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 (UCD) 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: Teachers regularly complain about the lack of uniformity in terms of the classroom planning expectations from one inspector to the next, with one inspector requiring copious, detailed notes while another may be happy with a more brief outline of work. Is it possible that teachers could get more clarity on what the Inspectorate as a whole require from teachers in their classroom planning?

Harold Hislop: Before I comment on the planning notes that teachers use, I’d like to emphasise that all inspectors are primarily interested in is the teaching and learning that is going on in classrooms and schools. When inspectors visit probationary teachers or experienced teachers during an incidental visit, the first question in their mind is “How good is the learning in this lesson and in this classroom?” Their second concern is about “How good is the teaching?” We constantly emphasise to inspectors that a teacher’s notes are only important to the extent that they enable the teacher to provide excellent, well-thought-out teaching. We are more interested in the “readiness” of the teacher to teach rather than a file of paper or a notebook. Indeed, I can think of many teachers that I inspected who had copious amounts of paper but had not thought through what they wanted to teach or how learning was to be organised. Good teaching demands preparation – monitoring students’ previous work thoroughly in advance, identifying the next steps in the learning process for groups and individuals, planning the teaching activities and learning experiences that you will provide – all of these are essential to good teaching. Some recording of this is essential, but it’s the preparation and readiness for teaching that’s important not the way in which it is recorded.

Of course, schools and teachers have often asked for greater clarity about what constitutes “effective” or “good” planning records. The Inspectorate has done a lot of work on ensuring consistency in the standards expected in all of our evaluation activity. Detailed guidance has been provided by the Department regarding planning for probationary teachers through the National Induction Programme for Teachers (NIPT). This means that there should not be any lack of clarity regarding the professional expectations in terms of curriculum or classroom planning. Indeed, our experience is that queries and complaints about the type of written preparation required by newly qualified teachers have become much less frequent since we published a guide for probationary teachers and since the work of the NIPT got underway.

Underlying all of the guidance regarding planning is an acknowledgement that the way in which planning is recorded will vary among professional teachers and from school to school. Most important of all, however, is the degree to which the teacher is truly prepared to teach and lead his/her students successfully in the next steps of their learning.

Among the findings of Incidental Inspection Findings 2010, which focussed on the quality of teaching and learning in English and Mathematics, was that inspectors found that most aspects of teachers’ work were satisfactory or better in over four-fifths of the lessons inspected in each of these two subjects. However, pupils’ learning was unsatisfactory in an unacceptably high number of the English lessons (15.7%) and the Mathematics lessons (15%) evaluated. Analysis of the data showed the following factors as having a significant influence on the quality of the pupils’ learning in the lessons evaluated:

o The teaching approaches used

o The preparation undertaken by teachers for lessons

o The quality of assessment practices

The report concluded that in order to ensure better outcomes for learners, teachers, schools and the system more generally needed to tackle weaknesses in preparation, teaching methods and assessment. While copious notes and detailed planning material do not make, in themselves, a good teacher, this finding suggests that poor preparation makes for poor teaching. Like everything else, there needs to be a balance struck.

Seomra Ranga: On Tuesday October 4th 2011, the Irish Times listed you as No. 7 in the Top 50 Most Influential People in Education in Ireland, saying that your task is to “drive reform in a way that will reverse the alarming drop in Irish literacy and numeracy standards”. How do you hope to achieve better results in these critical areas and who will be involved in the consultation process to drive change?

Harold Hislop: Like many, many people in the Irish educational system, I am genuinely concerned about literacy and numeracy standards in Irish schools. The PISA 2009 (Programme for International Student Assessment) survey is only one measure of students’ performance in reading and mathematics. Dr Jude Cosgrove of the Education Research Centre (ERC) and I spoke at length about the PISA 2009 outcomes and what they mean for the Irish educational system at the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals (NAPD)’s 2011 conference. Some valid criticisms can be made about the methodology underlying PISA and there is some evidence that the degree to which a decline in standards occurred may have been over-stated by PISA. Others will argue cogently that the outcomes of education cannot be measured simply in standardised tests of reading or mathematics. I know, too, that many of the subtleties regarding international comparisons of student performance are lost in much of the media coverage about standards in schools.

While all of these factors are important, I believe it’s even more important to accept unequivocally that the standards of reading and mathematics among Irish students are not good enough. I want all Irish students to enjoy a broad and balanced learning experience and I have no interest in trying to narrow the curriculum to “reading, writing and arithmetic.” But I am also convinced that without mastery of the skills of language (listening, speaking, reading and writing) and a satisfactory understanding of mathematics and how to apply them in every day life, many of our young people will be condemned to lives of poverty, unemployment and social exclusion. It’s hard to develop an appreciation of art, culture and history or to learn about how to improve your health and well-being when you have inadequate skills in literacy and mathematics.

As you know, in the aftermath of PISA 2009, the Minister arranged for an extensive consultative process that led to the publication of the National Strategy to Improve Literacy and Numeracy among Children and Young People 2011-2020. It was heartening to read the many submissions that came from teachers and school staffs as part of the consultation about the Strategy. Many of them spoke eloquently about the commitment and passion that teachers throughout Ireland share in the teaching and learning of literacy and numeracy.

Excellent teaching and a long-term investment in teacher education and professional development are at the heart of the Strategy. Every teacher, every school and every teacher education college has a role to play in achieving better outcomes for learners as part of implementing this Strategy and I am confident that the detailed initiatives set out in the strategy will help us to reverse the drop in standards.

The importance attached to early childhood education in the Strategy is very welcome and important. At school level, every school should have really good systems in place to track and monitor how children and young people are doing in terms of literacy and numeracy. We know from inspection and other research that our assessment practices, analysis of data about progress, and action planning to address shortcomings are not sufficiently well developed and these are key action areas for us now.

There is work here for everyone but the most important change agent of all is the teacher in the classroom. If we seize the opportunity to develop even better teaching strategies and more thorough assessment of pupils I am certain that we will make progress on the ground with the Strategy.

One of the key actions in the Strategy is to require all schools to engage in robust self-evaluation and put in place a three-year school improvement plan which includes specific targets for the promotion and improvement of literacy and numeracy. Schools will be required to put these plans in place by the end of the 2013 school year as outlined in the Strategy. Robust school self-evaluation will enable schools to identify strengths and areas for development in their own work and they will be required to focus particularly on literacy and numeracy. Arising from school self-evaluation, schools will be enabled to draw up targets and actions for improvement which will be included in their school improvement plans.

Seomra Ranga: The report of the “Incidental Inspection Findings 2010” reported that “ICT is a relatively underutilised tool in the teaching and learning of English in Irish Primary Schools”. Given the disparity in schools in ICT provision and practice, how can schools and teachers be encouraged and supported to embrace technology in order to improve standards of literacy and numeracy?

Harold Hislop: Teachers’ use of ICT is influenced to a large extent by the teachers’ awareness of the potential of technology in learning and by their capacity to use it. Teachers’ use of ICT is also influenced of course by their access to technology and to a broadband connection to digital resources on the Internet. Provision of training for existing teachers in the use of ICT will be part of the rollout of the Literacy and Numeracy Strategy, and has been a significant dimension of the implementation of Project Maths, where, it is heartening to note, a large numbers of teachers attended ICT courses in their own time. We must therefore continue to invest in training teachers, both in initial training and in CPD, to ensure that teachers fully understand the role of ICT in education and that they have the skills to fully exploit it.

Apart from the potential of ICT to support teaching and learning, digital literacy is growing in importance, and for most teenagers, digital literacy is essential for social networking. It is already evident that effective communication in the future will require increasing levels of digital competence, and students will need to be supported by schools and teachers to develop those digital literacy skills. In the Irish context, we are at the forefront of the development of digital technologies, so digital competence will be very important for employment in the future. We need to encourage teachers to be aware of the importance of digital literacy as a core skill for the present generation of students. While our performance in reading literacy slumped in PISA 2009, our performance in digital literacy gave us some solace; our students performed better on this test than they did in the pencil-and-paper test with the average score of students significantly above the OECD average in digital literacy.

Finally, teachers appreciate that technology is such an integral part of children’s lives outside school, it would be almost inconceivable that schools would not embrace the compelling, fast-paced and interactive possibilities that technology offers. It brings to the classroom the possibility of learning without limits, where children and teachers have access to the tools and the knowledge for independent, customised learning to develop critical thinking, communication and problem-solving skills that are the hallmarks of a quality education.

Seomra Ranga: Some teachers would appreciate clarification on the requirement to do Individual Education Plans (IEPs) given that the EPSEN Act has been deferred indefinitely. Apparently, some inspectors are asking for IEPs even though there is no legal background, and legal cases could be brought forward against a teacher who is compelled to do an IEP for an individual. Can this issue be clarified as there is a lot of confusion?

Harold Hislop: Internationally, the IEP process is considered to be best practice in planning for pupils with special educational needs. The purpose of an IEP is to guide the delivery of services and to encourage effective teaching and learning. For pupils with special educational needs, an effective IEP can support access to a full curriculum, provide structure, provide for a continuum of support, ensure records are kept and facilitate the child’s ability to reach their full potential within a broad and balanced curriculum. Planning for individual learning can be beneficial not only to the teacher but it can also support the child’s advancement at a level commensurate with their ability within a broad and balanced curriculum. IEPs assist the assessment of a pupils’ progress, the sharing of that progress with parents and students where appropriate and the reviewing of the learning outcomes for individual pupils. Therefore, though not required by law, IEPs are good practice and central to the development of inclusive practices. Many schools in Ireland have already begun to successfully engage in the process and have found that the IEP can be a powerful tool for developing excellence in special educational provision. Because IEPs are good practice, inspectors ask about them and encourage their use.

Seomra Ranga: Many teachers despair at the lack of collegiality displayed by some inspectors. It is commonly felt that the lack of practical advice and praise is demoralising for an already demoralised profession who are doing their best to cope with pay cuts, larger classes, less resources, less SNA support and the inclusion of a wide range of pupils with SEN and ESL pupils in mainstream classes. Teachers would like to welcome the “cigire” to the school as a colleague rather than as an adversary. Is it possible that a change of emphasis could be achieved to allow this to happen?

Harold Hislop: I don’t recognise the caricature of the inspector that this question seems to paint. We place great importance on cultivating a genuinely professional relationship with teachers, principals and boards of management. Our Professional Code of Practice on Evaluating and Reporting for the Inspectorate is very explicit on the professional standards that are expected of inspectors. It emphasises our commitment to fostering mutual respect and trust as a foundation for the development of a positive professional relationship between the Inspectorate and the school community. It explicitly states that one of the purposes of evaluation is “to identify, acknowledge and affirm good practice in schools”. We are also committed to partnership and collaboration through the participation of the school community in the evaluation process.

We recognise that teachers can find inspection visits stressful and we do a lot in our training of inspectors to equip them to deal with teachers and students in a respectful and professional way. I can absolutely assure you that it is not the intention of the Inspectorate to be adversarial in any way and, in fact, as I mentioned earlier, our feedback suggests that there is a very positive co-professional culture between school staffs and inspectors.

Inspectors work very hard to ensure courtesy, respect and fairness in all our interactions with individuals and groups and we try to communicate positive and constructive messages that enhance the motivation and overall capacity of the school. Schools work very hard at this also and I am heartened by how well we are collaborating in our shared school quality agenda.

School responses from boards of managements following WSE frequently acknowledge the quality of professional engagement between inspection teams and school staffs and often provide very concrete examples of aspects of school provision that have been affirmed, acknowledged or encouraged by inspectors. In addition, the report of a customer survey by MORI Ireland on behalf of the Inspectorate (2005) found very high levels of satisfaction with the performance of the Inspectorate. Findings from this survey show that “93 per cent of teachers were satisfied with professional relationships with the Inspectorate in the context of school evaluation.” (MORI survey, p.34)

Of course, like any human organisation, we get it wrong from time to time and I’m sure that we could improve the way we do many things.

I am always glad to receive comments, suggestions and feedback on how well we are doing and how we could improve. Only last week, I received a long letter from a principal, praising the way we had conducted an evaluation and provided individual feedback and advice to the teachers in her school, but regretting that we could have presented the feedback to the board of management more sensitively. This sort of comment is just what we need to help us to improve our work. An inspector from the team had a really fruitful conversation with the principal concerned and we will be using the lessons from the experience in inspectors’ continuing professional development.

We have a very clear process for dealing with complaints when they arise – a process that involves an independent external person adjudicating on formal complaints against inspectors’ work, behaviour or reports. I would urge anyone who is dissatisfied with any aspect of our work to use the informal and formal steps of our complaints process to have the matters addressed. Interestingly, although we conducted over 6,000 inspections in 2010 and 2011, we received only two formal complaints in that time. Nevertheless, we seek to learn from these complaints so that we can improve our processes and the way we conduct business.

So, I think we are on the right track in terms of the relationships and collegiality that we must cultivate between schools, teachers and inspectors, and I expect that as we work even more closely with schools on school self-evaluation we can further deepen that culture of collegiality and trust.

Read Part 1 of this interview.

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