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Quality drive welcomed

Neil Munro reports on reactions of directors to the latest initiative from HM inspectorate.

Directors of education were summoned to the Scottish Office on Monday in a unique effort to enlist their help in driving up the quality of Scottish schools.

They were invited by the inspectorate to absorb the messages of the recent HMI report on "Standards and Quality" which gave a clean bill of health to teaching in the majority of schools but warned of worrying deficiencies, particularly in maths, writing and the first two years of secondary (TESS, June 14). This is the first time such a report has been followed up in such a way, evidence of a more rigorous approach from Douglas Osler, the new head of the inspectorate.

The directors, themselves struggling to come to terms with attempts at quality assurance on shoestring budgets, gave a notably warm welcome to the latest document from the inspectorate which streamlines the daunting 200-plus indicators for measuring school performance to a more manageable 33.

The HMI will use these PIs in their reports on individual schools and the authorities pledged they would ensure their schools applied the techniques to evaluating their own performance. Schools will be asked to grade themselves on a four-point scale and the inspectorate is to do the same with a select number of benchmarking indicators. A copy of the latest document, "How good is our school?", is being sent to every school and education authority.

Mr Osler said this week that "the assurance of quality should be the responsibility of the people who are in the school every day. The inspectorate cannot do it: we can only help them to be better at it." The approach differs markedly from the "improvement through inspection" system used in England and Wales.

Archie McGlynn, the HMCI in charge of the inspectorate's audit unit, said the latest initiative, which was put together with the help of a three-person team of a headteacher, education official and adviser, was designed to help schools answer three questions - "how well are we doing? how do we know how well we are doing? and, now that we know, what are we going to do about it?" He was not aware of any similar self-evaluation approach internationally and said the Scottish policy had excited worldwide interest.

Mr Osler observed that the Scottish Office was "kicking at an open door. " There was no confrontation between the schools and the inspectorate on the issue. This was confirmed by a number of leading directors of education contacted by the TESS. Michael O'Neill of North Lanarkshire welcomed the HMI material as an additional tool for evaluation, and particularly the stress laid on the links into school development planning. It was a manageable and open approach, he said.

The route to "improvement through self-evaluation" was a positive move and the PIs were concise and manageable, Anne Wilson of Dundee commented.

Keir Bloomer of Clackmannan described the package as "a sensible way forward" and said the inspectorate had done a good job of condensing the previous indicators.

Maggi Allan of South Lanarkshire said it was a major step for-ward. "People felt swamped by the PIs in the past," she said. She was also impressed by the links between self-evaluation, development planning and devolved management in which schools work out how they are performing, build that into their planning and allocate resources accordingly.

Liz Reid of Edinburgh said the Scottish Office approach fitted in with her authority's "assisted self-evaluation" in which schools are supported to raise their game. "It helps us all to talk in the same language," she added.

But the directors were all agreed that schools would need considerable support to extend the self-evaluation process and that small authorities without advisory back-up could also struggle to meet the challenge. It was suggested, too, that some schools would need encouragement to pursue genuine evaluation which did not just consist of "soft targets" such as an audit of resources while ignoring "hard targets" such as judging the relationships between pupils and teachers or the effectiveness of the head.

Mr Bloomer said it was important "to relate all this work about the system's own definitions of quality to the outside world and in particular to how we measure up internationally. PIs tell you whether you are doing a good job but you also need to know whether that's sufficient" Mr O'Neill cautioned that care would have to be taken over the definition of standards. "How do value-added measures of performance fit in? We must not allow this approach to be hijacked by the exam league mentality and used as a rod to beat schools with".

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