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Education Scotland's ratings system is unsatisfactory at best

The disparity between council and inspectorate school ratings shows the system’s faults – so news of a potential overhaul is welcome

Donkey

You can see why schools balk at the idea of all their hard work being boiled down to one of the one- or two-word ratings currently used by the schools inspectorate Education Scotland – unsatisfactory, weak, satisfactory, good, very good or excellent.

Those who work in the media know that it is often the headline of an article that sparks a complaint. Get a headline wrong in the eyes of the person whose work or opinions are the subject of the piece, and they don’t care about the balanced or nuanced text that follows – their focus is on the six or so words in bold across the top of the page.

Education Scotland ratings attract similar levels of focus. Last week a Glasgow headteacher asked the education secretary John Swinney if he supported scrapping them, arguing that the ratings distracted from the content in inspection reports; Mr Swinney said she had a point and there was “merit in that argument”.

The temptation, said Mr Swinney, was for educators to “gravitate to ‘What did you get?’” questions, rather than in-depth discussions about a school’s performance.

Later, Scotland’s chief inspector of education, Gayle Gorman, said any changes to the system would be for Education Scotland to make, not Mr Swinney, but that the body was open to exploring new ways of working especially “as we move towards a more empowered system of education”.

When Tes Scotland broke the story, the prospect received a warm response on social media, with the chief education officer at Argyll and Bute Council, Anne Paterson, writing: “Best news. Inspection helpful when reading the narrative but the scores on the doors can be so destructive.”

But the question that lies at the heart of this debate is: what is the purpose of school inspection? Because, inevitably, we have been here before.

A few years ago, Education Scotland tried to replace traditional ratings with a letter to parents, but the result was confusion. Parents felt unable to ascertain whether their child’s school was thriving or failing from the bland missives, and the decision was taken to resurrect ratings.

So if the purpose of inspection is in part to inform the public and parents about the performance of schools, unambiguous ratings are important – as are frequent inspections.

There is little point in having clear ratings if reports are so out of date they are misleading. A Tes Scotland investigation last year found that a fifth of schools had not been inspected for more than a decade.

It is also important to remember that the ratings are used to track progress nationally.

Last year, of the schools inspected for the National Improvement Framework, just over half were rated goodor better for learning, teaching and assessment (56 per cent) and raising attainment and achievement (55 per cent). When councils appraised their own performance, 73 per cent of schools were rated good or better on learning, teaching and assessment and 70 per cent were rated good or better on raising attainment and achievement.

The disconnect between how councils and Education Scotland are rating schools suggests more work needs to be done on understanding the standards – could the mismatch be linked to the culling of quality improvement officer posts to balance council budgets that’s occurred in recent times?

This is perhaps also why school inspection – and ratings – feel particularly unfair in the current climate, with both the teacher shortage and austerity smothering the breathing space needed to improve, rather than just survive.

Personally, I would like to see Education Scotland inspect the impact of the teacher shortage, of school budget cuts, and of cuts to school support staff.

Doubtless the Scottish government would be uncomfortable both with its ratings – and with the resulting headlines.

@Emma_Seith