School inspectors are more approachable these days than in times past but inspection remains a stressful business and one for which there exist no formal courses to prepare teachers and school managers.
That gap has been filled for primary schools - and soon for secondaries - in East Ayrshire by the quality improvement team, which tracks the inspection cycle. When a school nears the top of the list, it pays a call on the headteacher, carrying a hefty package containing, among other items, a 24-page distillation of the wisdom and experience gained by other headteachers in the authority.
Preparation should start about a year before an inspection is expected, says quality improvement officer Jean Nisbet. "If there is something wrong in a school the inspectors will find it, so headteachers can't afford to wait till they are notified of an inspection."
The first recommendation is to set up a working group and get as many school staff as possible involved. "Accept anybody who volunteers: teachers, office staff, janitors I," says Ms Nisbet. "Then you can start delegating."
Forming a working group helps the school to hit a quality indicator that does not currently appear in How Good is Your School?, but is increasingly important to the inspectors, says Ms Nisbet.
"Corporate management is a big thing in recent HMIE reports. It's part of the new approach to teachers' professionalism and professional development.
They are expected to be leaders of learning in their own classrooms and to be making a contribution to school management.
"The more staff are involved in corporate discussions, the stronger the management decisions will be and the stronger the concept of corporate management will be seen to be."
Some of the preparations for inspection are clear-cut: confirm that programmes of study exist for all curricular areas, ensure these provide continuity and progression from P1 to P7, check every teacher is aware of school routines and has read the handbook.
"It might sound obvious," says Ms Nisbet, "but what about the new supply teacher? Everybody is expected to have read the school handbook."
Other items in the comprehensive checklist are more complex and demanding.
"Pace and challenge is a big one," says Ms Nisbet. "It has been mentioned in every East Ayrshire inspection in the past three years.
"You need to show that you're motivating boys, developing the most able and raising attainment of the least able."
The team has a research assistant who prepares detailed data on a school before their visit, Ms Nisbet explains. "So, if there's a sudden dip in attainment in maths in P5, say, I will ask the headteacher to explain why, because the inspectors have access to the same data and they will certainly ask."
Having worked together for a year on preparation, the school and quality improvement team step up several gears when the HMIE box arrives. Ten pages of the Preparation for Inspection guide are devoted to the brief, critical and -irrespective of the work already done - stressful period immediately before an inspection.
This is the time for meetings with everyone connected with the school - teaching and support staff, union representatives, the school board, parent-teacher association - and for explaining that discussions with inspectors are evidence-gathering and never just friendly chats, however amicable. This is also the time for preparing the school profile and the headteacher's presentation.
When the big day comes and the inspectors arrive, invariably early in the morning, Ms Nisbet says: "If we've done the job well there should be few surprises.
"Headteachers and quality improvement officers hate surprises."
A preparation for inspection pack for secondary schools is due to be published by East Ayrshire next month
POINTERS FOR INSPECTION
East Ayrshire's Preparation for Inspection advises: One year before an expected inspection
* Identify and equip a quiet but not isolated room where the inspectors can work.
* Start to fill an evidence box for each area of How Good is Your School?
* In recent inspections, talking and listening have been described as "neglected skills". Inspectors will expect to see group work, trios or paired activities.
Announcement of inspection
* Provide a buddy for any member of staff likely to find inspection difficult.
* Check that legal copies of resources are being used.
* Write the school profile, focusing on the impact of developments on learning, teaching, achievement and meeting the needs of all pupils.
* Work alongside temporary staff and probationers.
* Check the computers are working and being used daily.
* Discussions may initially seem negative as issues are teased out. Use evidence boxes to back up arguments and be positive and robust.