Time to add humanity to inspectors' list

18th April 2008 at 01:00
Like many others, I was saddened to read that there might be a link between the apparent suicide of Irene Hogg, the Borders primary headteacher, and the pressures on teaching heads.

A particularly onerous burden falls on teaching heads of small primary schools. The nature of the rural communities they serve means there are often huge expectations from parents. The school symbolises much more than its main function of providing education in its catchment area.

Teaching heads have to deliver the same high standards as non-teaching heads but, at the same time, have fewer staff to delegate to. The very fact they have to teach means that, as well as being responsible for the management of their school, they have to engage in the most difficult activity in education - standing in front of a class and delivering lessons.

I really don't know what mechanisms local authorities have in place to support their heads, but there appears to be no uniform policy throughout Scotland. Certainly, many headteachers would probably agree with Gordon Smith's comment (TESS, April 4) that local authorities should be in there supporting schools before it gets to the stage of HMIE walking in and slating the school. This happens all too often.

The announcement of an inspection certainly initiates huge stress in a school, with the prospect of inspectors going through everything like forensic scientists trying to solve a murder. I have seen people tremble at the thought of failing in an inspection. Yet it is not a foolproof process in terms of always picking up and reporting on the full picture.

While schools definitely need external systems to review their progress, there is enough evidence to speculate whether current HMIE procedures respect the humanity of people. When people are rendered helpless by severe criticism, they may succumb to hopelessness, especially if they are already laid low by the pressures of the job. The press has reported on a number of teachers, throughout the UK, who have killed themselves after the culture of accountability has left them to deal with the hostile conclusions of an inspection.

What worries me is the extent to which we now assess everything in education. Everything is deemed to be measurable using performance indicators, scoring systems and sometimes shaky evidence. My most inspirational teacher at school would never have been contained by ticks in boxes.

Consider that for every teacher who commits suicide, there will be many others who suffer intolerable burdens during the inspection process. We have become much more humane in the ways we deal with school pupils. Surely it is time that we extend that humanity to the adults who work in and run our schools. Negativity damages adults just as it damages children.

Comments from her pupils, parents and colleagues indicate that Miss Hogg was a well-loved and inspiring headteacher. Such positive remarks mean more to all of us than a line-up of performance indicators.

Marj Adams teaches religious studies, philosophy and psychology at Forres Academy.

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