Inspectors need to be inspected

Just before Christmas, thanks to the diligence of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council and the sleuth-like instincts of a TESS reporter, I noticed that some Scottish schools have not enjoyed a full inspection by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Education for as much as 24 years.

This is not just a case of one or two primary or secondary schools, but nearly 280 that have not had full reports since 1995 - and 32 that go back as far as 1983. When I read this roll call of injustice, I was taken aback.

I use the term "injustice", which might surprise teachers. But, from my standpoint, that's what it is. If, as I believe, the HMIE role is vital to ensure minimum standards are consistently obtained across Scotland, that local authorities are not a law unto themselves and that education policy is better informed by a regular flow of thematic reports, then nothing but the highest standards of professionalism are required from the inspectorate.

If schools are not inspected, and if poor teaching, desperate leadership and shocking facilities are to go unremarked in some schools, it is an injustice not only to the pupils, who have every right to expect better, but to all the diligent teaching staff at those institutions.

I do not underestimate the trauma that people go through during the inspection process. I have enough friends in the profession, and a few that have left it, to know of the deep wounds and the quiet pride that can result. I have also visited enough schools after an HMIE report and witnessed the relief, the bewilderment and, yes, sometimes the thanks that follow an inspection.

So who inspects the inspectors? As an agency of the Scottish Executive, HMIE is accountable to the Education Minister and, I suppose, therefore, to the Scottish Parliament. The practical reality is that the relationship between the parliament and HMIE is too distant, too disinterested. Only if there was another car crash on the scale of the 2000 exam crisis would MSPs sit up and pay attention.

I'll give you a comparison. As convener of the parliamentary audit committee, I have before me, at least once a month, the CEO of a government department, health board or college, probing what went wrong or testing what is claimed went right. There's also a further committee I sit on that then audits the Auditor General and the staff of Audit Scotland. HMIE has never been grilled this way since parliament first sat in 1999.

Is it not time that, by statute, HMIE is required to report bi-annually to the parliament's education committee where its performance and modus operandi can be inspected? And, rather than report to the Scottish Executive, should it not become fully independent of ministerial direction and accountable directly to parliament?

You would then see education take on a new importance - and make MSPs earn their generous salaries. Let's inspect the inspectors.

Brian Monteith is an Independent MSP and former Conservative Party spokesman on education

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