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If it doesn't work, ditch it

Neil Munro reports on the Education Minister's brief for the newly independent schools inspectorate.

The newly formed HM inspectorate of education has been handed a sweeping commission from Jack McConnell, Education Minister, to review all recent initiatives.

Mr McConnell was addressing HMI for the first time since he re-formed the inspectorate into a semi-independent executive agency divorced from policy-making.

He clearly has in his sights the raft of initiatives introduced by the Scottish Executive and specifically supported through its excellence fund. These include alternatives to exclusion, the national grid for learning, early intervention, classroom assistants and reductions in class sizes.

Mr McConnell said he wanted these developments scrutinised "so that policies and budgets in the future are informed by what works and that we ditch what doesn't work".

He touched on this theme later in the day when he addressed the annual congress of the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association. Taking questions, one of them highly critical of the disruption caused by social inclusion policies to the education of the majority of pupils, he told delegates: "I don't want to pursue policies which, while right in principle, are not working in practice and are damaging the education of other kids."

Mr McConnell added: "I want to make it quite clear that our policy that all children should receive an education is not to be interpreted as meaning that children who pose problems should never be removed from the classroom - although I don't want them removed from the education system."

Back at the HMI conference, Mr McConnell went out of his way to praise the key role of the inspectorate, which has taken a battering from schools over the perceived conflict between its former dual roles of espousing policies and then pronouncing judgment on them.

But Mr McConnell also said bluntly that HMI now had to tackle another criticism - that it is "a force for uniformity". He said: "This is a false perception perhaps, but there must be a recognition that it exists".

Mr McConnell touched on one of his favourite refrains when he went on o remind inspectors that "the impetus for improvement should come from a local sense of responsibility and ownership".

The key effort should be directed to self-improvement. "My ambition is that all schools should be excellent, improving, or both," he said.

Although an endorsement of the inspectorate's approach in recent years, the speech was none the less a veiled warning to inspectors not to overreach themselves.

It was a "tragedy", Mr McConnell said, that some very good improvements and innovations had in the past been seen as a competitive process in which some schools gained at the expense of others, and "a bitter irony" that these had become tainted as policies imposed from above. The unspoken observation that HMI had been centrally involved with these policies would not have been lost on his audience.

Mr McConnell also made it clear that he expected HMI to link up with other inspectorates on "cross-cutting work" across a range of Executive activities. The recent report on the education of children in care, a joint endeavour by the education and social work inspectorates, was an example of that, he said.

Despite the impression that Mr McConnell has clipped HMI's wings, the perception from Douglas Osler, senior chief inspector, could not be more different.

Mr Osler told the minister, in effect, that the system of external inspection which gathered evidence and then fed into policy-making was more powerful than ever. He praised Mr McConnell for acting more decisively on HMI reports than any previous minister.

"You swung behind the learning in care report, you were a strong ally in the findings we published about education in East Dunbartonshire, you praised the high standards we found at St Modan's High and you have made it clear you would act against schools which fail their pupils," Mr Osler said.

These responses, based on HMI's evidence and advice, represented "a sign of confidence in the inspectorate which is important to us".

Mr McConnell replied that he expected HMI not just to be "frank and honest without fear of political interference", but to adopt the same rigour in evaluating itself.

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