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Bell rings for round two with authorities

While HMIE is coming to grips with its new responsibilities for child protection, it is also embarking on the second round of inspecting education authorities - known in the trade as INEA2 (inspection of the education functions of local authorities).

HMIE met directors of education within the past two weeks to unveil its plans and they gave a favourable response.

The first two inspections are already under way in Dundee and Renfrewshire.

The others to be involved in 2006-07 are Aberdeen, Aberdeenshire, Dumfries and Galloway, East Renfrewshire, Falkirk, Stirling and West Lothian.

Mr Donaldson says these will be "proportionate" inspections, more focused on results than on the processes of how the authority works - not least because the inspectorate now has considerable intelligence and information on each of the 32 authorities.

"The length and intensity of the inspections will vary and will depend on what we find during a common core visit for all authorities which will last for a week," Mr Donaldson reveals.

"The focus will be very strongly on the pupil," he adds. "It will therefore be very much about what impact the authority is having. And our expectations of self-evaluation, how the authority thinks it is doing and what steps it is taking to improve, will be very much greater."

Before all that happens, the authorities will be awaiting the inspectorate's judgment on how they have been doing, drawn from evidence gathered during INEA1. This is due to be published soon.

Mr Donaldson would not be drawn on the fine detail but gave enough of a hint to suggest that, while some authorities are delivering high-quality services, others are ineffective.

That much is already publicly obvious from the contrasting inspection reports on East Renfrewshire, Stirling and South Lanarkshire at the top of the "league", and others nearer the foot. "The gap between the highest-performing and the lowest-performing authorities is too great," Mr Donaldson says.

"That is not to suggest that small authorities cannot work, because the evidence tells us that is not so. But they are more dependent on the strengths of individuals: if it has a strong team, a small authority can be very effective. That is the message from the INEA process."

But, while there is an issue of whether there is sufficient capacity to run schools well "32 times over", Mr Donaldson acknowledged that follow-up inspections have indicated that advances can be made even where councils have received a drubbing.

He believes that there has been "an incredibly powerful story" as a result of the first INEA round. "We were breaking new ground and, despite some of the early sensitivities and reservations, the process has gone remarkably well. Authorities have responded well and it is to their credit that they have seen it as an opportunity rather than a threat."

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