Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 23 July 2014

So who will inspect these mighty school inspectors?

If they are to sit in judgment on principals and teachers we have a right to know just how qualified they are themselves, says Sam Gardiner

When I read the sensational statement by the chief inspector of the Education and Training Inspectorate that the quality of leadership and management is not good enough in 22% of primary schools and 39% of post-primary schools, I asked myself the question: just how well-qualified is the inspectorate to judge these matters?

My questions to the education minister, John O'Dowd, have revealed that 21 of 59 inspectors have been appointed in the last five years, which indicates that 38 inspectors cannot have had either classroom or school management experience in the last five years. So almost two-thirds of the inspectorate have experience that is five years out of date.

Yet when you look at any big job in the public sector, it nearly always asks for relevant experience gained in the last five years.

The decisions that shape the future of our schools must be evidence-based. We must know how valid the comments of those providing the evidence really are.

An expert witness in court must establish his, or her, fitness to comment by showing how relevant and recent their qualifications and experience are.

Inspectors are like expert witnesses: much will be based on their conclusions. Their recommendations will affect the lives of large numbers of teachers, principals and pupils.

The public must have confidence in the expert-witness value of schools inspectors if they are being asked to accept their negative judgement on so many of our schools.

If so many schools are badly managed and led, then we have to ask serious questions about the effectiveness of the schools inspection process itself in allowing such a situation to develop.

After all, they have been in charge of school quality for years. What have they been doing all these years? They have clearly been ineffective if things are as bad as they make out. When I asked the minister to supply me with details on how recent the classroom, or school management, experience of the schools inspectors actually was, he refused to answer on the grounds that "the classroom and school management experience of the Education and Training Inspectorate was individual and personal to each inspector and, therefore, it would not be appropriate to disclose it in this forum."

Later, when I rephrased my question to depersonalise it, he told me "the information is not readily available in the format required. An exercise to obtain such information would result in disproportionate costs''.

Clearly, he was not going to answer my question - even though such information is bound to be readily accessible, as it is collected on the application form of each inspector when they are appointed. Clearly, opening a file in the Department of Education involves disproportionate cost.

In spite of the minister's far-from-transparent stance, the public has a right to know just how qualified the Schools Inspectorate is to be making sweeping judgments on our schools.

They have a right to know when inspectors were last in a classroom, teaching a class, and how recently they managed a school.

The inspectorate must be seen to be properly qualified.

Don't get me wrong - I am not saying they are unqualified. I am saying, however, the public has a right to know exactly how well they are qualified.

In my view (and I suspect in the view of most taxpayers, who actually pay for the inspectors) the minister of education's refusal to answer my questions on the classroom and school management experience of the Inspectorate of Schools is not acceptable in an accountable democracy.

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