Lament for inspectors of days gone by

16th May 2003 at 01:00
I remember accompanying a science adviser to a seminar at the Scottish Council for Educational Technology when a schools inspector introduced the new Sinclair computer and indicated that the days of a computer in every classroom were approaching.

It is interesting to note how many parts of that sentence are out of date. Computers in every classroom are, indeed, the norm. SCET is now part of Learning and Teaching Scotland. Sinclair is no more in the computers field. Advisers are rare beasts in some authorities. Most importantly, rarely do HMIs stand up at seminars to introduce curricular innovations directly linked to classroom teaching.

Inspectors were once invited to attend subject meetings to spread good practice. I recall a famous HMI who, for reasons which now escape me, immersed a rubber ball in liquid nitrogen and then threw it hard against a wall in the Robertson Centre for Biostatistics at the University of Glasgow. As intended it shattered into tiny pieces but, not as intended, it left a dent in the ornate plaster work. I always look for this mark when I am at the centre.

HMIs once had time to speak to students at college to deliver their subject expertise. This was when curricular change was slow and evolutionary.

Change was then led by HM Inspectorate and gradually the Scottish Examination Board, as was, adjusted its examinations to suit the revised curriculum.

When I was inspected as a principal teacher of physics, the HMI had time to converse and once one of the science team remarked that I was presenting more pupils for physics than some local authorities. He gave me useful advice about things he had seen at inspections in other schools. He gave tips on apparatus coming on the market and experimental techniques.

The role of inspectors has certainly changed. They are now firmly entrenched in the measurement of quality as defined by HM Inspectorate.

Their reports on schools are so bland that only teachers and parents of the school concerned have any passing interest in them.

At one time I read every HMI report I could in order to glean ways of bringing about improvement. My reading now is simply to detect the faults and failings in individual departments in individual schools. This is more as a source of gossip than as a way of improving teaching and learning at Kilsyth Academy.

The regular standards and quality reports on subjects are useful and helpful. In this regard, the summary information from a large number of schools is more helpful than the information for individual schools.

During the Eighties and Nineties, the power and responsibility for staff development moved fairly quickly away from HMIs to subject advisers. The restructuring of local authorities has meant that many of the smaller authorities simply cannot afford a subject-based advisory service and rely on generic advice. Many members of the new advisory service also have a key role in monitoring quality, checking school standards and quality reports and monitoring development plans. While they are doing this work, the subject expertise declines. Many HMIs, and to some extent advisers, have subject teaching experience from the second last decade of last century.

When the teacher training colleges were blossoming, with huge numbers of teachers being trained, the lecturers had a strong national role in delivering subject expertise and good practice. Now that a subject in a university education department may have less than one full-time equivalent lecturing staff, their place as curricular leaders has declined to almost insignificance. Many of these individuals have not worked in a school for more than 20 years.

With the great leap forward that is the post-McCrone agreement, many schools are about to lose the subject leadership now held by principal and assistant principal teachers. These individuals have worked ably and hard to maintain curriculum development in many of the minor subjects, but may be able to continue this on only a voluntary basis. Many proposed structures have high levels of expertise in management and, as everyone knows, Annex B gives responsibility for curricular development to every teacher.

I fear the aim of successive governments to reduce the number of subjects in S1-S2 will come about simply because there will be no one left to deliver all of the subjects to pupils at this level and beyond.

John Mitchell is headteacher of Kilsyth Academy, North LanarkshireIf you have any comments, e-mail

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