People forget that Her Majesty's Inspectorate once wielded great power in the curriculum debate. Before the introduction of the national curriculum in 1989 each school drew up its own programme. HMI not only had to vet what they offered, but also contributed to the national debate about what pupils should be studying, often through curriculum "think papers".
John Brierley, former science specialist and staff inspector for health education, was a well-respected HMI, and Her Majesty's Inspector of Schools is his fascinating account of what he did during 25 years, beginning with his early journeys in his official Ford Popular in 1961. It is a refreshing pre-Ofsted story of a real human being, completely immersed in improving teaching in his subjct and reporting fairly and objectively what he saw.
Not for him the brain-corroding officialese of the "evidence base" of "generally sound" lessons operating "slightly above the national average". Inspectors were permitted to have normal professional conversations in ordinary English. Their advice informed national policy about curriculum and other matters, while the courses they ran were some of the best around.
"Remember that as HMI you are a guest in the school," he was told on joining. "Don't give the impression that you know all the answers. Listen. It's no good being clever, if your manner puts people's backs up. Those teachers are teaching day in and day out." That wise counsel sums up precisely what has been lost in today's school inspections. Fear and mistrust have replaced mutual respect.
Ted Wragg is professor of education at Exeter University