Time for a reality check on inspection

5th December 1997 at 00:00
Such is the pace of higher-education mergers that Bart McGettrick, principal of St Andrew's College, last weekend joked with the directors of education that by this time next year there may be no college of education principals. But if colleges all become faculties of universities, their relationship with the Secretary of State will pose interesting questions.

Universities have traditionally kept at arm's length from government. From the days of the University Grants Committee to those of the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council, there has been a mechanism by which government pays for higher education without becoming directly involved in decisions about how the money is spent. The SHEFC aims to let universities and colleges decide their own agendas and intervenes only in funding decisions. In some ways, the hands-off approach is over-purist: finance prompts or prevents academic initiative. But the principle of university autonomy will be sold dearly.

Colleges of education have a different history. Decisions about student numbers are taken by a Government department. The General Teaching Council has a role in how future teachers are prepared for the job. The colleges may complain about interference, especially when finance is determined by the number of bums on seats, but they have always accepted the national interest in seeking to balance teacher supply and demand, and in ensuring that changes in the teacher's job are reflected in the way students are prepared.

The Scottish Office now proposes that inspectors should resume their former functions in teacher education institutes. The universities which increasingly embrace such institutes may have two legitimate concerns. The first is that higher education is already in sufficient bureaucratic thrall to evaluators and inspectors. Education faculties do not need extra demands from the GTC and HMI.

Second, if inspectors are brought into initial teacher education, will they stop there? What are the implications for university self-regulation, which is moderated only by peer review and the verdict of the funders?

If serving teachers had a say, it would be for inspection. Generation after generation, they have taken issue with the difference between pre-service training and what they found in their first classrooms. HMI, for all their faults, are closer to reality than college lecturers. From doctors to engineers and divines, outsiders dictate what goes on in higher education. So why not teacher inspectors?

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