Judgmental model still unsatisfactory

12th February 2010 at 00:00

Last week, I voiced some criticisms of the inspectorate, but I do not believe we should abolish it. Thanks to HMIE, an evidence-based approach to evaluation is now part of the culture of most Scottish schools. The clear descriptions of "weak" performance in the quality indicators provide a national benchmark, bringing consistency in evaluating quality to what might otherwise become a locally-fragmented system.

Teachers and heads lap up the "good practice" which the inspectorate identifies - hearing about or seeing the best practice of others stimulates enthusiasm and commitment to improve. But the current model also "gets it wrong", and I hope the new Education Secretary and new Senior Chief Inspector take note of my suggestions.

My first recommendation is for HMIE to become a better learning body by being more open to critique; despite considerable transparency, there is insufficient professional scrutiny of it. I have heard heads offer severe criticism of their experience of inspection in private but keep quiet in public, since they are aware of the inspectors' power within the Scottish system. This means inspectors do not benefit from positive criticism. Ministers have a right to assume that the methods and systems of inspection are robust, yet I have shown that there are important weaknesses.

A national scrutiny panel would assist ministers in judging effectiveness. It might involve leading academics, heads, inspectors from other public- service fields, parents and teachers, and would provide a useful degree of "triangulation" by requiring the inspectorate to give a regular public defence of its systems.

My second recommendation is that the inspectorate should extend its engagement with the wider educational community into its recruitment and retention policies and approaches to gathering and using evidence. Inspectors should be recruited on five-year renewable contracts and spend a year "in the field", working in challenging educational contexts, every fifth year. This would provide a leaven to the inspectorate and to the communities it serves, while enhancing the practical, professional quality of its work and its credibility in the educational community.

Inspectorate approaches to evidence-gathering could also benefit from wider engagement: are its statistical methods valid and reliable? A more open engagement with the research community, involving leading researchers in its evidence-gathering and publishing their methods, would benefit educational research and the inspectorate.

My third recommendation concerns the role inspectors play in assisting self-evaluation. If they are to help schools in challenging circumstances move forward, they need to use their expertise to develop more sophisticated measures of the range of factors which can influence and support positive change. Building the Curriculum 5 asks schools to prepare comprehensive self-evaluative reports on the quality of learning, school context and plans to improve achievement. I urge the inspectorate to work with others to provide structure and support for this development, using a "balanced scorecard" approach. The national agency responsible for evaluation should not leave it to individual schools and authorities to devise their own measures.

My fourth recommendation concerns how we have come to view the relationship between schools and education at a deeper conceptual level. The inspectorate view has reinforced the dominant "market choice" thinking of the past 20 years. In an attempt to measure the quality of schools to support "consumer choice", HMIE has developed an apparently-definitive grading system.

Recent trends in inspections, with ever-shorter visits to individual classrooms, have emphasised that the primary purpose of inspection is to support the award of "grades" for the school as a whole. This obsession with grading diverts energy away from the much more important task of evaluating the quality of teaching and identifying clear steps for progress, a job which inspectors do well.

Unsatisfactory performance should never be tolerated, and "failing schools" need to be improved, but to do this we do not need a "grading" system which ranks all schools and the work of their staff on a bogus linear scale. Education in the UK has been reconceptualised over the past generation as a "service" and HMIE has, in this market model, accepted the role of "grading" the service to provide information for "consumer choice". However, education is not just a "service": such a conceptualisation of schooling creates a danger that it is seen as something done to or for "customers".

Education is better conceptualised as a community project, in which schools work with the local and national community to support the development in our young people of the four capacities at the heart of the Scottish curriculum. Yes, HMIE should support and moderate the self- evaluation of local authorities and schools, but it needs to base its work on a wider concept of education if Scotland is to address longstanding problems of inequality and educational failure.

In my book, Dealing with Dilemmas, I have shown how the head's job, dealing with competing values and tensions, can be stressful and emotionally draining. These are accentuated in schools in difficulty, whether through staffing issues, illness, challenging social circumstances or other pressures. They do not look like reducing any time soon.

The recent report Recruitment and Retention of Headteachers in Scotland makes clear that many heads are due to retire soon and that many deputes will not take on these pressures. If the inspectorate wants to contribute positively to the future, it has to improve further the judgmental model of inspection.

Danny Murphy is headteacher of Lornshill Academy, Alloa.

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