The glowing report on East Renfrewshire's quality assurance system (TES Scotland, November 6) will almost certainly map the way forward for the future relationship between inspectors and the education authorities in checking out how well schools are performing.
The report's importance therefore lies as much in its symbolism as in its substance. The outcome could be a distinctly Scottish approach which will allow HM Inspectorate to satisfy the Secretary of State that local authorities have procedures which are able to monitor the effectiveness of schools properly, and satisfy council chief executives that education departments are making a contribution to the Government's "best value" demands for efficiency.
An evaluation of quality assurance systems will also ward off pressure for Scotland to go down the English route of across-the-board inspection, which has caused controversy in Birmingham and Manchester.
Shelagh Rae, president of the Association of Directors of Education, said that, while it respected the right of councils to invite inspections, it hoped for a unified approach. "We don't want the English system where there are two separate inspections, one by OFSTED and the other by the Audit Commission. "
But Eleanor Currie, East Renfrewshire's director of education who emerges with praise from the report, firmly believes in what she calls "a light-touch inspection of quality assurance which will satisfy the Secretary of State that self-evaluation is in place, that procedures exist to monitor it, and that there is a commitment to best value and quality development from top to bottom of the organisation."
Inspectorate sources say that it was this "audit trail," traceable from schools to the directorate, which was the most impressive feature of East Renfrewshire's system. "People generally knew what the policy was and what part they should play in delivering it," the source said.
Both the council and HMI stress that theirs is not the "top-down" model associated either with the English approach or the Strathclyde quality assurance system, dubbed the "securitate".
Mrs Currie states: "It's not about people arriving in schools armed with a set of pre-determined criteria. The process starts with the individual teacher's role in his or her own self-evaluation, moving through to their class or department, up to the school and eventually to the council. It is bottom-up. But it is rigorous, not a soft touch." The inspectors talked to pupils and staff in five secondaries, six primaries, a special school and a community nursery, as well as parents, senior councillors and officials inside and outside the education department. They concluded that senior promoted staff in schools demonstrated "an impressive sense of ownership" of the council's quality agenda.
Some remain to be convinced. HMI found that communication of policies to other staff, which is the responsibility of each school's senior management, "operated with variable success at levels below senior promoted staff, especially among principal teachers." Mrs Currie says this is on her agenda for follow-up action.
The report states that the education department needs to step up its efforts to ensure greater consistency in self-evaluation by all schools, gain more rigorous evidence from school development plans, and clarify the role of East Renfrewshire's own TACL (Taking A Closer Look) inspections.
This pilot, which aims to establish a new partnership between HMI and the education authorities in the run-up to the Scottish parliament (and includes the Accounts Commission), will be followed up in Aberdeenshire, Angus and West Lothian.
The real test of the partnership however will come when HMI goes into other authorities which are not as advantaged and cohesive as East Renfrewshire.
TEN-STEP GUIDE TO ASSESSMENT
East Renfrewshire's quality programme has a bottom-up approach, which starts in the schools and progresses up to the council. The steps are:
* "rigorous analysis" of school performance on a range of aspects, including exam results, which are fed back to schools and departments by the education management and information service unit (EMIS); * annual report to the education committee on attainment in each of the seven secondary schools; * early introduction of target-setting for secondary schools in 1997-98; * scrutiny of 5-14 attainment by testing pupils in P3, P5, P7 and S2, alongside baseline assessment early in P1; * the council's own inspections, Taking A Closer Look (TACL); * review of school plans twice a year and sampling some schools to check on their implementation; * schools expected to produce their own "Standards and Quality" reports, which is also intended to highlight good practice; * reports on specific issues such as homework and modern languages; * information leaflets for parents following HMI inspections, summarising the findings and indicating follow-up action; * supporting schools in reinforcing national initiatives such as early intervention, Higher Still, attendance and exclusions.