An inspector calls

Jackie Kemp gives a low mark to the people who adjudicate on schools. From the Scottish Review ( http:/ October 5 2010.

There is a Chinese proverb which says: 'Teachers open the door, but you must enter by yourself'. Education therefore is about the pursuit of knowledge rather than, as George Bernard Shaw put it, 'knowledge in pursuit of children'. In recent times Scottish education has seemed more like the latter than the former with a surfeit of top-down state-led box-ticking initiatives aimed at having all children achieve this level or that level by certain ages.

There appeared to be a broad consensus over the much trumpeted Curriculum for Excellence which was aimed at freeing teachers from these petty controls and restoring to them some creative autonomy in the classroom. It seemed a useful principle – in Finland teachers appear to relish their professional autonomy, which is similar to that of doctors and lawyers and gives teaching a high status which helps to attract fine minds into the role. However in practice, as so often, the reality does not appear to measure up to the rhetoric.

As the Curriculum for Excellence came in earlier this year, howls of rage and strike threats from secondary school teaching unions ensued. Subject specialists like history and chemistry teachers were complaining – rather pathetically – that without a set exam syllabus they would not know what to teach to the first and second years who started this August. As a friend put it: ‘I don’t know much about chemistry, but I would start with the periodic table’.

In primary schools, where there has historically been a less rigid structure, the Curriculum for Excellence achieved greater acceptance. The bumf – and there was a lot of it – encouraged primary school heads and staff to ‘think out of the box’ and try new things. The young and energetic head of my own child’s primary certainly took this on board. He and senior management at the school worked very hard to rethink what they are doing in line with the Curriculum for Excellence and to bring the school community with them.
We have had information evenings, parent seminars and hand-outs about it for years now. So many that even some very committed parents preferred to slip out to the pub during that part of the evening. But the staff were enthusiastic advocates and responded to the encouragement to ‘run with it’.
They have introduced a forest school where, rain or shine, children in wellies and waterproofs walk to an outdoor classroom in a nature reserve on a patch of wasteground. There they learn to make fires and build shelters, to identify trees and birds. They walk a mile there and a mile back, they have a laugh, learn that being outside in the rain isn’t after all so bad. It isn’t sport or competitive in any way and you don’t have to wear shorts so even the children who hate games enjoy it.
Another initiative is the cross country running – once a week, parent volunteers are allowed to take whole classes running round the links. There is also a school garden where another parent volunteer has worked hard to give each class its own bed and has grown a crop of vegetables, and built a greenhouse out of recycled materials.
A fourth is an initiative where children – in discussion with their teacher – are allowed to choose their own class topics. This is a radical step. It seems fair to say that more experienced and more capable teachers are the most comfortable with this.
My own son’s class had a great year – they chose space and my son William – aged 8 – chose to write a topic on the asteroid belt. They also went to Glasgow science museum. For the summer term they chose the 60s – pop art, the Kennedys and a fundamental shift in British culture – which ended in a themed party where they did limbo dancing and listened to stories from grandmothers who came in dressed in 60s gear.
When this is explained, children are adept at understanding they need to choose something that they really genuinely want to know more about. Last year’s p7 chose ‘famous people’ which their teacher turned into a great balloon debate which was won by Winston Churchill. One class chose Dr Who – I had an interesting conversation with a boy on the autistic spectrum who discoursed knowledgeably on the difference between two logos the programme used.
Most controversially, one young trainee teacher’s class chose TV character Sponge Bob Squarepants. She was genuinely offering the children a choice and the notion was that it was a starting point which could be taken anywhere. The carefully written timetable on the class door read: RE: Spongebob Squarepants finds out about Islam.
It was a controversial choice and it may not have completely worked. I wrote an article about the initiative for the Education Guardian (available on my website in which the head defended the right of teachers to fail – to try new things and to find out how they work. That of course is crucial to any endeavour which is really challenging.
At the same time as I was in the school researching this article, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education were visiting. I got the impression that they were not liking this initiative and were urging the school to pull back.
However, given all that was going on in the school, I was confident that the school would secure a good report. Like the entire parent council, I was amazed and appalled to read the document that was finally released. The staff were devastated by a dismissive document which at one point was threatening to fail them – the first draft seen by the parent council chair was below a pass. The school was finally given a B minus without a single excellent or very good – by the standards of these things that is unusual. Both the previous HMI reports had given the school a glowing report.
The report they received in 2001 I also felt was a slightly unrealistic portrait of the school – it seemed unconvincing in that it contained hardly a word of criticism.
In so many ways the school has improved since then – it seem extraordinary to see it damned with faint praise in a cursory, poorly written, at times virtually unintelligible document. The 2010 report does not even mention the 2001 report – there is no sense of assessment being a process. Even more extraordinarily it did not even mention let alone discuss any of the initiatives above such as the forest school – there was no more than a passing reference to ‘outdoor activities’.
In an apparently veiled reference to the topic-choosing inititaive, it says:
‘Senior managers need to monitor the overall design of the curriculum and ensure that all children receive a broad, appropriate, well-planned challenging range of experiences. At present, the ‘free choice’ children are given in some areas limits this.’
Here is a another typical excerpt:
‘Staff share good practice with each other and predict when children will reach national attainment levels. They need to track children’s progress closely to improve attainment.’ The first sentence appears to contradict the second. It doesn’t give any objective, factual basis for the conclusion.
Several parents wrote to the HMIE to complain. Here is the response I got to a query about the grades the school was given: ‘You question the basis of the quality indicator gradings at the end of the report. The text in the report deals with high level questions and provides an evaluative narrative relating to these questions. The quality indicators each have a very specific and technical role to play in the inspection process which is not the same as the evaluative narrative in the report, although the evidence relating to the quality indicator evaluations does underpin the report. As such, the report is not intended to explain the gradings but it will, as in this case, be consonant with them.
‘Our inspections are conducted in the national context using consistent expectations. Sometimes, as appears to be the case here, stakeholders have a different view to inspectors about the quality of local provision.’
Let us leave to one side the question of whether Her Majesty’s Inspectors of Education ought to know that it is not correct to write ‘different to’, it should be ‘different from’, or the fact that on a simple count, the grades are not consistent with the text in this report; the HMIE don’t appear to have taken on board any of the impetus behind the Curriculum for Excellence or to have looked for examples of it being implemented.
The school is not perfect, but the report – incoherent and unreadable as it is – does not do it justice. Worse it appeared to be penalising the school for attempting in good faith to work with the spirit of the new curriculum.
Are the inspectors up to speed with the Curriculum for Excellence? Did they read the bumf? To return to another piece of ancient wisdom, who inspects the inspectors?