Dr. Harold Hislop, Chief Inspector

Dr. Harold Hislop is the Chief Inspector with the Department of Education and Skills (DES). Originally from Co. Cavan, he trained as a primary teacher in Church of Ireland College of Education (CICE). He taught in Whitechurch NS in Rathfarnham, where he later became principal. He gained a Ph.D. from Trinity College, Dublin (TCD) and in the mid-1990′s was seconded to the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA). He subsequently joined the Inspectorate of the DES in 1998 and was appointed Chief Inspector in April 2010.

Seomra Ranga would like to thank Harold for unreservedly accepting the invitation to partake in the interview series on the website. He accepted the invitation without hesitation and did not request any subject area to be out of bounds for the interview. He has given very comprehensive responses to the questions put to him which should generate lots of talk, discussion and debate. DQ

Seomra Ranga: You began your career as a classroom teacher and later worked as a school principal. In what way has that time working in schools informed the work you now do as Chief Inspector?

Harold Hislop: I became a teacher largely because I was inspired by the teachers who taught me. My work as a teacher has given me an appreciation and understanding, not only of the excellent teaching that I experienced in school, but also of the potential for each teacher to have a hugely positive impact on our pupils’ lives, especially in terms of inspiring an appetite for learning and an appetite for creativity. I also understand the challenges for teachers in classrooms and have great admiration and respect for the many thousands of dedicated professionals in our system.

I really enjoyed the seven years that I worked as a teaching principal in a primary school. It was a genuine privilege to lead a team of dedicated teachers, SNAs, other staff and volunteers in a shared effort to provide the best educational provision that we could for our pupils. I learned a lot about team working and about articulating a clear vision of the way we needed to grow and develop. It was always a challenge to inspire best practice and introduce change – I hope I managed to achieve that, but perhaps you should ask the team that worked with me! I think the other big challenge that I learned about concerned the role of the school community. As principal, I grew to understand better the importance of the wider school community in supporting the work of the school and I appreciated the profound effect that parents can have on the child’s learning, overall development and experience of school.

These experiences and many of the skills that I developed as a teacher and principal are also the qualities needed as Chief Inspector. I have experienced personally many of the challenges that principals and teacher face. Like other inspectors, I share the passion for education that I know inspires the many thousands of teachers in our schools. As an organisation, the Inspectorate faces many of the same challenges that face schools and other parts of the educational system.

Seomra Ranga: At the 2010 IPPN Annual Conference, you referred to the Inspectorate as the “outside eyes and ears” and you spoke of trying “to get the balance right between our evaluative and advisory roles”. However, many teachers believe that this balance is skewed very much in favour of the evaluative role and that the advisory role of the Inspectorate is very much secondary. How can a more equitable balance of these roles be achieved?

Harold Hislop: Our statutory remit, mainly evident through Section 13 of the Education Act (1998), involves both evaluation and giving advice to schools and the wider education system. I believe that the dual role of advisor and evaluator is a unique strength in the Irish Inspectorate and it is one that I am determined to maintain and enhance. The roles are not mutually exclusive.

I believe that we perform a very important and useful role for learners and schools when we evaluate the work of schools. Inspectors have a wealth of knowledge about students’ learning and good practice in a wide range of schools and they work hard to understand the particular challenges that each school faces in its own particular context. This enables us, I hope, to make balanced and well-informed judgements about the standards that are being achieved in each individual school that we visit, and we share those judgements openly and honestly with the staff and the wider school community. Our published reports fulfil a public accountability function and because we can amass evidence from a wider range of schools, we can identify trends and challenges in the wider educational system. The publication of reports on schools and the ways in which we have sought to communicate lessons from inspections to the wider education system has probably highlighted this evaluative work to a greater extent that heretofore.

However, we regard the opportunities that we have to advise, influence and improve practice in schools as equally important for learners. At our core, we are committed to improving the learning opportunities that schools offer to pupils and students. That’s why we are committed to carrying out our inspections in ways that provide real opportunities to affirm good practice and to provide practical advice to individual teachers, to principals and to boards of management. It’s also why all our inspectors are committed, skilled and experienced teachers themselves, not academic researchers. Our recommendations are made in a positive and constructive way. Indeed, many principals and teachers comment to me that “Your inspectors were very thorough and professional” and they say that “While we didn’t relish the thoughts of an inspection, the process was really good for us as a school community.”

One of the challenges for us is that in the past decade we have been unable to deliver sufficient numbers of inspections so that all school communities can experience regularly the value that an outside “critical friend” can add to the work and development of their school. That is why we are developing a wider range of inspection models from short inspections to more intensive and specialised approaches. While all of these models include time and opportunities for both evaluation and advisory work, some of the newer inspection models are deliberately designed to provide a greater proportion of time for the advisory role. Incidental inspections, for example, eliminate unnecessary paperwork, they concentrate on teaching and learning in classrooms and we can invest time in providing good oral feedback to the teachers and to the principal of the school. We are also working on a better system of follow-up visits to schools and we hope that these will offer opportunities for inspectors to help principals to monitor how well they are implementing improvements in students’ learning.

A further development will be the roll-out of self-evaluation in schools. This will be a big challenge for the Irish educational system and will take a number of years to embed fully. Inspectors are already working in an advisory capacity with the pilot schools where the Draft Guidelines on School Self-Evaluation are being trialled. We are planning a large number of purely advisory visits to schools in 2012-13 and following years to assist school leaders and staffs with the implementation of self-evaluation. The self-evaluation process will build on schools’ experience of school development planning but will be much more tightly focussed on improving teaching and learning outcomes for students.

Seomra Ranga: School supervision services exist in most countries in the world and they play a role in the development of the public education system by monitoring the quality of the educational service provided by the schools. However, many teachers in Ireland believe that the inspection service does not have a positive impact on the quality of teaching and learning in the classroom. How do you respond to that perception?

Harold Hislop: I talk regularly with principals, teachers, management organisations, parents associations and teacher unions at various meetings and gatherings around the country. I also enjoy meeting principals, teachers and school communities when I have the opportunity to join inspection teams during inspections. Most of the people that I meet on all of these occasions tell me that inspection does help to improve schools. Many of them point out weaknesses in the inspection system to me (and I am always glad to listen to their criticisms and suggestions) but most of those who have experienced an inspection speak positively about the event and the impact that it had. Indeed, I’m often struck by the fact that teachers frequently comment to me that it was good to receive positive, professional feedback on their work – teaching can be a lonely occupation at times! Of course, I realise that these conversations provide only anecdotal evidence about the impact of inspection and as part of our development work within the Inspectorate we are looking at ways to collect more systematic evidence about the quality of our work and the impact of inspection visits. In fact, this will be the theme of our internal professional development sessions for inspectors in March 2012.

One the criticisms of the Inspectorate in recent years has been that our visits to schools are too infrequent to make a difference. That’s why we have focussed much of our effort in the last two years on improving the inspection coverage of schools, despite considerable reductions in staffing. We are making considerable progress. In 2011, the Inspectorate conducted more than 3,500 inspections in schools. In addition to inspections of probationary teachers at primary level, we carried out some form of inspection in over one-sixth of primary schools and in over 600 of the 740 post-primary schools in the country. We also published over 1,000 evaluation reports on schools and centres for education on the Department’s website.

Inspection coverage is not enough, of course. A central focus of all our inspection work is what happens in classrooms and I believe we work hard to ensure that every evaluation provides important feedback to individual teachers and to schools about teaching and learning. Feedback from the school responses prepared by school boards following WSE shows a very consistent pattern of acknowledgement of the positive impact that inspection has on schools. Inspection, of itself, cannot bring about improvement – only school staffs and communities can take the direct actions that are needed to change teaching and learning in each individual school, but I believe that inspection plays an important role in stimulating and supporting the drive for improvement in schools.

I believe that we can point to very clear evidence of improvement coming about when the Inspectorate identifies and becomes involved in follow-up with very poorly performing schools. Thankfully, we come across very seriously under-performing schools relatively infrequently. Where this happens, there are very serious consequences for the learning and life chances of pupils. In these cases, the Inspectorate works closely with other sections in the Department and related agencies to ensure that the improvement needs in the school are addressed. The Department’s Schools Division and the Inspectorate can be involved in a range of follow-through measures which involve engagement with the patron, trustees or management of the school as appropriate to ensure that the need for improvement and change is fully appreciated by the school and those responsible for its management. We also help the Department to identify the supports that might be needed to bring about change and we monitor the implementation of recommendations in a variety of ways. While the process can be very slow, it’s very rewarding to see positive reports come through about schools that were not serving the needs of their students adequately when first inspected.

Finally, the Inspectorate makes a contribution to improving teaching and learning generally in the school system by analysing the data we collect through inspection and extracting general lessons for school staffs, boards of management and the Department. Our thematic reports, such as the Looking At series, provide summaries of good practice which schools and subject departments can use to plan and improve their work. Subject associations and some teacher professional networks also ask us to make presentations to workshops for teachers about our general findings.

The findings in these reports also help to feed into policy formulation. For example, in 2009 and 2010 we conducted almost 800 incidental visits to primary schools involving classroom visits to around 2,400 primary classrooms to observe teaching and learning and provide advice to teachers. We used the information from these classroom visits to prepare composite reports such as Incidental Inspection Findings 2010 which, in turn, informed the development of the Department’s new literacy and numeracy strategy. In addition, inspectors serve as members of bodies such as the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment and other national bodies where their experience can make a valuable input to discussions of curriculum and other issues.

Seomra Ranga: The Finnish system of education is frequently held up as a model for other countries to follow. However, the external inspection service was abolished there in 1991 with schools given more autonomy to undertake their own evaluation. Yet, the development of a framework with norms and indicators still allow the Minister for Education there to make comparisons between schools. Could such a system work here?

Harold Hislop: I strongly believe that internal self-review in schools and external evaluation can complement each other to provide a robust quality assurance framework and continuous school improvement mechanism for the Irish education system. The Inspectorate has been working on draft materials to support better and more systematic school self-evaluation for primary and post-primary schools in Ireland. We know that we need to support schools to identify key indicators of quality and to regularly monitor the outcomes for learners. We want to see all schools adopting robust evidence-based self-evaluation. By robust I mean there is a need for schools to further develop how they analyse assessment information and, in particular, a need to develop a culture of gathering evidence about the quality of teaching and learning in classrooms and schools. This will be very important as we work towards a reliable school self-evaluation process that both schools and the public can have real confidence in.

The purpose of any initiatives in this area will not be to set schools in opposition to each other using crude comparisons. Rather, each school will be supported to review regularly its own work systematically and develop its own improvement plan so that it can ensure the best possible education for all learners in that school. In that regard, external inspection has an important role to play in ensuring that schools are fulfilling their obligations to afford learners the greatest possibility of fulfilling their full potential.

Our ultimate goal is for schools to conduct their own evaluations transparently and accurately and for inspectors to visit these schools to evaluate the school’s own self evaluation.

Seomra Ranga: Incidental inspection of schools appears to have been a new strategy developed to monitor the work of teachers in schools. What have you learned from these incidental inspections and how do you see them being developed into the future? Will this model of inspection replace or complement the Whole School Evaluation (WSE) model?

Harold Hislop: Incidental inspections have the advantage of facilitating a review of the work in classrooms on a normal school day without the formality that accompanies a planned WSE. The process is flexible and an inspector may evaluate and provide support and professional advice about any aspect of the school’s work deemed relevant. It should be noted that these inspections do not set out to evaluate the work of an entire school or to facilitate the sort of extensive engagement with stakeholders and school management that is only possible with a comprehensive evaluation process such as WSE. Rather, the incidental inspection programme complements the Inspectorate’s more formal whole-school type evaluations.

Inspectors are able to provide feedback to the individual teachers that are observed, affirm the work of pupils and schedule a detailed discussion with the school principal. It is not envisaged that this model of inspection will replace WSE or other whole-school type evaluations but it will be very useful in following up with schools on the implementation of recommendations from previous inspections.

The incidental inspection process is flexible and an inspector may evaluate any aspect of the school’s work deemed relevant. The focus of the advice and recommendations provided by the inspector is usually on aspects for development that will improve the quality of the pupils’ learning and the findings from Incidental Inspections may be used to inform composite, national reports on aspects of teaching and learning. For example, the Inspectorate published Incidental Inspection Findings 2010 which reported on the findings arising from incidental inspection visits to 1200 primary school classrooms between October 2009 and October 2010. The Inspectorate has introduced incidental inspections into the post-primary system last autumn following the required consultation with the education partners.

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