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Watch out for HMI's charm offensive

It is not easy to portray members of the inspectorate as warm and cuddly, but they seem to be making an effort to present a more human face. One indication of this is the publication of a newsletter, HMIE BRIeFING (note the subtle design feature), which is intended to inform teachers, schools and local authorities about the work of the inspectorate, including new developments.

For example, old style "follow-up" inspections are being dropped in favour of a more "proportionate" approach which takes account of a school's capacity for continuous improvement and focuses inspectorate effort on those schools which need greatest help. The message is that inspectors seek to be supportive, not just judgmental.

The newsletter informs readers about a range of other initiatives. These include a series of self-evaluation guides covering topics such as international education, education for citizenship and racial equality.

There are also informative articles on curriculum flexibility, the inspection of early education and childcare services, inclusive education and quality provision for pupils with special needs. Add to this the development of a comprehensive website providing online information for parents and schools, and the case for concluding that there is a serious attempt to make the inspectorate more user-friendly is strengthened.

Before we get too carried away, however, we should consider some other evidence. Over the years I suppose I have got to know a fair number of inspectors. I have found most of them to be intelligent, hard-working and genuinely committed to the improvement of Scottish education. Prior to appointment, they may have been lively, creative and innovative teachers.

But something happens to them once they join the inspectorate. They become subject to a professional socialisation process that leads them to temper their enthusiasm and adopt a cautious approach. They learn to write in dreadful "officialese" in which blandness is the approved style. Their reading seems to be dominated by dull official reports which engender a narrowness of thinking.

In extreme cases, they develop an anti-intellectual outlook and pragmatism becomes a more powerful influence than principle.

Then there is the question of the political dimension to the work of inspectors. Unsurprisingly, this does not feature directly in the newsletter, though there is a reference to the intended relocation of HMIE headquarters to Livingston as part of the Scottish Executive's strategy to move some agencies and departments outside Edinburgh.

The current location of Saughton is considered appropriate by many teachers, given the proximity of the well-known penal establishment. It is rumoured that the prisoners refer to the inspectorate as "the neighbours from hell".

Neither the relocation nor the rebranding exercise will remove the old power struggles that have traditionally taken place between the inspectorate and career civil servants. At the moment the latter are in the ascendancy, as is evident from the role of a senior mandarin (Philip Rycroft) in two important reviews, one on teacher education and the other on the 3-18 curriculum.

In the past, however, inspectors have been more centrally involved in policy and it would be surprising if they did not seek to recapture some of the lost ground. The interplay of elite groups will continue to be a legitimate area of enquiry for those who seek to understand the dynamics of policy-making.

My point is that, while some aspects of the charm offensive by the inspectorate are to be welcomed, we should not expect a complete transformation of character. In any case, charm offensives are quite difficult to make convincing.

In my own case, I can manage the "offensive" part but struggle with the "charm".

Walter Humes is professor of education and head of educational studies at Strathclyde University.

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