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One audit is enough, council chiefs told

Neil Munro reports on the reaction to the inauguration of the Executive's new regime of education authority inspections.

COUNCIL leaders have been told to refrain from conducting their own reviews of education department performance following the Executive's introduction of mandatory education authority inspections. Directors of education are said to fear being burdened by "multiple audits".

At the official launch of the inspection programme in Edinburgh's Murrayfield Stadium last week, Graham Donaldson, depute senior chief inspector of schools, said: "The Scottish Executive has made it absolutely clear to chief executives that the inspection framework will deliver best value and there should be no need for additional audit.

"But if an education department is selected for audit, that is a local decision and we can't forbid it."

Mr Donaldson's message was reinforced by Bill Magee, secretary to Audit Scotland which is responsible for keeping a check on councils' "performance management and planning" (PMP) under the Government's best value regime for ratching up continuous improvement in public services.

Sam Galbraith, Children and Education Minister, also told the conference, attended by senior education officials and chief executives, that the inspection of education authorities builds on the best value approach so that local authorities "are not faced with different kinds of scrutiny for essentially the same purposes".

The only authority to have undergone a PMP audit so far is Orkney. Leslie Manson, its director of education, said that despite reservations that Audit Scotland would not have any understanding of how education departments and schools operated, its report was "a thorough piece of work", giving a generally clean bill of health to consultation procedures, service planning, financial and performance reporting, benchmarking and arrangements for reviewing progress.

PMP audits are expected to be phased out, however, as inspections of local authorities kick in over the next five years, following the passing of the Standards in Scotland's Schools etc Act.

The first inspection, of Highland's education service, began in earnest on Monday with the arrival of a joint HMI-Audit Scotland team in Inverness. East Dunbartonshire, covering Mr Galbraith's constituency, will be the second. Another three authorities will be inspected in the first year, seven a year in the next three years and six in the fifth year. An average of 70 HMI days is being devoted to each inspection.

Mr Galbraith promised there would be no "naming and shaming" but said he could not prevent the media accentuating the negative. His priority was to strive for balanced reporting of strengths and weaknesses and, "wherethings have gone wrong, what's required to put them right".

In an emphasis repeated several times, however, he said inspections would be "rigorous", adding: "External scrutiny, as I know only too well, is never comfortable."

Russell Dick, from HMI's quality, standards and audit division, said inspections would "span widely and drill deep".

Mr Galbraith said inspection would challenge education authority leadership. "Can you add value to the work of schools so that improvement is delivered no matter the context or circumstances of your schools - whether they are striving to overcome social and economic disadvantage or sitting, perhaps complacently, with what appears to be good examination results?"

Mr Donaldson said the value of having an education authority would be based on evidence about what scope was found for efficiency as well as for improvement. These twin assessments were important "because there may be a view among some chief executives that inspection could be a pain in the neck since it might give directors of education ammunition to go along, Oliver Twist-like, to ask for more".

Mr Dick said the focus of inspections would be on an authority's quality assurance and quality improvement procedures as they impact on schools. But the net will be drawn wider if this leads to question marks over decisions on policy and resources. Councillors as well as officials will be questioned during inspections.

Michael O'Neill, director of education in North Lanarkshire, hoped authorities would be judged on their "relationships and culture" not just planning. Eleanor Currie, his counterpart in East Renfrewshire, said inspections must be about "talking to people not reading reams of paper".

There was a strong emphasis on the importance of spreading good practice which one discussion group said should include setting up quality partnerships between different authorities.

Jim Anderson, director in Angus, said there should be an attempt to develop "a quality process, not just an inspection process". Mr Donaldson agreed that inspections should fit in and not be "a distortion" of an authority's own processes.

The Executive's approach, based on a code of practice drawn up in consultation, brought praise from Roy Jobson, Edinburgh's director of education, who as director in Manchester had a bruising experience of the English system of accountability.

The wish to keep councils on board is also evident in the decision to set up a review panel chaired by John Elvidge, secretary of the Scottish Executive Education Department. The panel will include council representatives and will meet once a year with the senior chief inspector of schools to ensure inspections are working as intended.

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