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HMI maps the quality borders

Neil Munro reports on how education authorities are being called to account

Graham Donaldson, who has responsibility for best value within the Inspectorate, shares concerns expressed by Michael White, the director of education in Aberdeenshire, about "quality overkill". His authority is taking part with East Renfrewshire and West Lothian in an HMI inspection of quality assurance arrangements.

This also involves the Accounts Commission in drawing up performance indicators to ensure that the various systems "map on to each other", as Mr Donaldson put it. The commission has a self-evaluation checklist for education authorities on "Managing People" which overlaps with the HMI indicators in "How Good Is Our School?" Eleanor Currie, director in East Renfrewshire, which was the first to call in HMI, is careful to describe the exercise as "a joint review of our quality development arrangements. It is not looking at the education authority as a whole, nor is it an inspection of the authority as a whole."

The East Renfrewshire "review" kicks off in May with briefings and interviews with council leaders. It will then take evidence from schools about the use of quality development arrangements both in terms of policy and on the ground. The Inspectorate will provide feedback to the authority and the report on the effectiveness of its systems for assuring quality will be published in October.

The sensitivities of this expanded role for HMI within the Association of Directors of Education is reflected in criticisms by Liz Reid, director in Edinburgh (until today). "HMI is equipped to understand and assess schools against national standards of educational provision. It is less clear that HMI is equipped to comment on an education authority's finance, personnel and IT services to schools, let alone the way a corporate authority supports the education service."

But Mrs Currie stresses that "this review is not looking at any of those things. It is focusing on quality development arrangements with a view to achieving continuous improvement in teaching and learning in schools. It's about children learning and not about extending the powers of the Inspectorate or anything else."

Mrs Reid agrees, however, that the Accounts Commission does have the necessary wider expertise in local government and she supports its involvement with HMI.

Mr White in Aberdeenshire, which will be scrutinised later in the year, says it will be impossible for HMI to "encompass the whole of an education authority's work, particularly when you have the political interface which it would be difficult to make any quality assessment of".

Mr Donaldson says there is "no grand design" and the Inspectorate would not go beyond what it is competent to look at - "the expectations authorities have of their schools and how these are monitored and communicated". Inspections would therefore concentrate on quality assurance and anything else would have to be negotiated with each authority.

The commission's role would be to tailor its performance models to education authorities and leave HMI to do the evaluation. "It's a self-diagnostic tool, because it's for the local authority to analyse its own service" Mr Black states. "It's the role of audit to provide public assurance that continuous improvement is taking place. It is not the role of audit to second-guess local management, but to assist them in diagnosing their strengths and weaknesses, putting action plans into place where necessary."

Mr Black says directors of education and the unions should recognise that this approach to joint working to improve overall performance is preferable to "the pitfalls of league tables and negative comparisons".

Mr Donaldson hopes the eventual outcome will be something that is more sensitive to the needs of schools "rather than a more general model which is just applied to education". The next stage will be an "exploratory" meeting between the Government's best value task force, HMI, the Accounts Commission, directors of education and the local authorities.

Both Mrs Currie and Mr Donaldson describe their initiative as "closing the circle" by bringing the authorities into the quality framework. "We are looking to our headteachers as our quality managers to be accountable," Mrs Currie states, "so the authority also has to be accountable for the policies and support we put in place."

This view is endorsed by Roger Stewart, director of education in West Lothian whose inspection will take place in September and October. "I start from the standpoint that if we are expecting schools to examine their performance, we should be open to outside scrutiny about our own performance," he says. But Mr Stewart believes that while the initial inspection is limited to quality assurance arrangements it will be widened to education authority management in general.

"It is better, however, that these judgments are made by people such as HMI with a knowledge and experience of the education service," he adds. "But the partnership with the commission is important to tease out the complexities of running education within a corporate local government system."

Although some directors may be nervous about this additional scrutiny, Scotland is still many years removed from the recent Audit Commission inquiry south of the border, which showed many authorities were failing to offer value for money on pupil performance, school meals, class sizes, and special needs.

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