New figures uncovered by Tes Scotland suggest that councils are considerably more optimistic about how well their schools are performing than inspectors when it comes to key areas such as learning and teaching, and raising attainment.
The figures – which come in the wake of recent calls for traditional inspection ratings to be scrapped altogether – show a disconnect between what Education Scotland inspectors find when they visit schools and what local authorities conclude when they conduct their own in-house evaluations.
The biggest mismatch between the ratings was for schools rated “good” or better for “learning, teaching and assessment”: Education Scotland rated 56 per cent of the 121 schools it inspected last year for the National Improvement Framework “good” or better; local authorities rated 73 per cent “good” or better based on evaluations in 2,444 schools.
Background: Scotland’s ‘withering’ inspection regime revealed
Academics have suggested that the discrepancy could be down to the inspectorate marking schools more harshly or council inspections tending to be “quicker and dirtier” thanks to cuts to central staffing: in 2010, there were 472 quality improvement officers employed across Scotland, down from 347 in 2016.
However, the difference could also simply be down to “human nature”, suggested Maureen McKenna, the president of education directors' body ADES. Council ratings are based on moderated school self-evaluations, Ms McKenna said, adding: “Self-evaluation is quite a hard thing and it is human nature that makes us err on the side of positive."
The figures also showed councils were more positive when it came to rating schools' performance in “raising attainment and achievement”: Education Scotland rated 55 per cent of schools "good" or better; local authorities rated 70 per cent of the schools they visited "good" or better.
Another indicator, “leadership of change”, continued the trend: Education Scotland found that 64 per cent of schools were “good” or better, but councils reported 75 per cent were “good” or better.
The ratings used by Education Scotland include "unsatisfactory", "weak", "satisfactory", "good", "very good" or "excellent".
Lindsay Paterson, professor of education policy at the University of Edinburgh, said Education Scotland had a reputation for “harsher” inspection reports. However, in order to be sure, he said it would be necessary to compare "two ratings of the same schools inspected at roughly the same time”.
He added that the figures could also reflect the inspectorate's "policy to concentrate on schools that have previously had problems, and to inspect more rarely those schools that have received the top rating”.
'Quicker and dirtier' inspections
Jim Scott – an honorary professor of education at the University of Dundee and former secondary headteacher – said that local authority inspection, although often “very well conducted”, could be “quicker and dirtier” than Education Scotland inspections.
Professor Scott said he had personally been inspected five times as a principal teacher and a headteacher, and had always found inspectors' verdict to be “either very accurate or accurate”.
Cuts also meant that most authorities now relied on supported self-evaluation, he added, because “there are no longer enough local authority experienced personnel with the correct skillsets”.
He pointed out that “turkeys do not generally vote for Christmas”, so the result of a council inspection could come down to “the skill of the 'defending' headteacher and of the 'attacking' lead inspector”.
However, professors Paterson and Scott agreed there was a chance that both sets of figures were correct.
Professor Scott said: “If there is no – or almost no – overlap, then both sets of results could be accurate as they would not be testing the same thing. However, the local authority sample is a big sample.”
An Education Scotland spokeswoman said the body did not provide comment on how local authorities and schools arrive at their judgements, and that “inspectors use a set of standards to evaluate and report on quality in schools".
She added: "The standards are set out in How Good Is Our School? (fourth edition). In arriving at their judgements, inspection teams gather a broad range of evidence, including: observing children’s and young people’s learning; gathering the views and speaking with children, staff and stakeholders; and reviewing documentation."