In November 2023, one of the two small rural primary schools for whom I have the privilege to work as Head Teacher, was inspected in a full, five day HMIE inspection.
Some people think it very strange that being inspected is something that I also describe as having been a privilege. However, it genuinely was a privilege and I would like to try and describe why here.
For those interested, the formal explanation of the Inspection process can be found here: Inspection and review | Education Scotland
This post is intended to add a human perspective from my lived experience of experience and is a personal reflection.
I became Joint Head Teacher of my two schools in August 2022. Prior to that, I had worked in a number of roles in schools and education over a period of 30 years.
I had been through inspections in the past; and two are memorable for different reasons. One took place in the mid 90s in a school in London; after it, the entire staff went on a bus to a country house in Wiltshire for a weekend away to celebrate our positive report. As a young, impressionable teacher I was VERY impressed by the collegiate spirit in that school and commitment to supporting staff from the then head teacher, after they had worked so tirelessly to support the children in the school. The second took place in a school in Cambridgeshire where it was reported by a small man in a suit who popped in for just 5 minutes that “Miss Bell’s relationship with her tutor group “wasn’t working”.” I had only been at the school for just two weeks so clearly the relationship hadn’t had time to form and I knew more than anyone that the teenagers in the room who were testing boundaries needed to get to know me better before they would stop giggling at me; I just wished I’d been able to say that to the inspector before he said it to me.
The whole inspection process in Scotland is intended to mitigate the chance of something happening like it did in Cambridgeshire. No inspectors should make judgements without having been given the opportunity to understand the story and current context of the school.
This story and context is shared in a number of ways; through written documentation, through conversations with the Head Teacher and other key staff ahead of and during the inspection visit (in Scotland the period from notification to visit is around 3 weeks) and through communications and conversations with other “stakeholders” – by which we mean pupils, families, community partners and other agencies involved with the life of the school.
In Scotland after the summer break, every Head Teacher is required to write and publish the most recent chapter in the story of their school in their annual Standards and Quality report and to self-evaluate, using a six point scale, against the main quality indicators relating to education.
I had done this for my school in August 2023, based on evidence gathered over the previous 12 months of leading the school. Ahead of the inspection later in the autumn, my colleagues and I reviewed and tweaked our self evaluation information and submitted it to the inspection team. The inspection visit then involved the inspectors providing objective evaluation around whether our capacity to make these judgements was robust and whether the quality of leadership, teaching and learning in our school is what it needs to be to ensure the best possible outcomes for our children.
I can’t pretend that I wasn’t anxious about the inspection and that I didn’t fear that perhaps my judgements and what I thought I knew about our school as Head Teacher might not be accurate.
I can’t pretend that I sacrificed some family events on the weekends leading up to inspection week as I didn’t want to spread myself too thin and burn out.
I can’t pretend that, as someone who had moved from leading learning in predominantly secondary contexts to being a primary head, I wasn’t scared of being proven inexperienced in leading the learning of smaller people.
And I can’t pretend that it doesn’t create an atmosphere of tension to have 2 visitors in a tiny school for 5 days and for staff and pupils to feel constantly “on show.” Even when our two inspectors were in their base and away from observing classes and talking to staff and children, we knew that almost everything was still audible to them, if not visible, as our building allows for nothing else!
Transparency was a non negotiable part of our inspection process. I am very glad about that.
I didn’t get that much sleep during inspection week as my brain was firing on adrenaline and keen to give its best for the sake of my wonderful school community. I’m not sure it could have been any other way ahead of something that mattered to me so much, in the same way that I didn’t sleep well in the week before my wedding and NEVER sleep well before I direct a school show, or perform a gig.
The inspectors who visited our school were absolutely respectful of and attuned to the wellbeing of the pupils and staff in the school during the 5 days that they were with us. They communicated clearly and ensured that everyone knew why they were undertaking the activities that they undertook. They made sure that everyone was seen and heard and worked with me and my senior leadership team to check in that this happened in ways that suited the needs and communication styles of individual pupils and staff.
They pushed me hard and at times I felt as if I wasn’t going to be able to give them what they needed in order for them to fully understand the story of our school.
I was very glad that I had told them, ahead of the visit week, that my ADHD can lead me to talk too much, push on too hard when I really need a break and react with great sensitivity when I am tired. Having done so, it was then easier for them to
⁃ sensitively tell me when I had said enough about a particular topic in order for us to move on (remembering, dear reader, that my hyperfocus when I comes to talking about educational matters knows no bounds..)
⁃ suggest tea breaks at times that everyone in the room except recognised that they needed a cuppa
⁃ understand my big, ugly tears on the Wednesday when everything in my head had just got a bit much…..and even offer a hug.
The inspection process was, without doubt, the most valuable learning process of my 30 year career in education.
It did what it set out to do and our report is based on the truth of our school at the time the inspection happened. The inspectors and school community used the information available to us at the time to give an accurate picture of who we are, what we value and what we do, in the interests of delivering quality learning to the children we serve.
There are some who say that inspections would not be needed if local authority education teams fulfilled the same function. I honestly feel, however, that there was something very powerful in working together on our evaluation of our school with two visitors who have visited many, many schools across Scotland and can see beyond the geographical boundaries of our local authority; they have helped us celebrate and share our strengths and have also offered suggestions as to how we might provide even better moving forward.
That said, the member of the local authority team who supported us through the inspection process is possibly the most wonderful professional and human being that you could ever want to walk beside you on the journey.
Miss Bell would not have been brought to tears by the comments of the small man in the suit if she had been part of the inspection that I experienced last autumn in our school. Head Teacher Mrs Carter would have already explained to the inspector that Miss Bell was very new to the pupils, that they were missing their previous form tutor like crazy after she “abandoned” them and that Mrs Carter and her SLT colleagues were confident that the pupils would soon warm to Miss Bell. She would also have made sure that they knew about the quiet girl in the corner of the tutor group who had already asked if she could stay in Miss Bell’s class at lunch as she felt safe there and wanted to practice audition speeches for drama college.
We are off on a bus the week after next. Our whole learning school trip to a safari park, with all pupils, staff and as many family members as can make it, will be a chance to celebrate the fact that we have been known, seen and appreciated.