Hugh Reilly: Focusing on troubled schools would prevent need for window dressing

WHEN my girlfriend alerts me to the fact that she will be dropping in, I have approximately one hour to vacuum the hovel, bleach the bathroom and put a flash finish on my floor tiles.

This simple but cunning strategy succeeds in convincing her that my home is fit for her hero. The fool.

In my view, inspection bodies are often similarly duped. For example, in June 1944, the Red Cross visited Theresienstadt concentration camp and declared it "beautiful". Consequently, there is often a credibility gap between what the inspectors find and the reality on the ground. I resigned temporarily in 1986 when I could no longer convince myself I was in a school, not a laboratory for emotionally and behaviourally disturbed teenagers. As luck would have it, the High School from Hell closed a few years later – but not before receiving a glowing HMIe report.

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Inspection bodies can only make judgments based on the evidence put before them. I would argue that the current arrangements lack integrity. HMIe do not arrive in unmarked cars and kick down the front door of schools. Visits are announced about six weeks in advance. This affords those who have most to lose, ie school management, ample time for window-dressing.

Classroom teachers feel the heat from above and there is tremendous pressure to please the guest Inspector Gooles. Showing that one is au fait with the latest faddish way to teach helps. Sir presents an audiovisual feast and employs a variety of strategies that empower the youngsters to learn, hopeful that cynical efforts will receive a nod of approval from the examiner at the back of the class. In most cases this type of lesson goes down a treat – no surprise there, as it has been fine-tuned since being premiered when the management carried out its regular monitoring and evaluation of staff teaching.

In my opinion, HMIe inspections are a necessary evil, but I question the wisdom of the current approach, whereby all schools are subject to a clinical evaluation. I'd like to see the inspectorate focus on those schools and local authorities where there is chronic underachievement. Adopting a risk-assessment method of selecting schools would be more efficient, as fewer inspecting staff would be required and more support would be available to where it was needed most.

Smart inspections could be implemented after analysing data such as SQA results, exclusions, attendance and concerns expressed by parents, pupils or teachers. Doubtless, there would outrage at this educational profiling methodology but the present regime of visiting every school is a waste of resources.

In my experience, HMIe staff have only offered constructive criticism of my teaching, although I accept that this has not been the experience of other colleagues. It is my contention that where a teacher is doing his/her job to the best of his abilities, there is little to fear. HMIe is only trying to put an education house in order.

• Hugh Reilly is a Glasgow secondary teacher.