Finding the right balance

The timing and frequency of inspections is important to prevent unnecessary stress on staff - especially headteachers

The main responsibility for school improvement rests with schools themselves and education authorities, MSPs were told last week.

During a parliamentary debate on inspection, Robert Brown, the Deputy Education Minister, said the approach of HM Inspectorate of Education should be "light touch and proportionate", and inspection must not become a burden on schools.

The role of the inspectorate was to concentrate on outcomes, promote self-evaluation and provide targeted support for schools that were struggling, Mr Brown said.

"In many ways, what we are talking about is capacity in the system to secure continuous improvement, and that capacity has increased substantially," he said.

The debate was initiated by Brian Monteith, the Independent MSP who chairs the audit committee, the parliament's watchdog on public spending.

After an investigation by The TESS which showed that more than 300 Scottish schools had not been inspected in the past decade (November 17), Mr Monteith decided to raise the issue of "who inspects the inspectors?" - a theme he outlined in his article in last week's TESS.

He noted that HMIE had never been called to account for its work either by the parliament's audit or education committee, although Graham Donaldson, the senior chief inspector, and his colleagues have made appearances on a range of other matters.

Mr Monteith suggested that HMIE should face a grilling by the education committee on its annual report each year .

Mr Brown pointed out that the Scottish Executive was committed to ensuring that inspection results would be published for every primary by 2009 and for every secondary by 2008. The inspectorate was ahead of this target: by the end of March this year, 1,626 primaries and 350 secondaries would have been inspected.

"If HMIE be-comes aware of serious complaints about educational provision, it can and does bring forward the planned date of inspection," said Mr Brown.

Making his first appearance on the backbenches after almost eight years in government, Peter Peacock, the former Education Minister, said the right balance had to be struck over the timing of inspections. "We must hold inspections at a proper frequency and not have a system that becomes an imposition on teachers and headteachers because all they think about is the next inspection," he said.

He thought the balance now was "broadly right".

Mr Peacock echoed Mr Brown's remarks and said local authority quality assurance regimes should play a stronger role in bringing about improvements in schools. But in his time as minister, he continued, "I found there was occasionally a disjunction between a local authority's view of a school's quality and the inspectors' view of it, which is alarming."

He cited schools in Dumfries and Galloway and Argyll and Bute as evidence of this.

Mr Peacock called for "much greater clarity about precisely what is being measured so that parents can be reassured, not just at inspection times but between inspections, that the system is working for them".

Despite the origins of the debate, MSPs of all parties were effusive in their praise for what one called the "professionalism and integrity" of the inspectorate.

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