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Some musings on inspections

Perhaps its the Christmas idleness kicking in, but I have been thinking over the last day or two about school inspections. This is probably because of tweets I have read over that time, but it is also undoubtedly linked to the fact that I am aware of at least two schools, pretty near to me, who are being inspected as soon as they return from the Christmas and New Year break. Why would anyone think that is an appropriate thing to do? One school will have inspectors arriving on the first day back and the other the following week. I am sure we can all imagine how these impending visits have impacted on school leaders and staff in the already hectic run-up to the Christmas holidays, and how they may also be feeling during those holidays. It feels to me that schools being inspected in this period, so soon after the break, are very much just seen as fodder for an organisational process that takes no notice of the impact on people of that process. 'We have a number of inspections to carry out, so lets get straight back on it after the holidays', would seem to be the mindset. 'Then we can tick that box, move on to the next, and meet our targets, before we get too busy with more curricular and structural reform.' Of course, this could also be used as another reason why we should have 'no notice' inspections, to stop staff and school leaders getting stressed about an impending event, and to get a truer picture of what the school is really like. But, timing would still be important for everyone, especially as our own inspection regime in Scotland is now heavily weighted in terms of conversations with the learners. In any Primary school I have worked in, it has always taken a few days at least for learners to get their 'learning heads' back on and for their 'holiday heads' to begin to disappear. For those from more chaotic home backgrounds, this takes even longer. Having questions about your learning fired at you from a stranger in the first few days back, may not only be stressful, but also the answers you give may not be a true reflection of where you are in your learning.

To my musings. I should say at the outset that I don't believe in school inspection as a process. To me, it is another example of the system creating an illusion that it is in charge and is taking robust steps to ensure everyone is doing what they should. It is designed to reassure parents, the public and politicians that schools, their leaders and teachers are delivering what they should be. The organisations charged with carrying out inspections will have 'data' that they can share with parents, the local authority and the school about how it is doing. When they accumulate that 'data' they can present a regional and national picture, or so they think. The question is, 'how accurate is the picture they present of individual schools, and the system as a whole?' I am afraid the answer to this is 'not very.'

I often hear it said 'you can tell what a school is like five minutes in through the front door' and there is some truth in this. I too feel that you can get a 'feel' for a school, its culture and ethos very quickly. But that is completely different to 'knowing' that school really well and the quality of its work in all areas. To achieve that takes expertise and, more importantly, time. For me, a few days of observing lessons and talking to all members of a school community, doesn't cut it either. What inspectors see is very much a snapshot and will still not be an accurate picture of what that school is really like. In my mind, to achieve some form of accuracy would require an inspector to be embedded within a school for at least a month and possibly longer. Only then would they begin to see all facets of how the school works, and the complexity of the interactions that leaders try to support and deal with, to ensure it is producing the best outcomes it can for all learners. If an inspector was in a school and spent the time shadowing the school leadership, the teachers, support staff, pupils, parents, other agencies in everything they do to make the organisation function and be effective, then the picture they would form may have some validity. They would need to see everything including classrooms, the variety of meetings, professional development, collaborative planning and working, break times, lunches, community contacts, Parent Councils, assemblies and so on. Only then, could they describe the school with any sort of confidence, and which would have some validity for the various audiences they would report to.

Is this likely to happen? Probably not. I can see costs, workload, staffing and training amongst the issues that would be cited for why it couldn't happen. Another thought I had was that it should be practicing school leaders and teachers who would be trained for such a role, and this should not be devolved to a separate body or organisation. We are still 'inspected' by far too many people who have no direct experience of the curriculum as it now is, or of actually implementing the research we now have access to in a classroom, on a daily basis. This gives them not only a very low credibility rating with schools and teachers, it also limits their understandings of the new demands expected and placed on teachers and schools. Perhaps, all our current inspectors should be expected to go back into a school for a couple of years, every five years, so they don't become too divorced from the realities of the classroom. Might help the staffing shortages as well.

It is well documented that there is no inspection regime in Finland, and yet they seem to do quite well in many eyes. What they do have is very well educated and trained staff, within a profession that is highly respected and trusted by all. I don't believe it is beyond the bounds of possibility that we could aim  for the same in Scotland, and elsewhere. This would mean we would have to ensure our Initial Teacher Education programmes were fit for purpose, and equipped young teachers with skills and qualities that allowed them to become career-long enquiring professionals. They would need deep understandings of learning, and the diagnosis and fixing of learning difficulties, and should be critical users of research throughout their careers. They should be self-regulating, develop agency and adaptive expertise, and understand the power of collaboration to solve and overcome complexity. All this would require close links and working between schools and ITE providers, and perhaps a new sharing of responsibilities in new collaborative models, there are lots of examples of this happening already. It would also require our political leaders to understand and embrace such a model. The sooner they recognise that true, deep and meaningful system change and growth cannot be mandated and micromanaged through prevailing hierarchies the better for all, and the more likely we can achieve our collective aims.

This is something I intend to keep working for in 2017. 

Merry Xmas and happy New Year to you all. :0)

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