Time-Travelling Victorian Inspector’ by Barry Norris, former senior HMI with Estyn


I worked as a HM Inspector in the Welsh inspectorate from 1991 to 2020 and I was the lead officer for inspection policy from 2010 onwards. From that perspective, it is intriguing to compare and contrast the inspectorate today with the inspectorate in the past, and to tease out the similarities and differences in the way inspectors worked then and now. If we could transport a Victorian from the early days of the inspectorate (when it covered both England and Wales) into the current inspectorate in Wales (Estyn), what would astonish them and what would they find broadly familiar.

First, let me introduce you to our Victorian time-travelling inspector. It is clear from the historical record that he is going to be a man, and he will have no background in education. Our Victorian colleague would be ‘a good chap’, selected for his good character and general competence, with a sound track-record in another field. The first two inspectors of schools (H Seymour Tremenheere and John Allen) were respectively a London barrister and a chaplain of King’s College, London.

Our Victorian friend would be astonished to see that every inspector today has a background in education and training, rather than the church or law, and that every inspector was either a teacher, lecturer, leader or manager of an educational or training establishment before they were an inspector. He would be surprised too at how old most inspectors are when they are appointed today. In 1876, the average age of an HMI on appointment was only 28. Today most inspectors join when they are in their mid-thirties or forties simply because it takes people longer to gain the relevant educational experience before they are judged suitable for appointment as HMI. In the nineteenth century, this body of professional educational knowledge and experience was simply not regarded as a requirement.

So our Victorian visitor is most likely to be a relatively young Anglican vicar. In 1870, only 7 of the 62 HM Inspectors had any teaching experience before their appointment, and most (52) were Anglican clergymen. Our Victorian inspector would have worked in a school system that was largely based on religious affiliation. When the government in Westminster first awarded education grants to schools in the early nineteenth century, the money was distributed between two voluntary religious organisations – the National Society and the British and Foreign School Society. The National Society ran schools (National schools) along Anglican lines and the British and Foreign School Society (British schools) along non-conformist principles. The Victorian inspector would therefore be keenly aware of the religious foundation and characteristics of the schools they inspected.

Today, there are no Anglican priests among the inspectorate and there is no requirement on inspectors to meet any test of their religious beliefs. The inspectorate today works on entirely secular principles, and faith-based schools only make up around a third of all primary schools in Wales. The predominantly secular nature of education in Wales today would therefore strike our Victorian visitor as remarkable, and possibly as deeply troubling in comparison to the religious ‘certainties’ of the past. The fact that 52% of those who completed the 2011 census In Wales ticked the ‘no religion’ box would probably strike our visitor as ‘beyond belief’.

Our Victorian colleague would be astonished to find so many women in the Inspectorate now, and probably even more surprised by the preponderance of women in the teaching profession. He would be familiar with the idea of women working in education as the notion of the spinster teacher or the dame school in his time was well known. However, the scale and impact of women’s presence in education today would be astonishing to him. For example, there are currently around 12,000 women teachers in primary schools in Wales and just over 2,100 men. Despite the increasing number of women in education, their role as school leaders has been slow to build, even in more recent times, especially in secondary schools, though it is increasing more rapidly as time goes on. As recently as 1991, there was only one female headteacher of a mixed secondary school in Wales. This grew to 17% by 2004 and to 32% by 2018.

Within the inspectorate, the number and role of women has tended to reflect their increasing role within the education system as a whole. On the positive side, the first ever female civil servant was a school inspector – Jeannie Nassau Senior – appointed in 1873. By 1991, of the 60 inspectors employed in the inspectorate in Wales, only nine were women, and of those, only two were married. Remarkably, it was only as recently as 2009 that a female HMI had a baby in service. This reflects just how long it took for the general improvement in opportunities for women in education in Wales, and for family-friendly policies within the workplace more generally, to feed through to the inspectorate in Wales. Wales also had to wait until 1997 for a woman to be appointed as the Chief Inspector, 23 years later than the first female Chief Inspector was appointed in England (Sheila Browne in 1974).

Our time-traveller would probably not be able to speak any Welsh at all. The early inspectors in the nineteenth century were appointed in England, and their forays into Wales were predominantly from an English perspective. Their first visits to Wales stemmed mainly from concerns about what the government in London regarded as social and cultural unrest. The Chartist Riots in 1839 and the Rebecca Riots in 1842-1843 added to this perception. Indeed, most of the early inspectors of education in Wales were complete strangers to Wales, who thought the Welsh language was a hindrance and to be discouraged in favour of English.

However, once a separate inspectorate for Wales was created in 1907, the composition of the inspectorate gradually changed and the pendulum swung significantly towards appointing inspectors with considerable knowledge and understanding of Wales and the importance of the Welsh language. For example, by 1924, the inspectorate in Wales consisted of 29 inspectors. All but six of these had been educated at maintained secondary schools in Wales. This trend has continued to the current day where almost all HM Inspectors in the Welsh inspectorate were born or brought up in Wales or have taught in an educational or training establishment in Wales at some point in their career.

Our Victorian inspector would be astonished at just how detached from England the inspectorate in Wales has become, and how its educational policy landscape was increasingly different from that in England. For him, the centre of authority was always Westminster, never Cardiff, and he would probably find the very idea of devolution unimaginable. Even when a separate inspectorate for Wales was created, its work was heavily influenced by the government in London. The various education acts that flowed from Whitehall were mainly for both England and Wales. It took the Government of Wales Act in 1996 to make education a fully devolved power for the National Assembly in Cardiff, and the Government of Wales Act 2006 later gave it the power to make Welsh laws. He would be surprised how, unlike England, Wales had no academies, but had retained primary and secondary schools maintained by local authorities. In evolutionary terms, he would see Wales gradually separating from the English mainland, and developing a separate educational flora and fauna all of its own.

The Victorian inspector would also be astonished at just how many professionally qualified teachers there are in schools today, how many of them are women and how small the classes are. In the mid-1800s, formal teaching tended to be done using the Lancaster-Bell monitoring method where one qualified teacher (in nearly every case, a man) would drill a class of up to 120 children with the assistance of several senior boys or pupil teachers whom the teacher would train up in class. By contrast, the average size of a primary class in Wales today is 26 pupils, usually taught by one teacher often with help from an experienced classroom assistant.

So, all in all, our Victorian time-traveller would probably feel quite out of place in a devolved Wales and among his modern-day colleagues. However, our time-traveller would probably also see a lot of more similarities once the work of inspection had begun. The duties of our Victorian inspector fell into four main areas: evaluating individual schools, inspecting and accrediting teachers, acting as the eyes and ears of the education department, and providing feedback on general trends in schools. This would sound quite familiar to a current day inspector too.

The annual inspection of individual schools by our Victorian colleague included the examination of the pupils in the subjects set out in the Code of 1883. Our inspector colleague would find the notion of awarding a grade/judgement a familiar activity as the Code introduced the merit grant in three grades (fair, good and excellent). He would also understand how important the award of a grade could be as the three grades were equivalent to one, two or three shillings per child. The grade he awarded had a direct financial impact on the school.

Our Victorian colleague would find the idea of inspectors today coming to an overall view of a school’s quality and standards quite similar to what he was expected to do. The aim was that the merit grant should be awarded on the assessment of the school as a whole (what was often described as the general ‘tone’ and ‘conduct’ of the school) and not just on the examination success achieved by the children in the individual subjects set down in the Code. On inspection, he would see current inspectors also trying to consider ‘the big picture’ without getting bogged down considering insignificant issues.

Our Victorian friend would see a general similarity between judging schools against a Code and inspectors today judging schools against an inspection framework. However, today it is a quality framework and he would find that very different from using a strict set of compliance-based requirements, such as those set out in the Code. Inspectors today do chat to individuals and groups of pupils to see how well they understand various ideas and topics that they have learned, but this is not in relation to a strict set of requirements. It is part of building up first-hand evidence of how well pupils are learning. So he would see nothing strange about inspectors meeting groups of pupils but he might wonder why they were not being individually ‘examined’ against a strict set of requirements.

He would also be used to writing reports on individual schools and sending the findings back to base, which for him would have been in the Education Department in London, but he would be shocked by today’s emphasis on transparency and openness. Victorian inspectors’ reports on their visits to schools were often very eclectic documents, full of chatty comments between chums within the inspectorate. The idea that reports would be accessible to anyone via the worldwide web would be unbelievable to him. All this openness would be a significant change noticed by an inspector from the 1970s let alone from the 1880s. The inspectorate’s work is now governed by the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and the various iterations of the Data Protection Act. Education is no longer a no-go ‘secret garden,’ as described by the then Prime Minister, Jim Callaghan, during a speech at Ruskin College in 1976. Now, each full inspection leads to a report published on the inspectorate’s website no later than six weeks after the end of every inspection. That would make our Victorian inspector’s head spin.

A Victorian inspector would have spent a lot of his time formally accrediting the teachers and the pupil-teachers who were working towards obtaining their teaching certificates, and he was required to write an annual report on them, what was called ‘endorsing the parchment’. Inspectors today inspect initial teacher training courses and provide judgements on the overall quality of teaching in schools, but our Victorian friend would probably find this rather too general and wonder where the judgements on individual teachers had gone.

In relation to the fundamentals of their inspection work, both based their judgements on direct, first-hand observation of children learning in classrooms, often under the direction of a teacher. They record their findings on the standards that the children achieve in their work. They discuss the children and their work with the teacher. The inspectors use a framework with agreed criteria to guide their judgements and to structure the reporting of their findings. The recorded findings from all the individual inspections then come together to form an evidence base that in turn informs the Chief Inspector’s overview of the state of education in Wales. The Victorian inspector would recognise the similarities in these fundamental processes that underpin the work of inspectors today.

The Victorian inspector worked mainly within the strict requirements of the Code. This tended to support a system where inspection was regarded as a vehicle for judging compliance, with the inspectorate acting as an ‘enforcer’ directly influencing the priorities of schools. He would probably find it strange to see inspectors now regarding inspection as a vehicle and catalyst for self-evaluation by schools themselves. The current practice of headteachers joining inspection teams as nominees, and leaders from other schools joining inspections as peer assessors, would appear to him very strange indeed. For him, inspection was something that was done to schools. Today inspection is more and more an activity that is done with schools.

While it might seem at times that our Victorian colleague was locked into a tick-box system where everything had to relate to the strict requirements of the Code. He would also understand a common phrase used among the Inspectorate over the years, including among current day inspectors, and that is the concept of ‘doing good as you go’. The idea of a strict divide between inspection and advice has always been rather tenuous. If an inspector praises something, the implicit advice is to carry on doing it. If an inspector judges something as poor, the implicit advice is to stop doing it or to improve it. Our Victorian colleague would have understood this through the advice he received from the Committee of Council’s advised in the 1840s that the Inspectorate was ‘not intended as a means of exercising control but of affording assistance’.

Perhaps the greatest surprise to our Victorian visitor is that the inspectorate is still with us now. The inspectorate was first established out of the necessity of a particular moment (to check whether schools were using the first state grants awarded to them effectively). The creation of an Inspectorate was not the final act in a long-term strategic policy. The inspectors came originally from an immediate need to monitor the effective provision of state funds rather than any well-considered view that education required an inspectorate to keep it on its toes and to reassure the public about the quality of education in the nation’s schools..

Yet, the Inspectorate endures today. The greatest existential threat to it probably came in the 1990s when school inspection was out-sourced to private inspection companies and where the inspectorate acted more as an arm’s-length regulator than an inspectorate. When the government in Wales finally agreed to return the direct inspection of schools to the inspectorate in 2010, the inspectorate continued to use registered inspectors for about half the inspections each year in the primary sector, but they worked under direct contract to the Inspectorate rather than to external, independent contractors. The quality assurance of inspections also returned to the inspectorate which could now intervene directly and before the publication of reports where inspection work was inadequate or where the evidence did not fully support the report’s findings. In the secondary sector, all inspections were eventually led by HM Inspectors with no use of registered Inspectors. The education sector as a whole welcomed these changes as a return to a fairer, more consistent and reliable system of inspection. The 2010 inspection framework reflected this in-housing of all inspection and quality assurance activity. The inspectorate had survived.

I have left this until last as it is the most obvious, but our Victorian colleague’s would be stupefied when a modern-day colleague drove up in their motor car, made a call on their mobile phone or took out their laptop to browse the internet. To him, modern technology would appear remarkable, perhaps magical. The very first computers only began to appear on inspectors’ desks at the start of the 1990s. Word-processors helped inspectors to produce reports more easily, but they still needed to print them out for distribution to others through the post and they were not stored in any searchable electronic database. For the Victorian or even the twentieth-century inspector, the word-processor alone might not appear too radical a departure from a simple typewriter. Yet, 20 years later, the technological landscape would be radically transformed. Inspectors now use mobile phones, laptop computers, bluetooth, wifi, email, online video conferencing, intranet and extranet facilities. In 2010, technological progress enabled the inspectorate in Wales to develop independently a sector-leading, highly cost-effective model of inspection management based on a Virtual Inspection Room. For the Victorian inspector, this would be the stuff of dreams.

Today, most inspectors are home-based and they can undertake the bulk of their duties using new technology. They only need to travel in order to undertake the on-site inspection of a school or to attend a meeting with the Welsh Government or another body or to take part in professional development weeks in the inspectorate’s Cardiff office. Let us also reflect that an inspector today might face frustrations in travelling to schools, but these would be as nothing compared to our Victorian inspector who would often have to travel along tracks and unmade roads in a horse and cart in order to reach an inaccessible school in a remote part of rural Wales.

So let us leave our Victorian time-traveller here, dazzled beyond belief before the marvels of 21st century technology, perhaps watching in awe as a video conference allows six different inspectors sitting in their homes around Wales to discuss an inspection report and then to access a school’s inspection evidence via the online Virtual Inspection Room. Though dazzled, I am sure our Victorian colleague would soon begin to feel more settled and reassured as the conversation turned to what has remained the prime concern of inspectors across the ages, namely the quality of children’s learning in classrooms and how to make it better both for the benefit of the individual child, but also for the benefit of Wales as a whole. ‘Doing good as they go” sustains inspectors today as they go about their challenging work as it sustained our Victorian and his colleagues well over a century ago.


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