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In safer hands with HMIE

Neil Munro talks to the head of the inspectorate about its new role in enforcing child protection standards

HM Inspectorate of Education, in its new role as guardian of standards on child protection, aims to have a clear picture of how - and whether - the various agencies are performing by 2008, Graham Donaldson, senior chief inspector, said in an interview with The TES Scotland.

The inspections have already kicked off with the HMIE services for children unit scrutinising what is happening in East Lothian. There, the need was tragically - but entirely coincidentally, Mr Donaldson says - underlined by the case of local toddler Derek Doran who died after taking methadone prescribed for his heroin-addicted parents.

It led to a pledge from Jack McConnell, the First Minister, to make the safety of children with drug addict parents "an absolute priority".

The East Lothian investigation will look at all services in the area that deal with children - the local authority, police, the health service, care agencies and the voluntary sector. It will interview children and key staff.

"We will also look at all the files of children considered to be at risk, some of whom will be on the register and some who won't," Mr Donaldson said. "We will scrutinise how the various services impact on children and, importantly, how they communicate with each other. This will help us to establish good practice."

These problems were thrown into sharp relief once more last week by the Herbison report on the murder of Inverness pupil Danielle Reid, in which communication between agencies was yet again highlighted as a major weakness. Peter Peacock, Education Minister, immediately announced that inspectors would assess the actions taken in that case by all the agencies involved.

The specialised multidisciplinary unit that will carry out the inspections is led by Mr Donaldson and HMIE. It will consist of the education inspectorate and representatives from the Social Work Inspection Agency, the Scottish Commission for the Regulation of Care, HM Inspectorate of Constabulary and NHS Quality Improvement Scotland.

There will also be associate assessors, 80 of whom have already been recruited to join inspection teams. "This refreshes the inspection process because it means contact with the field," Mr Donaldson says, "but it also helps build capacity in the system."

Child protection inspections have already been tried out successfully in pilots in East Dunbartonshire and Highland, the authority where - again coincidentally -Danielle Reid was a pupil.

It is clear the approach will very much emulate that taken in schools and education authorities. Mr Donaldson says the big questions that will be asked are:

* What are the main outcomes achieved for children at risk?

* What impact have services had?

* How well are key processes delivered?

* How good is operational management?

* How effective is strategic leadership?

* What is the capacity for improvement?

"This is intended to lead to the creation of a common language to evaluate what we are doing and disseminate good practice, creating a process and a culture of self-evaluation," Mr Donaldson commented. As such, it is in line with the methods adopted in How Good Is Our School? - known in other inspection jurisdictions as "the Scottish approach".

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