done through performance indicators.

"Leadership was judged only on mechanisms which had been recommended from outside the school - not on the service and outcomes from the department. This was damaging," he said.

His report goes on to challenge various assessments made by the inspectors and highlights 20 significant omissions, such as the level of extracurricular activities, tutorials and excursions in teachers' own time.


* Five aspects were judged very good, 11 good and four only fair. None were unsatisfactory. Teaching was very good in 20 per cent of lessons, good in 68 per cent, fair in 11 per cent and unsatisfactory in 1 per cent.

* At Standard grade the percentage of pupils who achieved five or more Credit awards has been "consistently well above the national average for the past five years" and at Higher the proportion gaining A-C passes and band A awards "had been unusually high and consistently well above the national average for the past five years".

* Inspectors said the school had a "very committed headteacher", who provided "an effective lead". But principal teachers should be involved more effectively and systems strengthened to translate policies into consistent practice.

* In a traditional refrain, inspectors suggest the school improve S1-S2 courses, religious education in S3-S6, monitoring and evaluation of departments and tighten its development plan.


Seconding teachers to the inspectorate was overwhelmingly backed by the Educational Institute of Scotland at its annual meeting last month. The union says too many inspectors are out of touch.

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