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Targets met, new demands loom

The education inspectorate's annual review is a chance to look forward as well as back. Neil Munro reports

Pressures mount for Her Majesty's Inspectorate but its annual report, issued last week, paints a picture of a smooth operation with just one unresolved complaint.

It has been "a very demanding year," Graham Donaldson, senior chief inspector of education, says. And as the inspectorate prepares to take on responsibilities for child protection and for advising ministers on intervening in struggling schools, the pressures are likely to become even tougher.

The inspectorate's annual report, which reveals that it met all its main targets in 2003-04, says it received 27 "expressions of concern" following inspections. It believes this is low considering "the stresses that occur as a result of the inspection process".

Of the 27 complaints, which persisted after others which were dealt with at the time of the inspection, only three reached the formal complaints stage and two of these have been resolved satisfactorily.

HMI continues to gauge reaction from those it works with, using independent surveys. These surveys have found heads and college principals commending the quality, range, effectiveness, accuracy and positive attitudes that characterise inspections.

And, according to the Educational Institute of Scotland which monitors its members' experiences following each inspection, the old frosty relations between teachers and HMI have melted. "There is a greater recognition in schools of the constructive role HMI plays in most instances," according to an EIS spokesman.

"The inspectorate is now more accessible to teachers who appreciate its positive approach, particularly when compared with the Office for Standards in Education in England."

Parents, too, appear to be overwhelmingly positive about inspections: 99 per cent found school reports "clear, easy to read and helpful," according to surveys, which compares with a target of 95 per cent.

In its attempts to become user-friendly, HMI has responded to suggestions for improvements which have led to the notice period for school inspections being kept to three weeks, and to clearer briefings for staff.

Inspectors have also stepped up their drive to avoid giving the impression they simply descend on a school, deliver their verdict and disappear. They now provide more time for school staff to meet and get feedback from inspectors, the annual report states.

Introducing the report, Mr Donaldson notes the successful working relationships HMI has with the profession, which will pose for many the question why ministers feel they need powers of intervention to improve schools. Commending the new "proportionate" system of inspection which allows HMI to concentrate on schools which most need support, Mr Donaldson comments: "The new models have been successful in identifying both strengths and areas for improvement in a wide range of schools.

"Greater opportunity for discussion between inspectors and staff, feedback on the inspection findings to headteachers, senior staff and the education authority have been well received.

"The presence of the education authority at the feedback sessions has allowed it to respond quickly to the school's needs, to witness good practice and to identify any wider implications. This represents a further step in establishing a distinctive Scottish approach to quality improvement."

Mr Donaldson adds that HMI has also strengthened its team of 16 district inspectors to work on the school improvement agenda.

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