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How to change the inspection landscape

The current system of inspection has its positives, but it is increasingly clear that school staff and, in particular, headteachers are paying a high price in the run up to, during and following inspections.

The burden of inspection on a school is massive. Prior to the event, the normal 50-plus hour weeks turn into a challenge to spend any time at home. The inspection is inevitably stressful. However, it is often the follow-up that bites. My association has seen a marked increase in the number of headteachers being pushed out of jobs following poor inspection reports.

I agree that, where a colleague is identified as a poor leader and fails to respond to the problems when support is offered, he or she should be shown the door.

However, this is not what is happening in cases I have seen. Headteachers have been told by their local authority that they are doing well, they have been given awards for performance or achievement and given additional council-wide duties in recognition of their excellent practice. Then HM Inspectorate of Education says the school is poor or leadership is poor and, in a matter of months, the headteacher is moved back to the classroom or "retired".

Where is the support? Why have the authorities concerned considered the head a star performer one day and a candidate for the scrapheap the next? Where is the "duty of care" for all employees?

Authorities must know their schools, they must take ownership of the circumstances and performance, and they must be held accountable if they do not identify and remedy problems.

I recently attended a stimulating event held by the Crerar review on regulation, audit, inspection and complaints handling in Scotland, the last of four consultation sessions being run by the review team. Was there "added value" from all this external scrutiny, Lorne Crerar wanted to know?

One suggestion related to Care Commis-sion and HMIE inspections. It was that they would no longer routinely go into state schools and nurseries, but would engage in a more significant local authority inspection. This would examine the quality assurance systems, support and leadership offered to schools in an effort to tackle problem areas and improve performance by self- or local evaluation. Occasionally, the inspectors would visit a random sample of schools to ensure that what the authorities were telling them was the reality on the ground.

The challenge would be for the authorities to raise their game in quality assurance and improvement. In some areas, such officers provide invaluable assistance, challenge and support, which helps schools continually improve.

In others, they are rarely seen and are viewed as an impediment to, rather than a force for, improvement.

The experience can vary not only from authority to authority but also within an authority. The main reason is that local education departments are overstretched.

So, if this local, more consistent, less intrusive and hopefully more supportive model of inspection was introduced, it would be important for the Scottish Executive not to view it as a cost-saving exercise. Rather, the money spent on inspecting every authority school, nursery, home, and so on would need to be delivered nearer to the source of the service, that is, to local authorities.

This would allow councils to introduce effective mechanisms of challenge and support, perhaps with greater involvement from the "consumer". It could become a true quality improvement service, based on local and self-evaluation rather than periodic external scrutiny from "men in suits".

Gordon Smith is past president of the Association of Heads and Deputes in Scotland

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