A personal journey as HMI and how it affects my views today (Part 1)

22/11/21

I have been commenting quite a lot recently on the decision of Ofsted to continue inspecting while the pandemic is still with us. I have been deeply concerned by recent inspection reports I have read where the evidence doesn’t appear to support the judgement or where a slither of evidence is used to make quite damning overall judgements on effectiveness. I have played a part in the development of school inspection frameworks while employed as HMI between 2001 and 2012. I have found time today to consider my selection, training, induction, role and standing as HMI and considered how differently HMI are appointed and deployed today. 

This initial recollection covers my introduction to the work of HMI in 1979 through to meeting my first HMI and then onto my school inspection experiences, a year-long secondment to Ofsted and eventual appointment as HMI.

During my probationary year as a primary school teacher in Stockport in 1979, I would sit down in the staffroom and read the collection of A5 booklets that filled the top shelf of the small bookshelf. They call had a pinkish spine, so they created a sort of strawberry wave effect. I later realised that this was why they were referred to as the ‘raspberry ripple’. I would read each one and wonder who compiled them and how did they get the evidence and I wondered what that job would be like?

I distinctly recall someone saying to me that my chances of meeting one of those authors was a million to one because they were members of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate, and they don’t really inspect schools! Something stirred in me, and I began to research the work of HMI and became fascinated by their apparent mystery. What would it be like to meet one and what would I say to them? What were they like and where did they come from? I dismissed any chance of becoming one because, they wouldn’t be that interested in a new qualified teacher trying to make his way, and to be honest my main concerns were getting through the first year and securing a mortgage.

In 1988, I secured my first headship in a Junior school in a challenging community in Greater Manchester. Soon after my appointment I received a visit from the senior local authority adviser who explained what the induction programme would look like. I got a clear sense that he realised I had taken on a significant challenge for my first headship, and he intended to do all he could to help me. He explained that he had secured a place on a management training course (interesting how these were offered in those days after you got appointed) and that it was an opportunity to meet other newly appointed colleagues from across the North West.

I found the course really useful and although I didn’t connect professionally afterwards with colleagues on the course, I do remember vividly a presentation from Ian Rodger HMI on history teaching in the primary school. This was the first time I had ever seen or spoken to HMI so I was intrigued as to what he would say and how he would conduct himself. He strode around the room with a quiet authority rolling coins in his pockets as he explained a particular project, he had observed over time at a Stoke-on-Trent primary school. The school was part of a former coal mining community and it had adapted its curriculum to ensure the pupils understood the area’s rich industrial heritage including the importance of pottery as well as mining. Ian explained that all of the pupils knew why the local football team were nicknamed The Potters. 

After 45 minutes of detailed analysis of the school’s approach to curriculum design Ian told the group that we wouldn’t see much like that in the coming years. We all challenged him as to why not? He said, ‘The National Curriculum is likely to put an end to this approach’. That then led to a major discussion about the reform that was being implemented at the time. Ian didn’t criticise the reform but used the project to encourage a wider consideration of the weaknesses and strengths of the approach. He was the consummate HMI, encouraging thinking and analysis.

Ian’s presentation fired me up and I was enthralled even more by the work of HMI. I obviously met a few more as I attended conferences and training events over the years. One that was very significant was the week-long residential event in Llandudno called CAPS (Curriculum and Assessment in the Primary School. This gave me more time to chat informally with HMI and I was left with nothing but praise for their measured and considered approach. 

A big spur was when my younger brother became an HMI with Estyn. He had been identified as a possible candidate when he was inspected while leading an English Department. He was less experienced than me, but I could understand why someone encouraged him to apply. With him joining the inspectorate it made me feel it might be achievable, eventually.

In 1994, the school I was leading was inspected for the first time under the new Ofsted arrangements. We secured a ‘Good’ grade (there were seven grades then so I think this was the third best grade) but I was interested in the process and how the evidence was collated. Although the Framework and Guidance had been shared with all schools in advance, it was only when we were inspected that I was able to join the dots up in terms of the things the inspectors considered. In Spring 1995, Ofsted sought additional inspectors from the ranks of school leaders to be seconded for the academic year. As our school had been inspected, and many had not, I felt that it was worth an application. I approached our Chair of Governors, and he was supportive, as was the Deputy Headteacher. The application followed and I was invited to a deeply stressful and challenging assessment centre in York. Around 100 or so attended and we worked closely with experienced HMI on a series of observation activities, team meetings, writing tasks and other assorted challenges. Colleagues who were not judged to be suitable were asked to leave so the numbers reduced gradually over the three-four days of the assessment. There was a clear sense that the job was going to be challenging and it was crucial to try and get the right people. I felt elated when I was selected.

The secondment year with four other headteachers working for Ofsted had a profound impact on all of our practice. We were fortunate to be mentored for the entire year by Miriam Rosen HMI, who later became the Chief Inspector. We believe the word ‘rigorous’ was created to describe her approach. We were challenged inn terms of the strength and reliability of the evidence we gathered, we had our writing unpicked word by word our apostrophes and semi-colons scrutinised, and the expectations of our conduct and ‘bedside manner’ drilled into us. It was a baptism of fire, but it was an amazingly positive and uplifting experience. We laughed a lot and supported each other to the hilt, and all remain friends to this day.

While many of the seconded headteachers went on to work full time as inspectors all of Miriam’s group returned to headship. We all saw our schools in a different light and although I never visited a classroom in our school to Ofsted judge the teaching and learning, many of the teaching staff were quietly keen to know what I thought. I never graded them officially. They found the discussion as to what I thought useful. I never forced any to do this; the requests always came from some of the teaching staff.

In September 2001, I left headship and became a member of HMI along with one other member of Miriam’s team. It was an incredibly proud day and although by then my mother had passed away, I knew she would have been incredibly proud. I joined the Subject and Quality Assurance Division (SQAD). I wasn’t aware at the time, but this Division was responsible for school Framework development. As I began to get to know my colleagues, I realised that I was one of the most experienced inspectors of school inspections. Many of them were subject specialists or strong quality assurers but few had actually led a school inspection. Despite my extensive knowledge of school inspections I received a full year of induction under the guidance of an experienced HMI. He ensured that I experienced a host of new experiences including visits to prisons, secure units, expensive independent schools and a forces school inspection in Germany. As the years rolled on I realised how useful and supportive the induction was. It is a far cry from the induction HMI currently experience. All school leaders know that investing in high quality professional development for staff pays off in the long run.

During that first year, with encouragement from my mentor, I felt emboldened, so I contributed strongly to some of the developments and became convinced through discussions with the Divisional Manager, Peter Matthews HMI, that we needed to shift more to school self-evaluation. The first Framework I contributed to was the September 2003 version but within a couple of years I had been asked to lead on the tentative steps of training more HMI to lead regular school inspections and then I became a key part of the small development group for the September 2005 shortened inspections. My interests were in the establishment of the ‘outstanding’ judgement (something you would need to travel 10-15 miles to observe was in my thinking), the creation of the self-evaluation form and the use of contextual value-added measures.

These were heady days but there was open encouragement from the Chief Inspector, David Bell, to try and reduce the length of each inspection (previously they were a week long) and shift the dial towards undertaking inspections with the school rather than doing it to them. The use of the self-evaluation form was a key pillar in this approach. The group of HMNI I worked with on this work was exceptional and I can recall clearly the pilot inspection we undertook together at a Liverpool school. After a year or so of development we were able to prove to ourselves that the Framework would work. It took a further 150 or so inspections as part of the trial to determine this for sure. 

In recent weeks I’ve analysed more closely the current inspection framework and find it bewildering that inspectors have been told not to evaluate the school’s current data and give scant regard to TAG and CAG delivered grades for Level 2 and Level 3 qualifications. Our training as HMI did not discriminate in this way and we were told to gather evidence broadly and fully and evaluate with an open mind. The goal was to judge the overall effectiveness and report on it.

After its launch I applied for a senior HMI role in the Children’s Services Division. Ofsted had been asked to lead nine other inspectorates in the inspection of children’s services in all local authorities over a three year period. The Framework had been developed and it needed rolling out, or at least that was what I thought.

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