Inspectors are out of step with schools

27th May 2005 at 01:00
HMIE must stop dealing with the profession as if it was a starchy Victorian governess, says Peter Tarrant

In Victorian schooldays, perhaps even as recently as the early 1960s, schools were scary places for the pupils. Teachers would come in looking for mysterious qualities which would be rewarded by a kind word or a flicker of a smile, or they would punish with a cane or tawse. No one quite knew what they were looking for, or how to reproduce it if they were the lucky ones. Everyone tried their hardest not to suffer the punishment a second time. All was done on an impersonal level. You were observed from afar, no feedback was given until it was too late, how to improve was a mystery.

Now, thankfully, it's not like that. In school, a new dawn is upon us. Many teachers now share the learning intentions with the class. Pupils know in advance what they are supposed to learn, to get from the lesson. They are even encouraged to help to set the "criteria for success". They are invited to be partners in their own learning.

With the current focus in teaching moving away from summative, end-product assessment towards a more supportive, encouraging, formative assessment, I heard with great surprise that from August, HMIE plans to use a six-point scale to evaluate schools. Surely inspectors are out of step with the rest of education and with current research into meaningful assessment and intervention?

If we are encouraged by Shirley Clarke (Unlocking Formative Assessment, 2001) and Black and Wiliam (Inside the Black Box, 1998) to share learning outcomes with pupils and, wherever possible, to involve them in the establishment of criteria for success, shouldn't HMIE be doing likewise? Having an inspection is a daunting experience for all concerned. Yes, the areas under scrutiny are clear for all to see in How Good Is Our School? and the success criteria are plainly set out, yet staff in schools do not necessarily see them that way. It may not be like the old days when some of us were pupils, second-guessing the requirements of the distant and forbidding teacher. But it is not far off.

Staff certainly will not feel that they are partners in the process. Not only do they feel threatened and isolated, they are also often made to feel worse due to the lack of "personable feedback". Sure, they have a vague notion of what HMIE is looking for, as did those Victorian children ever in fear of the belt. But there is still no proper dialogue between assessor and the assessed. Surely if HMIE was to involve staff in the setting of areas to be analysed, and was to be invited to be part of the process of establishing success criteria appropriate to their circumstances, they would feel more involved and more secure. Surely if HMIE was to give more formative feedback to support teacher development it would be a kind of continuing professional development, authorised by the highest ranking, most experienced educational experts in the field.

The process would be nothing new to many pupils. It is certainly no surprise to today's "teachers-in-waiting". In initial teacher education, students are, happily, leaving the graded approach to placement behind them and modelling the kind of formative assessment that, hopefully, they will embrace once they are qualified. Sharing learning outcomes, involving the learner in the whole process, including self and peer-assessment - all are an integral part of today's courses.

Are there any lessons here for HMIE to take on board? What part is there for self and peer-assessment in the traditional model of HMIE inspection? Yes, schools have been involved in self-evaluation for some time now. Yes, a few schools enable a wide range of staff to be involved in peer-assessment, but is it enough? Is it enough to dispel the fear and suspicion that greets any inspection? I doubt it.

Staff still feel that they are being judged by an anonymous person who has no relationship with the school. They feel that the agenda is secret and the feedback so minimal and so formal that they are unable to question or justify their actions. Above all, staff feel that they are being judged, rather than being supported and encouraged to be better at their work.

Student teachers have had the "crit lesson" with tutor assessment replaced by a more learner-friendly experience. Students and tutors agree the criteria for success in advance of the placement. Tutors offer support and advice in a plenary after the lesson. Both approach the discussion as partners in the task of developing the student's abilities in the classroom. Both aim to raise the standard and develop the skills of the teacher in a non-threatening collaboration. Is there a lesson for HMIE here? Couldn't the process of improving schools benefit from a more supportive inspection, one where staff feel any "judgment" will support and develop their skills as teachers, rather than condemn them as practitioners - often without recourse to explain why they did what they did and why it didn't work on that day.

Rather than HMIE moving to more points on its summative assessment, shouldn't it be moving to a more formative, supportive role, which encourages staff to take a risk, to be open and available to develop and improve practice, in the knowledge that the inspector is there as an expert, a guide, a mentor. Newly qualified teachers already have this support. Their mentors agree with them the agenda for the observations.

Together they discuss how the lesson went and agree next steps for future development - all in an ethos of trust and support.

How long before such a model will infiltrate HMIE and truly improve education in schools? How long before the shadow of the Victorians is extinguished in the dazzle of enlightenment. How long before the process of raising the quality of education is a joint venture, with a seamless supportive approach from nursery on. How long before we are all marching in step?

Peter Tarrant is a teaching fellow at Edinburgh University.

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