Move to modernity that made copy flow

2nd September 2005 at 01:00
Douglas Osler reflects on how, during his life-long career in education, The TESS remained an essential point of reference

When the first edition of The TESS was published, I was in week three of my career, teaching history to S1S2 in the annex of an Edinburgh comprehensive. That was when headteachers felt deprived if they had only one building to run. I didn't know The TESS was new because it appeared to be accepted straight away as a chief source of jobs and educational gossip.

When it landed on the staffroom coffee table on Fridays, it was soon well thumbed. That never changed and the paper has provided a remarkable forum for educational debate and accurate reporting in its 40 years. In a country that prides itself on valuing education, The TESS has been the only newspaper to report on Scottish education continuously. Daily papers have flirted with education pages but have lapsed in hard times and often been superficial in their coverage. Being in The TESS became an essential rite of career passage.

When the first edition was published the reporters were, I suspect, better prepared for their job than I was for mine. I had just completed training: one hour each week of "methods" and the occasional lecture from the college doctor covering what would now be S1 biology.

A product of a boys' fee-paying school, I was sent for teaching practice to another boys' independent school, then to a senior secondary school in the city. Then I was appointed to a city comprehensive, starting in the annex with no promoted teacher nearby.

I had acquired a qualification for life. There was no continuing professional development, virtually no in-service, unless you arranged it yourself, and no staff or departmental meetings. When the classroom doors closed, you were on your own. That is why I was uncertain how to react to the boy who invited me to leave my door unlocked so that he could remove the lead pipes and share the proceeds with me.

There was little support, but that meant success was sweet. The three years there were the best of my working life. Experience in a city comprehensive at a time when selective schools were becoming neighbourhood schools was a passport to early promotion, and I went to a school riven by the trauma of taking in pupils of all abilities. These were bitterly contested issues and The TESS reported them all.

The launch of The TESS was not the only event of that year. The General Teaching Council had started and was seeking legitimacy and fees. There was deep animosity to the idea that the profession should be regulated, and many of my colleagues vowed they would never register. They did, but others elsewhere persisted in their stand. Like a lot of reforms in Scottish education, a proposal that caused initial outrage eventually became part of the scenery.

My first contact with HM Inspectorate was in my probation years because before the advent of the GTC an HM inspector visited new teachers to listen to a lesson. As the number of schools increased, HMI could not cope, just as they soon surrendered their role in marking Lowers and Highers papers as Ordinary grades and graded Highers were introduced.

Soon I was off to the inspectorate, based in Glasgow. That was a body ripe for modernisation as well. We worked out of an office with worn linoleum and one typist. In a handwritten letter from his home which was considered to be a country office of the department, my district inspector expressed a desire to meet me. He only came to Glasgow on Fridays and went home for lunch, so we saw little of each other.

Inspection notes were handwritten. A report was made orally to the head and to the director of education. There was no question of a written report being made available. These reports make interesting reading now as they are so different from the modern, professional approach. The decision to publish reports of inspections from 1984, a response to an internal argument over staffing levels rather than a feeling that it was the right thing to do, changed the professionalism of inspection and its impact on schools. It also gave The TESS more column inches.

That was only one of the many changes to the inspectorate in a period which saw significant change in classrooms too. The making of policy has altered as well, from the days when one newly appointed minister for education came once to St Andrew's House to meet officials and never came back, to the present when the Minister is in Scotland all the time, has Cabinet status and devotes his attention solely to his education brief.

Many changes - and all reported by The TESS. Happy birthday and many happy issues!

Douglas Osler was formerly head of HM Inspectorate of Education.

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