Annual conferences are liberating yet tricky events. Freed from the chores of keeping the pint-sized occupied in school, thrust into the company of like-thinking colleagues, given free rein to strafe clearly visible targets and fuelled by the heady fumes of ringing rhetoric, delegates tend to lose inhibitions and let themselves rip.
My only experience of a national conference was a lot of years ago, but it was clear even then that the exuberance created by liberty from the classroom and latitude to spout ideology had a lot of mileage in it. I sometimes wonder if the spielers ever cringe when they read their output, and ask themselves if in the heady atmosphere of ideological testosterone they missed the chance to gear up for new eras.
Certainly I cringed when I saw, and could hardly fail to hear, the delegate from Islington at the National Union of Teachers calling for the resignation of Chris Woodhead and the abolition of the Office for Standards in Education. No matter how personally and ideologically satisfying it is to declaim the hot words of excoriation in the holy ground of conference, the resulting video byte often comes over nationally as just a little ridiculous, and serves merely to confirm viewers in their preconceived prejudices that teachers, especially delegates to national conferences, have axes to grind and hoops to jump through.
We have no right to lift hems of our garments in this matter. I can recall writhing in embarrassment reading an anonymous account of addresses given by the then senior chief inspector Nisbet Gallacher and Brian Boyd to delegates at the 1994 primary heads' conference, and what seemed to be some kind of attempted juxtaposition of the Two Gentlemen of Learning that did not quite come off. What struck me about the account was its emphasis on oppositional body language to Mr Gallacher whose theme was 5-14: facial expressions, subdued gasps, "wee sceptical noises", frowns to indicate perplexity. Times may have moved on, the theme has not. Inspectorate fear and loathing is still on the up and up.
The TES Scotland reported a prime example of this in its account of the goings on at the Headteachers' Association of Scotland. Thrust into the Dark LordLady of the Universe role, any open-minded HMI reading this would truly feel rejected (for about five minutes), but would surely congratulate oppositional orators on their steady 5-14 type progression up the Berating Scale from fascistic-style abuse to a more up to date Marxist version.
Securitate rolls off the tongue better than Gestapo, while Stasi has a nice hiss to it that is truly ophidian. This is merely sticks and stones stuff. The secondary heads go on: HMIs have forgotten their roots, become political poodles, worst of all, sounded like the Sunday Post. I bet that one hurt. Tellingly, hysteria reaches its peak when HAS grandees start to throw mud at national testing, presumably at S1 and S2 where it does not yet take place.
It is clear that HMIs have not worked hard enough at sloughing off the negative images that still linger on. Classroom teachers persist in the atavistic slant that views HMIs as either educational spesnaz or Blitzkrieg commanders intent on overkill and fault finding. Contrary to all received opinion, there is no cloud of HMIs orbiting St Andrew's House that occasionally spews out a rogue visitor like Hale-Bopp to cause havoc and disorder, and to upset the even tenor of well developed complacency. Achievement is their business.
If there is one thing that we would have learnt over the past decade it is that HMIs have a duty of care for the curriculum, just as we deliverers of the curriculum have. Every document bearing their imprint that lands on our desks and that we make even a slight effort to ingest makes this clear. It is precisely because of that duty of care that we have witnessed the professionalising of the curriculum, aimed at the betterment of our children. If we lack the professional grace to be able to co-operate with that, then it is time we examined our consciences.