Passing the SALT test

2nd March 2001 at 00:00
The Scottish National Party last week called for school inspections to be conducted by seconded teachers. John Devine reports on a scheme in the United States of America where they do just that.

Imagine a world without inspectors. Teachers who have been through the ordeal of an inspection may experience a warm glow at the thought. For the Rhode Island Education Department, however, the absence of any equivalent to our HMI has caused headaches. The principle of local control has always been close to the hearts of Americans, and the thought of a posse of inspectors coming up from Washington or a state capital to tell the locals how it should be done, would be about as palatable as a federal ban on apple pie.

But, if visits from stern men and women in pin-striped suits are not an option, how can a state education department have any influence on the direction - or lack thereof - of its schools? This was the conundrum faced by Rhode Island education chiefs when they sought to introduce a state-wide programme for school improvement. The solution they came up with seems at once daring and obvious: let fellow teachers be judge and jury. Under a new scheme, school inspections are conducted by teams of volunteer teachers drawn from within the state.

These teacher-led inspections are one component in an ambitious programme entitled "School Accountability for Learning and Teaching" (SALT); the brainchild of Professor Tom Wilson from Providence's Brown University. Wilson spent 10 months in England in the early Nineties observing the English inspectorate and found much to commend.

In particular, he was drawn to the way inspectors made "judgments" based on observation of learning and teaching. This approach contrasted starkly with the aspiration for "scientific" measurement ingrained in the American educational establishment.

Wilson likes to compare the inspection teams to courtroom juries. They are, he says: "a group of people brought together for a specific purpose". The jury analogy is an interesting one, suggesting that the lack of specific training in inspection might lend itself to a more common sense and less preconceived approach. The theory is that teachers in visited schools should be more receptive to judgments arrived at by fellow practitioners.

That is the theory at least, but as Sally Olson, a teacher who has led such visits, comments: "It can be a very lonely experience." She jokes that some schools have taken to describing the experience of a visit as being "asSALTed". The loneliest time for any team leader comes at the end of the visit when, according to the rules, they have to read their findings to a full staff meeting.Ms Olsen recounts the anxiety involved: "I always stand with my back to the door." Nevertheless, for her it has been a largely positive experience in which a forthright approach has paid off: "Once the school principal left halfway through the reading, but at the end the staff clapped; it was as if they were saying 'finally, someone has said it'."

Ms Olson is one of several "SALT fellows" - teachers seconded for a two-year period. During this period SALT fellows are allowed time to devlop their expertise in leading the teams, in addition to conducting a considerable number of visits. However, the SALT fellows are exceptional in their time allocation: ordinary teacher members of the visiting team are given just four hours training to prepare them for the rigours of the visit, which last four days and can be a punishing experience for team members.

Professor Wilson, drawing on his experience of the English inspectorate, stresses the importance of active "observation" of learning and teaching; all else, he says, can be gleaned without ever setting foot in a school. In keeping with this emphasis, visiting teams are directed to observe the classroom practice of every teacher in the school at some point during the visit, which should not, as Wilson puts it, provoke the response: "tell me what to do" - hence his discomfiture with the term "inspection". However, nor should it be: "leave me alone and I'll do it". In this respect the SALT visit is collegial in outlook.

The Rhode Island experiment prompts some pretty profound questions about how we best judge schools in Scotland. There is certainly a tendency among teachers to berate the judgments of those who are out of the immediate teaching loop, like inspectors. For me, as a teacher at the chalkface, there is something very attractive about my work being judged by others in the same position. As evidenced by Ms Olson's story about the disgruntled headteacher, such a "teachers'-eye" approach to school inspection is as likely to generate probing questions for school managers as it is for staff. Perhaps this is an appropriate balance.

There is something to be said for a system that gives ordinary teachers a stake in the process of school evaluation across the country. In a post-McCrone world, teachers in Scotland are buoyed by the hope that their professional experience will have an increasing influence in the improvement of our education system. All teachers involved in the SALT scheme accrue academic credits; an approach that would knit closely with the McCrone vision of continuing professional development for Scottish teachers.

Furthermore, being involved in the inspection process is not a route out of the classroom: even SALT fellows return to their school after their two-year stint, bringing with them the expertise they have developed. Sounds like ideal professional development for the new chartered teachers.

So, what of a world without HMI? Is it time for golden handshakes and carriage clocks? I think not. After all, it was an appreciation of the work of inspectors that partly inspired Wilson to initiate the SALT project. I remain to be convinced that the complex process of inspection can be conducted effectively by partially-trained teachers. For me, the future may lie in a collaboration between inspectors and active practitioners. Both have something to bring to the feast, so let's have serving teachers on inspection teams. There can be little question that such a hybrid inspection team would work wonders for the credibility of any inspection.

John Devine is assistant principal teacher of English at Kirkwall Grammar School, Orkney

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