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Old system updated to be more accountable

Although there is little likelihood of any immediate post-election reform to the school inspection system, there are pressures for change. Lucy Hodges looks at the possibilities

Scotland has an old-style inspection system consisting of Her Majesty's Inspectors of Schools. The outfit, which is still part of the Scottish Office, is non-confrontational in style and keen to work with schools. Like the former HMIs in England, the Scottish inspectorate gives advice to ministers, inspects schools, further education colleges and teacher training colleges and oversees educational developments. It prides itself on its independence.

Since 1989, Scottish HMIs have become more open, publishing all reports and performance indicators. Great emphasis has been put on self-evaluation, using a document issued by the Scottish Office Education and Industry Department, How Good is Our School? Self-evaluation using Performance Indicators. This is free of checklists and jargon and encourages schools to ask how are we doing, how do we know, and what are we going to do now?

To gather data, schools are given 33 questions used by HMI in their inspections. The end product is a development plan that identifies schools' strengths and weaknesses.

"Quality has to rest with people who are in a school every day," said Douglas Osler, Scotland's Chief Inspector of Schools. "It's the teachers and other staff who have to take responsibility for quality. Unless schools know themselves thoroughly they cannot benefit from inspection."

Mr Osler also believes external inspection is important. The complement of the two is what works.

Follow-up of HMI reports on schools is quite rigorous, he says. One year to 18 months after publication, HMIs evaluate the school's and the education authority's response. They write a letter, which is made public, saying to what extent they are satisfied with action taken. A Scottish school would be expected to have a full inspection and a follow-up every 10 years.

Inspection in Wales is closer to the new English model because it has the same legislative framework, but again the chief inspector Roy James, who is about to retire, employs a more collegiate rhetoric than that of his English colleague Chris Woodhead.

"Our policy in Wales is to try to work with all the other agencies, the Welsh Office, the curriculum council, the teachers' and headteachers' associations and try to move positively towards improving schools," said Mr James.

The relationship between him and the education system is not adversarial, although he says Welsh HMIs do not hesitate to draw attention to weaknesses in schools where they exist and to follow up action plans closely.

"If there are weaknesses we send it back for revision," he said. "We may well send it back more than once, particularly if the setting of numerical targets is not included" Action plans are also monitored closely to see that improvements take place, with inspectors arranging follow-up visits if necessary.

Mr James sees advantages in self-evaluation by schools but they would have to be reinforced by external inspections, he says.

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