In an unprecedented move, HMIE today announced that it is suspending its inspection programme of secondary schools for four months to concentrate on helping those struggling to implement Curriculum for Excellence (CfE).
Critics will inevitably regard this as confirmation that secondary schools in particular are not ready to introduce the new curriculum, which union activists have been demanding should be delayed by a year.
The extra support will be provided from August until December, when primary school inspections will also be reduced. The effect on primaries is still to be quantified, but the need to concentrate on secondaries means 30 schools will have their inspections postponed to release time for inspectors to undertake development work.
This is the first time in the 170-year history of the inspectorate in Scotland that inspections of schools have been put on hold. It says it will resume normal service in January 2011.
Dr Bill Maxwell, the senior chief inspector, said: "These plans will allow us to provide substantial additional support for the implementation of Curriculum for Excellence over the coming months.
"Working with practitioners in all sectors, local authorities and partner organisations, we have been supporting Curriculum for Excellence from its inception, but this gives us an opportunity to work in a targeted way with schools and education authorities at this important stage of the process."
Schools requiring this intensified support will be selected across Scotland, following local talks between district inspectors and directors of education. This will be accompanied by "random sampling" to provide HMIE with evidence on the overall state of play relating to the introduction of CfE.
The inspectorate has already passed judgment on that, in its report for the CfE management board which pointed to significant gaps in schools' states of readiness - primary as well as secondary. It cast doubt on whether "the forthcoming S1 intake will experience learning and teaching sufficiently based on the experiences and outcomes to allow them to proceed successfully towards the new qualifications in 2013-14" (TESS last week).
The race against time was further highlighted when Education Secretary Michael Russell was forced to unveil a 10-point action plan to save the day. This included support for schools from HMIE. The inspectorate points out, however, that developmental work, including "capacity building" in schools, has already been a strong focus of its activities
Mr Russell said today: "I believe that HMIE are in a unique position to be able to provide support to our secondary schools. I am pleased that Dr Maxwell has been able to temporarily refocus the work of the inspectorate to deliver real and tangible help to schools that need it."
Meanwhile, one of Scotland's leading academics has launched his fiercest broadside yet on the curriculum plans, arguing that the assessment arrangements are so flawed that the whole enterprise should be abandoned.