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.
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.
Saunders's return visit to the St. Thomas More school with this reporter pointed up how seriously, and for the most part positively, schools take an HMI inspection. When she and a team from HMI visited the school a few months earlier, they had noted the lack of an adequate computer facility. Headmaster Fox, with the weight of the HMI report supporting him, was able to go to his board and propose that a large room be divided and turned into two classrooms, thus freeing up another room for a computer lab. This was done.
Before World War II, HMI's place in the popular view was limited basically to what today appears a rather extreme version of Victorian utilitarianism, ``payment by result.'' From 1862 to 1898, teachers' pay depended on the scores their students received on district tests monitored by HMI. Bad scores, no pay. Matthew Arnold, perhaps the most famous HMI, was utterly opposed to payment by result. He, along with younger HMIs of the time, objected to limiting the major task of teaching to measured and specific results as set down by relatively narrow curricula.
Today HMI has a much larger role, Lawton says.
``Since 1975, government's role has become more and more directly interventionist in education,'' says Boulton. In Britain, ``It's a natonal system of education but locally provided,'' he says.
During her first term in office Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, a former secretary of education, expressed a desire for a return, in part, to payment by results. HMI successfully resisted this move. The skirmish was one of a number that HMI has had with the current government, says Alec Peterson, one of Britain's grand old men of education and a founder of the International Baccalaureate. ``I'm afraid HMI is likely to be weakened, because it has jealously guarded its right as Her Majesty's, not her minister's, inspectors,'' he says.
Making all HMI reports public did not result in what he had wished, says Lord Joseph. ``HMI present their judgments in a very minor key, and use jargon, and partly because [of that] what I would have hoped to have emerged from Inspectors' reports, namely condemnation of many processes and standards and objectives,'' never occurred. ``I would wish that HMI had been more vociferous in drawing attention to falling standards.
``The trouble is that HMI have swung with the fashion in teaching. They are no longer the guardians of objective standards some would say, and I would rather sympathize with that,'' says Lord Joseph. ``That is not questioning their sincerity, you understand,'' he says. ``It is questioning their judgment.''
The inspection made at St. Thomas More is an example of the delicate balance struck between the politics of national education policy and HMI's role as an objective, independent, professional critic.
To further its policy of allowing parents to select their child's school, whether government-run or independent, the Thatcher government sought to highlight a good example. An independent, Roman Catholic school, St. Thomas More is in Haringey, a working-class, Labour-voting district in inner London. In recent years the district has been plagued by racial strife.
The local education authority (analogous to a public school board in the US) has as members militant homosexuals who require the government-run schools in their district, through their control of the curriculum, to advocate the gay life style, what conservative member of Parliament Edward (Teddy) Taylor characterizes - in heavy Scottish accent - ``Strange people, teaching strange things, for strange motives.''
For HMI, the political context was inconsequential. Its role was to inspect the educational practices occurring in St. Thomas More. What the inspectors observed, and then reported on, was a first-rate school with a traditional academic program in which a racially and ethnically mixed student body is getting a first-rate education.
Jim Bencivenga is the Monitor's education editor.