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Try holding the inspector's hand

HMIE's lay members have a role that is vital and rewarding, and enjoyable, says Hilary Foxworthy

here are three avenues that a lay member can be asked to follow if taken on by HMIE:lay membership for schools, for further education colleges or for community learning and development. Inspectors themselves tend to specialise in one of these tasks, but I consider myself very lucky to have been involved in all three.

A good few years ago, after an interview and some training, I started as a lay member for schools. I participated in the inspections of a great variety of schools, some state, some independent, some primary, some secondary and some special schools. After I had been a lay member for five years, I was told that was the length of service normally asked. The reason given was that HMIE wanted lay members not to be over-influenced by the inspectors; they wanted genuine outsiders to see the work being done, and comment appropriately.

However, I was told that several new lay members had just been recruited, and I was asked to stay on for a sixth year to allow for some overlap. I was happy to do so. Some months after finishing my sixth year, I was approached and asked if I would like to be a lay member for further education colleges. I was again happy to do so, though I admitted to near total ignorance of colleges.

It was during a day's training that I was asked if I would care to add community learning and development to my responsibilities. Again, I said yes and for the past few years I have been a lay member for several reviews of colleges and several inspections of community learning and development.

As I am now approaching 70, I presume that my lay membership is drawing to a close.

The three "avenues" are very different. For schools, the lay member's tasks are quite clear: I was expected to comment on anything in the school apart from learning and teaching, looking particularly at the overall ethos of the school and relations with parents. I was given (and took) much leeway in what I investigated, but always kept the reporting officer closely in touch with what I was finding - and, of course, he or she had always briefed me beforehand ("Look out especially for . . .").

As far as parents were concerned, it was sometimes quite difficult to get them to be open and honest, but it was always very rewarding when it happened. There was one primary school I remember vividly where no fewer than 20 parents had accepted the invitation to meet me. After about 20 minutes, we seemed to be getting nowhere beyond platitudes. I then asked:

"How do you feel about supervision during playtime?" The dam broke. I received complaint after complaint about the headteacher's behaviour, starting with playtime but then extending to many other instances of totally improper activity. The meeting with the parents had been planned to last about an hour, but it took more than twice as long. I had lots to relay to the reporting officer that evening. He, too, had been made aware of a good many things that were totally wrong, and the district inspector was asked to come and assess the situation. One had to be quite clear about what we heard and reported; allegations are not necessarily useable evidence. It was some months later that I was told the headteacher had been removed - and rightly so, in my opinion.

I thoroughly enjoyed every school where I participated in an inspection, and appreciated very much that I was taken into the confidence of the inspectors. Colleges threw up different challenges. The lay member is expected to gather information from many sources outside the college, to establish how well students cope with work after leaving the college, and how employers and authorities co-operate with the college.

It is not at all easy; frequently the list of telephone numbers one is given is not up to date, or the person concerned is unavailable (and the lay member will probably have less than three days to do the work). A system was set up where HMIE sent out a questionnaire to employers and organisations and responses would, it was hoped, form a firm basis for judgment.

It doesn't always work. In one college, I found no evidence that any employer had received a questionnaire, and I was unable to find out to whom it had been sent. I don't think HMIE had paid much attention to the process. The college asked me: "Why did you not just contact us? We could have had the questionnaires sent to the appropriate people." I couldn't answer that!

Community learning and development is a comparatively recent aspect of education. There are two particular difficulties for the lay member here.

First, it is difficult to be quite certain what is, and what is not, embraced by the title. Second, there is a very practical difficulty that, while I had plenty of opportunities to go round schools and colleges on my own, have a meal with students, speak to staff, and so forth, this is rarely possible in community learning and development as there are many different sites and any meeting with staff or those undergoing some form of training had to be set up beforehand.

Overall, however, I greatly appreciated the opportunity to work with HM inspectors, and would thoroughly recommend lay membership to anyone who wants to see education from the inside.

Hilary Foxworthy is a lay member of HMIE.

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