It's time to put HMI back in its place
SCOTTISH education is a case of checks and balances - that classic theory of politics whereby none of the players is allowed to dominate all the others.
Whenever one group of stakeholders gets over-mighty, the others combine to slap them down. At the moment, the over-mighty subjects due for taking down a peg or two are Her Majesty's Inspectors of Schools, and the occasion for their chastisement is the Higher Still debacle, for which they bear the major responsibility.
If that last comment sounds surprising, that is a measure of how skilfully HMIs have defended their corner. They have stayed uncharacteristically out of the spotlight since the exam "results" on August 10. In every other education debate, the loud and clear voice of HMI boss Douglas Osler has been heard above the hubbub telling us all what should be done. Inspectors in schools have then enforced this policy in less than subtle ways.
How did we get to this position? The major factor has been the constant turnover in education ministers. We now have our eighth since 1990. The last one really to leave a mark on the portfolio was Michael Forsyth, who carved the assessment framework for Higher Still in stone, including all the "unit" assessments HMIs then took to their corporate bosom.
In this absence of political continuity, HMIs have filled the policy vacuum. As the minister's main advisers on educational matters, and as even their critics admit, clever and efficient people, they have presented fully fleshed out and internally coherent policies for Government approval. The unfortunate thing is that as civil servants they do not have the political instinct to realise that government is not just about command and control. It is also about consultation, consensus and shared responsibility.
The other stakeholders in the system include the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, directors of education, teachers and their organisations (principally the Educational Institute of Scotland), the public, especially parents, and their representatives in the Parliament. In the last month we have witnessed most of them standing up to point the finger at HMI.
A key moment occurred as Keir Bloomer, president of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland, and his predecessor in that post, Michael O'Neill, told MSPs on the Parliament's education committee that the Higher Still programme was over-complex and made "excessive demands for data . . .
required to generate certification information that is itself not needed, not wanted, not understood and intrinsically worthless".
They went on to regret the teaching time being wasted on reassessments and to say that there had been no proper consultation on the underlying philosophy of the programme, in particular the respective roles of externalexamination and internal assessment.
Mr Bloomer quite explicitly highlighted unit assessments as being unnecessary where candidates have passed a whole course. In doing this he lined up with the Scottish Parent Teacher Council and the Headteachers' Association of Scotland.
The Scottish examinations system will not survive a second year of failure and near chaos, he warned, and minimalist changes this year will not be enough to avoid that.
Cosla was even more outspoken. "There is a need to separate policy development from quality assurance," education spokesperson Danny McCafferty said. "If ever we wanted proof of that, this disaster has provided it." He called for the committee's report to include comment on HMI's role.
HMI has spent the past few years of weak political direction expanding its influence. Independent bodies have been weakened or sidelined. As the ADES pointed out in its evidence, the Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum (now part of Learning and Teaching Scotland) is officially the minister's main advisory body on the curriculum. It was shut out by setting up a Higher Still Development Unit which was effectively controlled by HMI. A former HMI, Ron Tuck, was put in charge of the Scottish Qualifications Authority.
HMI expanded its role into inspection of education authorities, and had to be restrained from interpreting that as carte blanche to go through the financial affairs of councils. It bid, unsuccessfully, for the lead role in the quality assurance of teacher education institutions, but successfully gerrymandered the constituencies of the General Teaching Council for Scotland to stop teachers electing so many EIS members.
HMI seems to have identified the Scottish Council for Research in Education as a dangerously independent voice. When that body dared to suggest that the research evidence did not support HMI's agenda of increased setting in the lower years of secondary schooling, its reward was to have its Executive funding withdrawn. During inspections schools can expect to be criticised if they do not conform to HMI's views on issues, irrespective of the policies of the education authority concerned.
HMI's arrogance showed itself when the senior chief inspector was sent a pamphlet criticising the new Higher English course by the Scottish Association of Teachers of Language and Literature. He sent it back marked simply, "returned herewith".
Unsurprisingly, with such an attitude, Higher Still imploded this year in spectacular fashion.
The new Minister of Education will not have far to look to find the source of his new department's woes. Unfortunately, his main source of advice will continue to be HMI, so he may not see it. The education committee of the Parliament will have to point it out.
Graham Dane is a member of the executive council of the Educational Institute of Scotland. He writes in a personal capacity.