HMI currently inspects education authorities by invitation only and if ministers decide against the sweeping powers that enforcement would require inspectors could be given the job of scrutinising councils' quality assurance mechanisms which are intended to ensure the effectiveness of schools.
The Government would bill the move as another strand in its standards-raising crusade. It could also be presented as a guarantee to teachers that HMI is asking "how good is our education authority?" as well as "how good is our school?" The East Renfrewshire inspection, which evaluated the education department's quality development system, is seen as a pilot for a new partnership with HMI. The Accounts Commission is also involved as part of its remit to ensure councils implement the Government's "best value" regime in delivering local services.
Other authorities taking part in the pilot include West Lothian, Aberdeenshire and Angus.
The report on East Renfrewshire concluded that the council had made "very good progress in establishing a quality culture" and this was beginning "to generate its own momentum in many of the council's schools".
Eleanor Currie, the director of education, earns fulsome praise for her "good blend of wide-ranging educational knowledge, political insight and commitment to the quality of education".
Mrs Currie told The TES Scotland the inspection fitted naturally into the Scottish system of self-evaluation. "It starts with the teacher in the school and is not the top-down, predetermined model associated with Strathclyde or inspections south of the border. But it is rigorous, not a soft touch."