Who'd move over to the 'dark side'?

3rd April 2009 at 01:00
What makes a teacher want to become a school inspector?

Douglas Blane sat in on a training session to see what makes them tick

It's early morning at HMIE headquarters in Livingston and four new inspectors, recruited last year from the ranks of teachers and heads, are having a torrid time at the hands of a character played by Juliet Fraser - who clearly has a great future as an actress when her days at the inspectorate are done.

"Maybe I'm not phrasing it right, but I don't think you're hearing me," she interrupts again and talks over Aileen Monaghan, who assures her she is phrasing it perfectly, and calmly tries once more to put her side of the role-play. "At what point do you get to grab the inspector by the throat and shake her until she listens?" somebody asks.

"Any minute now," says Karen Corbett, who leads professional development at the inspectorate. "But learning how not to talk to people is as important for an inspector as learning how to talk to them."

Role-play is prominent on the five-day course, and the emphasis, for those who still see inspectors as remote and uncaring, is a surprise. It is all about making staff feel great about themselves and their work.

"A good inspector is someone who relates well to other people," says chief inspector Kenneth Muir. "Someone who is empathetic and, more than anything, has the quality of humility - that's what we've been telling recruits, right from the first day, for at least three years."

For these trainees, that day was last summer, and they have already taken part in up to 20 inspections each. In a few weeks, they will conduct their first as managing inspectors. New recruits are continually needed because HMIE has, like the rest of the profession, an ageing workforce, says Kenneth Muir.

"We will soon have lost half our inspectors over a seven-year period. A recent problem is that the increase in teachers' salaries means the people we see as our recruitment base have often moved to a level beyond our starting salary. It's been giving us some problems in recruiting sufficient numbers of people with the quality we insist on."

Four to 10 new people a year are just maintaining the number of full-time inspectors at about 100 (currently 102 - 60 women and 42 men). Also, there are 35 assistant inspectors, usually former HMIs who do at least 10 days a year, as well as 485 associate assessors.

"Those are high-quality people covering all the sectors, from pre-school to psychological services, whom we train and give shadowing experience to, before they become inspection and review team members," Kenneth Muir explains.

"They usually do two or three inspections a year. The idea is that they go back to their school, college or local authority and become a great resource, using their experiences, for evaluation and improvement."

Of the four being trained this week, three are full-time inspectors, while Jean Best is an associate assessor, seconded for a year from her post as head at Sheuchan Primary in Stranraer. "I've applied for another year because I'm enjoying it so much," she says. "When you tell people what you're doing, they say things like: `Why are you going over to the dark side?' So I wasn't sure what to expect. But the managing inspectors have been great at building teams and getting on with people."

Flexibility, empathy and people skills are integral to the new model, widely referred to as "light touch". It's a term that holds little appeal for senior chief inspector Graham Donaldson: "This is not about the difference between a light and heavy touch," he says. "It's about getting it right - in the schools and for the children."

For Graeme Logan, 12 years out of college and former head at Peel Primary in Livingston, the new model is not a huge change. "As a teacher, I remember being inspected by Ken Muir," he says. "He worked alongside me in class, made suggestions, joined in with the children. He gave me things to work on to help me improve. I liked talking to someone in depth about what I was doing. It's been in the back of my mind ever since that there was that potential to talk to people, to inspire them."

The chance to have a wider educational impact is what drives new initiate Aileen Monaghan, formerly the creative and technology-literate principal teacher of music at Glasgow's King's Park Secondary. Surely a role that critically evaluates others' work is an odd choice for her?

"People say they never thought they'd see the day when I'd choose not to be in the classroom," she says. "But I'm still in the classroom, and I don't agree that being critical is what being an inspector is about. It's about continuous development and improvement. I think we've always had a creative inspectorate. I've been inspected four times and every one was a positive experience that led to improvement of the department. I see being an inspector as an opportunity to share my experience with others around the country. I can suggest things. It's about bringing your creativity to the job."

The new inspectors mention the puzzled, often adverse reaction from colleagues on hearing of the move from teaching to inspecting. "I got a card saying, `You used to be my friend but you're not any more.'" says Aileen.

This reaction arises, they insist, from a faulty perception of inspection as a process to be endured rather than enjoyed, a distraction from the core business of learning and teaching. "If there is any truth in that, it's up to us to alter it," says Aileen.

The chance to do so will come soon, says Carole McKenzie, former headteacher at Alexandra Parade Primary, Glasgow. "As the managing inspector, which I'll be doing for the first time in a few weeks, you have to set the tone. I want to make sure I get that right. It starts as soon as you make contact with the school, from that first phone call," she says.

"I feel ready for it. I look forward to building relationships. I'm not worried about being able to do it after all the shadowing, experience and training we've had. I am concerned to make sure it's a fair evaluation and that people are left in a better state than when we went in."

Of course, there is danger in all this people-skills training, and recruitment of individuals who possess more to start with than the traditional image of an HM inspector. There are bad teachers and heads out there. Not many, maybe, but they exist. If the inspectorate goes all warm, cuddly and collegiate, will it still be an organisation that can deliver hard messages when and where they are needed?

"Oh yes," says Aileen. "There is no doubt about that. But you can deliver a hard message in a compassionate way. You can deliver it in a way that is not just critical but actually helps people for the future."


It is not about being warm and cuddly, says Karen Corbett (above), an exasperated look briefly crossing the face of HMIE's lead inspector for professional development.

"It's about creating a climate in schools and colleges that encourages people to talk openly as equals about where they are now and how they would like to improve. It's about professionals and organisations being on a journey to improvement. Our job is to help them on that journey. It's a partnership. Improving Scottish education is everybody's job."

One of the appealing aspects of the induction training is that it embodies the messages on inspections that it aims to convey to new inspectors. It adapts each year in response to changing times and people. It leaves plenty of space for participants to discuss, contribute and share their feelings. It lingers in the memory.

"Teaching is a bit like cooking," Karen says. "You've got the pots at the front of the stove bubbling away that you have your eye on. Then you've got the ones at the back that you keep meaning to get around to, but haven't managed to for a while."

She compares a good inspector to a bumble-bee. "You're scooting around all over Scotland, picking up good things and spreading them around. One place has just overcome an issue that another is starting to face. You can tell them all about it. You have all this knowledge in your head. You're a repository for things that work."

The simulated inspector-head talks, featuring Juliet Fraser in a variety of roles - from abrupt and impatient, through chummy but condescending, to supportive and interested - are entertaining and memorable. At their first few interviews with heads, the new managing inspectors will have these models in mind, and will steer themselves towards the final one, the ideal inspector, who made the person in the head's role feel "listened to, valued and great".

The course covers a range of topics, from gathering evidence and self- evaluation, to creating a curriculum and what makes teams tick. The key messages are about building relationships - although "warm and cuddly" might not be precisely what new inspectors are being asked to aim for, it's not a million miles away. "It's the words I don't like, rather than the idea," Karen says.

"It's like talking about `soft skills' and `hard skills' - as if the former are not so important or easier to acquire. I've been running this course for two years and these are serious skills we are talking about. They are skills our people need to have. And they do."

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