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The inspectors who keep British schools up to form

By Jim BencivengaStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 11, 1988


AT a time when governments on both sides of the Atlantic have launched an armada of education reforms, Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Schools (HMI) provides the British government with an invaluable asset. There is no equivalent to it in the United States. In fact, no other country possesses a group of professional educational advisers who operate independently from the central education authority. But well they might.

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Steeped as it is in the traditions of the English civil service but for historical reasons possessing a different status, HMI keeps policymakers and citizens reasonably abreast of actual developments in schools, something many a US governor would welcome.

HMI dates from 1833, the advent of concern about the condition of education for the poor in Victorian England, when the House of Commons issued a grant of 20,000 for building schoolhouses. The original number of two inspectors has grown to 490, forming a venerable and uniquely British institution, with its mission - then as now - the systematic and wide-ranging inspection of individual schools, whether government-run or independent.

``As education becomes increasingly politicized, the independent, professional voice of HMI will be needed more than ever,'' says Denis Lawton, director of the University of London's Institute of Education and author with Peter Gordon of ``HMI,'' a book that explores the connection of HMIs to British educational policy.

``We are civil servants and we are to serve the government,'' said Eric Boulton, senior chief inspector and head of HMI, in his London office. ``Our first job is to inform the government of the day about the status of education - and to do that by inspection, not by thinking off the top of our heads. Not what we would like it to be, but actually going out there and looking at it and saying what we think it is.''

It is not his job to support or criticize specific policies, Mr. Boulton says. ``If certain policies are having beneficial effects on quality and standards or suggest they are having damaging effects, they are something that has happened, not something we planned.''

The national government specifies which school or districts HMI should inspect. Once the secretary of state for education and science selects a school or district, HMI plans its own work, manages the assignment of personnel, and writes up a final report for the secretary of education. ``This report must be published as we wrote it,'' Boulton says. It is one of the earliest traditions in HMI. Ex officio, the senior chief inspector reports directly to the secretary.

``[There is] a concordat between successive ministers and HMI that they are totally free to make and publish their own judgments,'' says Lord Keith Joseph, a former secretary of education, who is a critic of many HMI practices. In 1983, he required all HMI reports to be published and made public.

Inspectors are recruited in their 30s and 40s on the basis of successful experience as teachers or lecturers. They are assigned to one of seven divisions in one of seven regional offices in England or an eighth in Wales. They are best described as academic auditors.

But HMIs do more, much more, than simply come in, make some observations, and then lay the facts on the table. Their duties include teacher training, curriculum evaluation, even fiscal management.

HMI K. Joy Saunders recalls one of her first school visits where these ``other'' roles were convincingly impressed upon her. ``A stout teacher was literally blocking the door with her hands on her hips. `I've been teaching for 29 years and I retire next month. I don't intend to be inspected now,' were the words that greeted me,'' Ms. Saunders says. It became very clear that an HMI was a teaching colleague as well as an inspector. ``Let's talk about your math curriculum then,'' was Saunders's reply. The inspection turned out to be a success.