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Councils can live with inspection

Even education authorities which have been given an unfavourable HMI report believe the process is worth while, according to a review by Scottish Executive researchers.

While the study is based on inspections of only 12 of the 32 authorities and follow-up reports on three, the researchers felt able to conclude that any changes should simply be refinements and that, in any case, no dramatic change should be made until all authorities are inspected by 2005.

Perhaps the general equanimity can be attributed to the fact that the outcomes have held few surprises. All councillors questioned said the issues flagged up by HMI had already been identified by their self-evaluation processes, to a "great or moderate" extent. This was the view of 98 per cent of education officials but of only 75 per cent of headteachers.

But the report, published today (Friday) by the Executive's central research unit, did find that not all authorities had the same experience.

"Consistency in the inspection is critical," the report states.

"Those being inspected need to have confidence that everyone is being treated fairly. People need reassurance that the process is open and transparent."

The report adds: "The manner and approach of the lead assessor and the team is key in achieving a partnership with authority staff. There is a need to iron out the differences in the approach of different assessors and give the inspection team a more human and personal face - tackle the notion that 'it depends who you get'."

Researchers also found "a climate of suspicion" about who is consulted by HMI and who is not. Authorities need to communicate more with headteachers to reassure them that everything is open and transparent.

The demanding nature of the experience was remarked on by 88 per cent of officials and 86 per cent of councillors. "You get two or three weeks'

notice and they descend on you," one head of education commented. "Within that time, everybody works flat out to see what they can do in order to improve their procedures and stay in line with all of the guidelines."

An education officer remarked: "During the inspection, we have a service to run but basically that service had to go into abeyance because we were being called on for interviews, so it's very demanding. It's very stressful."

To date full reports on 20 education authorities have been published. An analysis of 19 of them, given to directors of education at their annual conference by Ian Gamble, HM chief inspector responsible for the exercise, shows that 26 per cent were judged very good, 47 per cent good, 22 per cent fair and 5 per cent unsatisfactory.

Mr Gamble said the inspections showed that authorities were strong on developing their vision and values but less so on improving and monitoring performance.

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