One-size-fits-all inspection seriously flawed

11th April 2008 at 01:00
The recent death of Irene Hogg, headteacher at Glendinning Terrace Primary in Galashiels, following an HMIE inspection at her school, will rightly send shock waves round the Scottish educational community. Tragic in any circumstances, it will be a pity if her sad loss does not lead to serious consideration of what it is we may do to a school when we send in an inspection team and whether the net gains in terms of improvement outweigh the costs.

I am not arguing for any lowering of standards, or that we leave any stone unturned to make every school as good as it can be. I believe that no matter how good local authority support (and challenge) is, external audit in itself is not a bad thing.

There are winners and losers, and there are some heads and staffs who thrive on the high-octane nature of an inspection visit and the chance to gain their spurs in the "excellents" league table. I suspect, however, from the detritus often left in the wake of an inspection, that they are in the minority.

Of course, there would be other factors involved in Ms Hogg's death, but my hunch is that most people who have been through such a process will have an understanding of what may have provided "the final straw".

How does an indifferent report card help a head do his or her job? Pull the school together? Rally the troops? Encourage young people? Face parents? And, sometimes worst of all, face your colleagues?

What happened in the Borders can be seen as an accident waiting to happen, not because of the circumstances of this school nor because of the way in which this inspection was handled, but because of the one-size-fits-all inspection process.

Although it was good recently to hear an experienced inspector say that "we should never leave a school worse off than it was before the inspection", I am not convinced that the current structure would get very far if it had to be risk-assessed on this basis.

It seems such a waste of the commitment and skills of the highly-experienced members of HMIE who carry out inspections. I was struck by a colleague, reflecting on what had been a difficult week, who said of the managing inspector: "You know, I think I could have learned a lot from her."

The "if" was left hanging, but the meaning was clear. If the power balance had been different. If the feedback had been less clinical. If a professional exchange between two people who wanted the same thing had been part of the deal. If encouragement had been given. If good practice had been shared. And if a huge psychological barrier had not been imposed by the prospect of being described authoritatively and publicly as "adequate".

Children cannot learn when they are afraid or humiliated, and neither can adults. All of us, including HMIE, extol the difference formative assessment has made to the culture in classrooms, to pupils' ability to learn and to explore, to teachers' ability to make learning more meaningful and collaborative. The idea of labelling and categorising pupils' work without helping them to reach any deeper level of understanding now appears positively antediluvian.

Surely inspections should adopt the same approach based on a learning model, rather than a ritualised naming and shaming (or faming) model, which I would argue has caused more pain than gain.

Alison Cameron is a quality improvement officer in North Lanarkshire.

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