Accountability in education

Vol. 6 No. 1 - 1989

Accountability in education

Part 2

by Albert Maguire

While words of learned length and thundering sound
Amazed the gazing rustics ranged around;
And still they gazed, and still the wonder grew,
That one small head could carry all he knew.

Lines borrowed from 'The Village School Master' by Oliver Goldsmith perhaps enhance what was noble about the role of the pedagogue; however on perusal of documentation available one can elicit details of a struggle in the profession, unbeknown to the laity.

As aforementioned the Dale/Stephens commission was initiated to supersede the payment on results era. In this light the central figure as regards accountability in schools was invariably the inspector. Revolutionary change was to take place and consequently the inspectorate too underwent a programme of restructuring. Many schools were not prepared to adhere to the proposed system of inspection and this inevitably led to strife and unrest. The National Schools' system had succeeded in educating children of differing religious denominations together and whilst there had been staunch protest, a workable system had evolved. When the Parliament of Northern Ireland was legally established in May 1921 this heralded the beginning of the end for the National Schools' System as it had existed within this particular province of Ireland.

Sir James Craig announced his new parliament with the Marquis of Londonderry being responsible for education. In his attempt to establish a Ministry of Education in Northern Ireland, Lord Londonderry was confronted with many serious difficulties. Paramount was the fact that there was no trained administrative staff or indeed access to records, as the central governing body had existed in Dublin.

The Public Elementary System of schooling was to prove totally unacceptable to those who supported the National Schools. Indeed insurmountable problems were apparent when school managers and teachers refused to recognise the ministry and accept salaries. The Irish National Teachers' Organisation began to express their doubts in a vociferous manner. It rallied to those teachers who had their reports lowered: it protested against 'Non Efficient' gradings and opposed dismissal of members.

All these actions are highlighted in various correspondence between the I.N.T.O. and the Ministry of Education and are lodged in the Public Record Office for N.I. In subsequent years many irate communications with regard to the inspection system were forwarded by I.N.T.O.

Correspondence: I.N.T.O. to Ministry of Education - 19231:

"In this connection we would respectfully direct the attention of the ministry to the observations of the General Secretary of our organisation in the Irish School Weekly of 6th inst. We may say that we would be delighted to be assured that none of these 600 teachers is in danger of dismissal either by the Ministry or by local authorities as a result of these reports".

The ministry in response however deemed that any enquiry into the inspection system would not serve any useful purpose.

From Ministry of Education to I.N.T.O. with special regard to the Lynn Committee which was directly responsible for school inspection.2

"The minister does not feel that any useful purpose would be served by the setting up of a further commission at the present time. If however, you have any concrete proposals of a practical nature to put forward for the bettering of the system he would be pleased to give them his consideration".


"It is not considered that an enquiry into the inspection system such as is proposed is necessary or would serve any useful purpose".3

In general the 1920s saw a period of union activity on a parallel to that of 1984-86. The union was very concerned indeed. The autonomy and professionalism of the teachers were seriously undermined. The teacher was graded according to the report of an inspector, who in turn was directly accountable to the government. Like the rational Schools' System, teachers' reports could be condemnatory, thus lowering their efficiency rating - little progress indeed!

The system of education inspection in Northern Ireland had experienced a harsh inception. Inspectors had indeed borne the brunt of a calculated attack on the Ministry of Education for Northern Ireland.

The immediate period from 1930 is not highlighted in detail as regards school inspection therefore it would be difficult to provide a chronology of events. In order to generate significant data following a search of literature to no avail, prompted me to try to find a primary source. Following several interviews I was able to transcribe salient information which I hope will elucidate the issue at the time (1935).

"I was teaching standard V when he arrived unannounced and said that he was going to be with me for a few hours - 'Just carry on', he said. He gave no impression but simply said Thank you' and left the room. One instance I can clearly recall was when he asked me for my time-table. He then proceeded to write Arithmetic problems of his choosing on the board. The class average was around 60%, which he stated wasn't very good for Standard V; then he left the room".

A probationer recalls:

"They arrived with no warning. You didn't always get a chance to know them as they changed circuit. Most of them didn't have much to say other than 'We'll start now!' Some of the more 'humane' ones would have given you a week's notice. They proceeded to the classroom and their main objective was to inspect the children's work and knowledge. This they did meticulously and thoroughly and they were quick to point out weaknesses or faults. The teachers were in dread for the duration of their visit".

Judging solely by the impersonal manner by which the inspectors are described by the individuals, one can ascertain that inspection was a harrowing experience!

The 1940s - 60s could be described as an academic era. Special emphasis was placed on examination success. Teachers had to adhere to a rigorous proscribed programme of instruction which in fact was accountability in a different mantle. Little time if any was devoted to extraneous activity. Schools were judged by their success rate. Inspectors could concentrate solely on academic prowess. Throughout the province the Ministry's policy of improved accommodation had ensured that buildings were now in their prime. With provision such as this they expected results.

In 1944 Ulster's far reaching plan for a new Education System was unveiled. If this was approved by parliament it would bring a secondary and university education within the reach of every child, regardless of parents' means. Public Elementary Schools were to be phased out and replaced with Primary Schools.

"Does history repeat itself?" Initial perceptions of the topic of accountability not only prompts the former question but prompts one to ask "Has the full circle been completed in terms of the status of the teacher?" As regards accountability today, little has changed. With the advent of the rational Curriculum and the publication of inspection reports, accountability is still very much to the fore!

  1. Public Record Office Northern Ireland. Letters and circulars Re: Ministry of Education for Northern Ireland and miscellaneous I.N.T.O. correspondence. ED 13/1/1362; 1108/5 8-2-23.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.