Wanted: sensitive soul, not automaton

30th October 2009 at 00:00

In John Kennedy Toole's splendid novel, A Confederacy of Dunces, the central character, Ignatius J Reilly, at one point observes: "You can always tell someone who works for the government by the vacancy which occupies the space where most other people have faces". I was reminded of this recently when I read the terms of the advertisement for the post of Her Majesty's Senior Chief Inspector of Education.

Reilly's acute observation can be interpreted in at least two ways. At one level, it refers to the anonymity and facelessness of most bureaucrats and civil servants, their tendency to hide behind systems and structures. At a deeper level, it suggests that this kind of evasion has a damaging effect on those who practise it: they become so used to enforcing rules and regulations that they cease to have any views of their own. In the process, they lose those distinctive features which we associate with character and personality.

It is evident that the successful applicant for the senior chief inspector post will have to be prepared to suppress his or her individuality in favour of compliant acceptance of current policy discourse. The advert is peppered with cliches: "sustainable economic growth"; "sustainable improvements in standards, quality and achievements"; "rigorous independent inspections"; "sharing responsibility across organisations"; "delivering ambitious plans".

There is no recognition that perhaps one of the reasons that Scotland is doing less well in international comparisons than it used to is the tendency of officialdom to rely on inflated, boastful rhetoric. It can be assumed that anyone with a developed sensitivity to the use of language is unlikely to be appointed.

What more is said about the desired qualities of candidates? As Wilson Blakey has pointed out (TESS, October 2), there is an interesting tension between the requirement to have "personal credibility" and the statement that "you do not need to be a registered teacher or graduate". One would have thought that credibility in an educational context might depend, in part at least, on strong academic qualifications and some "insider" knowledge of the focus of inspections, principally school environments.

Much more weight is attached to another of today's fashionable orthodoxies: "we need a highly-motivated, professional leader." If I had received a pound for every bit of nonsense I have read about leadership over the last 30 years, I would be a rich man. There is a story to be written about the intellectual capture of public services since the 1980s by the shallow utterances of a series of leadership "gurus". Universities, with their puffed-up business schools have, I regret to say, been one of the main culprits in this process.

Despite my critical comments, I genuinely hope that, for the sake of pupils and teachers, the Scottish Government makes a good appointment to this important post. For that to happen, however, there would have to be a recognition that the traditional deference to the inspectorate can no longer be guaranteed. Respect has to be earned, not granted automatically on the basis of hierarchical position. There is a major "hearts and minds" job to be done to convince people that the current criteria for judging schools and teachers are the right ones. We need someone with the intelligence and courage to address that issue directly. Such a person cannot be a faceless bureaucrat.

Walter Humes is research professor in education at the University of the West of Scotland.

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