Rowling causes umbrage
with her Umbridge...
Sun 6 Jul 2003
JK ROWLING is the toast of the teaching profession after consigning education ministers and school inspectors to Hogwarts’ remedial class in her latest novel.
Delighted teachers have hailed Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix as a blistering satire on years of politically motivated interference in the running of schools.
Amid the muggles and magicians loved by millions of children around the world, Rowling lampoons real-world school inspectors, central government decrees on the curriculum and even the parachuting-in of new staff to ‘failing schools’.
One Scottish teaching union last night urged ministers and civil servants to read the novel, which smashed sales records on its release two weeks ago.
Central to Rowling’s satirical scheme is a new character, Professor Dolores Umbridge, a grotesque parody of a modern-day school inspector.
Umbridge, described as looking like a large pale toad, starts the book as a civil servant in the Ministry of Magic.
She is then appointed as a teacher at Hogwarts, where she removes the magic from her lessons with a "carefully structured, theory-centred, Ministry-approved course of defensive magic", complete with a series of vague course aims.
Umbridge is then appointed as "high inquisitor" of Hogwarts, and introduces a cruel and negative regime of inspections, and sacks one teacher.
Ultimately, headmaster Dumbledore is stripped of his post and Umbridge is parachuted in to replace him. The manoeuvre is described by the ministry as "an exciting new phase in the minister’s plans to get to grips with falling standards", writes Rowling.
The ministry orders the school to stop extra-curricular activities so pupils can focus on rote-learning spells.
Rowling, a former teacher, also depicts staff as dumbing down their lessons in order to prepare Potter for his Ordinary Wizarding Level exams.
Teachers focus on duller spells and spoon-feed information on magical beasts, because they know what is likely to be in the wizarding equivalents of Standard Grades.
Pat O’Donnell, Scottish secretary of the National Association of Schoolteachers/Union of Women Teachers, said Rowling’s satire was "dead right".
He said: "I hope the politicians and inspectors read her book. We have now got a system where we have set up big national testing systems, and the consequences of your children failing are so high teachers are teaching to the tests.
"School inspections, particularly in the primary-school sector, have become horrendously stressful over the last five years, and all the inspectors are interested in is whether you have met the requirements of the 5-14 national curriculum. If you haven’t, then you will be publicly castigated as a failure."
Rowling completed a postgraduate certificate in education at Edinburgh’s Moray House teacher training college in 1996, and worked as a languages teacher at two Lothian secondary schools: St David’s High School in Dalkeith; and Leith Academy in Edinburgh.
Sandy McAulay, the head teacher at Leith Academy, said: "The book sounds about right to me. Many teachers, including me, believe the magic has been sucked out of teaching, because our curriculum is now over-full, our children are over-assessed and there is no room left for teaching that is creative."
McAulay said national testing programmes set up by the Scottish Executive left his teachers spending a lot of their time preparing children to be tested or carrying out the tests.
Judith Gillespie, development manager for parents’ group the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, said: "JK Rowling will be extremely popular with teachers, who have seen the joy go out of teaching. They used to be able to make their own judgments on the abilities of children, but now they have to tick a box on an evaluation and make sure their lessons fit the curriculum."
Gillespie said the government’s target-setting policy meant that often - as in the fictional world of Hogwarts - vital activities such as music or sport were squeezed out of the curriculum, as teachers concentrated on their charges meeting their targets in areas like numeracy and literacy.
Gillespie added: "Many teachers will want to make this book a set text for their pupils to highlight the problems of many recent educational initiatives."
The Scottish Executive last night brushed aside the criticism. A spokeswoman said: "Let’s remember that the Harry Potter books are designed for entertainment. The Scottish Executive is therefore not going to take such views too seriously."
A spokesman for the HM Inspectorate of Education took umbrage with Professor Umbridge: "It would be sad indeed if readers equated the character with today’s inspectors, who are all warm-hearted individuals dedicated to ensuring that all children experience a little magic in their school lives."
Rowling, and her spokeswoman, refused to comment.
...but an inspector strikes back with his verdict
Former schools chief Douglas Osler gives his assessment of the Hogwarts school of witchcraft and wizardry
THE inspection of this unique school has been completed. Although it was an unannounced inspection, it appears to have been expected by the school. The inspection team from the Muggle world included specialists in spelling, spiritualism and philosophy.
The management of the school is excellent. Professor Dumbledore has strong powers of leadership, is expert at calming tricky situations and allows individuality to flourish in staff and pupils. Professor McGonagall is responsible for pupil welfare.
She has unusual foresight in managing children. Professor Snape is a malign influence and should be given a spell away.
Mr Hagrid has his own accommodation on the school campus. Pupils confide in him but he should offer a better example in cleanliness. Overall, the ability of management to respond to the unexpected is variable as outside forces affect forward planning. The school's accommodation, in a castle set in extensive grounds, is outstanding and offers excellent opportunities.
It is flexible as staircases and walls can be moved to meet requirements. The Chamber of Secrets should be opened up to public scrutiny. The school is kept very clean with the use of broomsticks. Resources are plentiful. Shortages are overcome by the school’s ability to conjure up equipment as required.
Staffing is adequate in numbers but variable in quality. Some teachers are inspired but others, for example Professor Binns, rely entirely on notes dictated in a monotone. There was evidence that boys only passed class tests by copying notes from one of the girls.
Timetabling should be improved; History of Magic, double Potions, Divination and Defence against the Black Arts is too much in one day. Pupils do excel at the 3 S’s: Sports, Spirits and Spells.
Pupils are well-behaved and troublemakers are kept out of sight. They work well in teams but the way in which pupils are allocated to houses should be reviewed to ensure balance. School meals are plentiful but the diet is unhealthy.
There are concerns about pupil safety. Quidditch, while useful, is dangerous as are some science experiments. Moving stairs and trees, flying cars, talking portraits and the range of animals in school are likely to cause physical or emotional damage to pupils. This is an enterprising school preparing pupils for unusual careers.
• Douglas Osler was HM Senior Chief Inspector of Education in Scotland