The travelling inspector? Education policy and the making of Europe

The travelling inspector is a new phenomenon –although education in Europe has always ‘travelled’, inspectors were firmly rooted and derived influence from their local and authoritative standing as education ‘connoisseurs’. However the creation of SICI, the Standing International Conference of Inspectorates 20 years ago and its increasing influence in bringing school inspectors together across Europe since early 2000s, presents us with an interesting case of a professional community on the move.
In order to understand why European inspectors are leaving their local ‘knowns’ and are now voluntarily and actively looking into new ‘un-knowns’, it is worth examining the case of Education Scotland, an agency created in 2011 in order to foster the creation of a learning education system; its remit is no less than to support and foster the formation of professional peer learning communities through adopting the role of ‘the knowledge brokers, and knowledge managers, and knowledge transfer agents’. Indeed, Education Scotland has been exceptionally active in spreading the ‘self-evaluation’ paradigm across Europe; the result, after more than a decade of Scottish inspectors being on the move is that the Scottish inspectorate is considered ‘as one of the leading if not THE leading inspectorate in Europe’.
Thinking about the Scottish case is particularly useful in relation to the study of international policy communities, their formation and particular workings, as it signals a new level of ‘political work’: that of exporting, internationalising and then importing afresh one’s local/national knowledge, once it has successfully gone through the international ‘test’, and is therefore still relevant and future-proof. This is exemplified well through the role of these actors who, rather than being Brussels-based Europeans, invariably assume European identity depending on its exchange value – due to the current political situation in Scotland and the Scottish National Party (SNP) government’s aspiration for independence, that exchange value for Scottish actors is high.
But what does this all mean for the study of policy learning in Europe and indeed for the building of Europe itself? Through previous work on the Europeanising and converging effects of the quality assurance and evaluation processes in the field of education, I have been constantly confronted by actors who deny that these effects exist. Yet their actions and practices emphatically and repeatedly confirm the opposite. Nonetheless, the numbers of travelling inspectors around Europe are growing, as well as their acknowledgement of the benefits and mutual learning of ‘best’ practice that this travelling produces. What, then, is different about the Scottish inspectorate? What is distinctive about inspectorates in Europe in general, since they have become so mobile and receptive to lessons from abroad? Why do they advertise and pursue these exchanges when others stubbornly do not? The case of the ‘travelling inspector’ confirms the view of education as a valuable policy area for the understanding of Europeanization: it illuminates the significance of learning not only as a resource for economic and social cohesion, but crucially as a governing mechanism for the travelling and exchange of policy at the level of the international. The ‘answer’ lies in precisely what the head of Education Scotland said – ‘we need to live the talk’ (Scottish Learning Festival, 2011). Talking about self-evaluation and the creation of peer learning communities at the level of the school needs to reflect similar work at the very top –and this is precisely what this inspectorate has been pursuing internationally over the last decade.
The case of the Scottish travelling inspectors shows how ‘Europe’, rather than existing as a separate and democratically deficient political entity, is in fact continuously fabricated and capitalised on in the political scene at home – in other words, and using the usually problematic language of ‘levels’, rather than diminishing in its role and power, it is in fact the ‘national’ which makes Europe happen. It is in the examination of the national policy spaces that one finds the most useful and enlightening examples of Europeanisation in action.
Second, and for the reasons just mentioned, the Scottish case signals a need to divert the analysis of Europeanisation away from the well-trodden corridors of the Brussels European quarter to more local and apparently peripheral spaces. A sociological examination of the interaction of international actors who come together in such policy and physical spaces could move the European studies agenda from the more top-down, relatively obvious and by now rather stale examination of ‘formal’ European processes, to other arenas which now take advantage of their knowledge and learning potential –or, at least, it is only now that we acknowledge them as such. Given all the above and paraphrasing Monnet, if we were to begin the study of Europe all over again, why would one not start from education?

Sotiria Grek