Now who will mind the policy store?

8th December 2000 at 00:00
Initial feelings of glee that the HMI is to lose its policy-making role may be misplaced, suggests Brian Boyd.

MOST Scottish teachers hearing that Her Majesty's Inspectorate is to lose its policy development role (TESS, November 24) will almost certainly have reacted with Schadenfreude. At last, the HMIs are getting their comeuppance for years of arrogance, failure to listen to teachers - and their propensity to make and monitor policy.

The involvement of senior HMI in the Scottish Qualifications Authority debacle was undoubtedly the final straw for the Education Minister, Jack McConnell. For teachers, Higher Still, 5-14 and the proliferation of accountability-led measures such as league tables and target-setting had a cumulative effect on morale since the mid-1980s.

There may be few expressions of sympathy in staffrooms, but perhaps, when the change to agency status is made, we may ask whether this is perhaps the wrong solution to the right problem.

The seed of their downfall was planted in the Thatcherite (or Forsythian) Eighties when the apparent enthusiasm for centrally- imposed curriculum change arose. The rejection of the 10-14 report was something of a turning point.

After a period of acrimonious industrial action, Michael Forsyth and, it appeared, his inspectors, were adamant that never again would teachers be in a position to thwart a national development such as Standard grade.

A section of HMI embraced the centralist agenda. They refused to listen when local authorities and experienced teachers told them that 5-14 was too bureaucratic and needed extra resources to raise attainment and tackle primary-secondary discontinuity. At the same time, the Audit Unit was established, apparently empowered to promote a school effectiveness agenda, unencumbered by the constraints of consultation. With minimal transparency and maximal budget, it promoted a measurement culture and confused efficiency and effectiveness.

But, while all this was happening, there was still a parallel commitment of HMI to policy-making, building on a proud tradition which pre-dated Thatcherism. In my teaching career, which began in 1970, HMI took the lead in several ground-breaking Scottish developments, from the raising of the school leaving age (1972), Standard grade (from 1977) and the education of pupils with learning difficulties (1978).

Even in the 1980s, publications such as Effective Secondary Schools and Effective Primary Schools were influential in spreading good practice. This continued into the 1990s, with The Education of Able Pupils P6 to S2 (1993), which not only coined the phrase "an ethos of achievement", but took a balanced view of the merits of mixed ability and setting.

However, the mid-1990s saw something of a retrenchment, with a vigorous, ideological commitment to setting by attainment allied to "direct (interactive) teaching" on the part of HMI. Pressure was put on secondary schools to adopt these practices even when a research revie commissioned by HMI from the Scottish Council for Research in Education (Setting and Streaming, 1997) failed to find much evidence for setting as a way to improve pupil attainment.

A succession of reports from HMI, characterised by a didactic tone and an absence of any references to research or to educational literature (other than HMI reports), appeared in the late 1990s to accompany the new approach to target-setting, culminating in a Standards and Quality report which seemed to berate schools for their shortcomings.

But, ironically, just as HMIs are to be relieved of policy-making duties, their latest report may turn out to be one of their best.

Educating the Whole Child, a review of personal and social development in the primary years, is one of the most positive documents for years. It finds that 95 per cent of primaries are good or very good in ethos, learning and teaching, and links with the community. It also looks at the factors which influence achievement, including motivation, "emotional intelligence" and learning styles.

If only "educating the whole child" could have been at the centre of HMI thinking throughout the 1990s, then perhaps the profession would have now been their stoutest defenders.

But the question is, who will fill the policy-making vacuum? In the 1970s and early 1980s, the Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum had a committee structure which covered primary education, every subject in the secondary curriculum and some generic committees. This fell victim to a succession of Thatcherite reviews.

Local authorities in the same period made a significant contribution to policy-making, giving the lie to the adage that Scotland was "centrally governed and locally administered". Many local authorities, not only Strathclyde, had policy-making forums and took the lead on issues such as prefives, adults in schools, co-operative teaching, learning support and management training for heads. There was a partnership approach nationally, with council personnel serving alongside HMI on national committees and with elected members through COSLA contributing to policy initiatives.

Now, as Willis Pickard has pointed out (TESS, November 24), if the council voice has diminished and if HMIs are to be removed, who will make educational policy? Mr McConnell and unelected advisers, perhaps influenced by what is happening at a UK level, perhaps looking around at other countries and cherry picking the bits which suit?

Educational policy-making is too important to be left to politicians. It should involve all the stakeholders including pupils, parents, teachers, unions, the business community, researchers, academics and politicians.

HMI may be a convenient scapegoat now, but the problems of policy-making may be more deep-seated and may require more radical solutions. As William McIlvanney has said: "Aloes on nails do not cure a neurosis".

Brian Boyd works in the faculty of education, Strathclyde University

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