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Inspection system under scrutiny

There should be more self-assessment by public services, less external audit, and a streamlining of review bodies, the Government has been told. Neil Munro reports.

The future of HM Inspectorate of Education and other similar agencies was in the melting pot this week as a far-reaching review recommended that the 43 bodies which scrutinise public services should be replaced by just one.

HMIE whose costs have increased by 95 per cent in four years has also been told to scrap the inspection of education author- ities and reduce the frequency of school inspections.

The review, carried out by Lorne Crerar, a prominent lawyer and former convener of the Standards Commission for Scotland, concedes that creating a single scrutiny body might be "ambitious and difficult to achieve", but insists it should be done in the long-term which the report defines as four years.

Fiona Hyslop, the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, told The TESS that, while there were some "good things" in the review, the Government would not be accepting it "lock, stock and barrel". She said she intended to focus on two key areas quality improvement, which was not fully addressed by Professor Crerar, and reducing the over-assessment of local authorities so they could move to self-assessment, an approach endorsed in the review.

Professor Crerar has largely backed the criticisms from educationists and others that the regime of scrutiny and audit a pound;92 million industry was spiralling out of control, diverting officials from their frontline work. Inspection had to become more "proportionate".

Over time, the report states, there should be more reliance on self-assessment by those providing public services, "enabling a reduction in the volume of external scrutiny". Ministers and Parliament should in future consider whether the assurances they need about performance can be given by the providers before external auditors are brought in.

The culmination of streamlining the existing arrangements, if ministers accept the recommendation, will be one national body staffed by experts in external scrutiny but able to call on professionals in the particular field being investigated.

Meanwhile, Professor Crerar wants HMIE to bring an end to the inspection of education authorities once the current round is complete; in future, this would be subsumed into best value audits and self-assessment arrangements. There should also review of the benefits from school inspections, with "immediate consideration" given to reducing their frequency.

The "broad thrust" of the review was welcomed by Scotland's directors of education whose president, Bruce Robertson, has been a vocal critic of "audit overload". Ironically, Professor Crerar has reported at a time when Mr Robertson's own authority, Aberdeenshire, is being subjected to an HMIE inspection, an audit of best value, a child protection inspection and a review of community learning and development.

The education directors want to see "bold and speedy" action from the Government in response to the review, which should include a shift in resources from national scrutiny towards supporting improvements at a local level.

HMIE explained that the 95 per cent rise in its expenditure from 2003-06 was largely because of new pre-school and child protection responsibilities. But it was also the result of its increasing role in spreading good practice, which had nothing to do with its scrutiny function.

The inspectorate welcomed any moves to more "proportionate" activity and to "further strengthening the link between self-evaluation and inspection where Scotland is recognised internationally as leading the way".

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