A downward spiral if quality officers are cut?
Who's frontline and who's back office? These questions are the new code in educational circles for who's expendable and who's not.
As politicians line up to pledge allegiance to protecting frontline jobs from education budget cuts, one particular group finds itself squeezed as never before - and at a time when, some would argue, its skills are needed more than ever.
Quality improvement officers have been described in the past as "marginal people" by educationist Malcolm Mckenzie, when he worked at Glasgow University's education faculty - not because they didn't matter but because they worked at the margins, in the spaces between HM inspectors, Learning and Teaching Scotland, local authorities and schools.
The quality improvement service is made up of education directorate staff working under a range of titles, from quality improvement officers (QIOs) to quality improvement managers (QIMs), quality development officers (QDOs), education officers and schools group managers.
But new figures uncovered by TESS reveal that their numbers are in severe decline, having plummeted from a national total of 354.6 in 2009 to 265.9 in 2011. Some of the most rural authorities have made the most savage cuts - Dumfries and Galloway down from 11 to four in three years; Argyll and Bute from 13 to nine; East Ayrshire from nine to four; Scottish Borders from seven to three; and Orkney from four to 1.8. But Scotland's city councils have also cut back: Edinburgh, from 20 to 15 and Glasgow 32 to 25, while West Dunbartonshire has gone from 20 to 13.5.
Some authorities are "salami slicing" while others are more "draconian" in their cuts, says EIS assistant secretary Drew Morrice. He believes there is a misapprehension that QIOs are "a back-office support facility", while the EIS regards them as "very much part of our frontline delivery for schools".
Essentially, QIOs have three aspects to their job: curricular, functional and linking, as Peter McGhee, the recently retired president of the Association of Educational Development and Improvement Professionals (Aedips), Scotland, defines it. He took early retirement from his post as a quality information officer in North Lanarkshire this year.
The curricular role has its origins in the old subject advisers, he says. Although QIOs no longer produce the reams of curriculum material they once did, some argue that they are needed now - more than ever - to support teachers in teasing out the various strands of Curriculum for Excellence. Who else would oversee the moderation of assessment upon which the new curriculum is built?
The QIO's link function is the support and challenge role as local authorities prepare schools for HMIE inspection, he says. This, too, is coming under scrutiny. With the merger of Learning and Teaching Scotland and HMIE, and plans to scale back the level of school inspection by relying more on councils' own information, who could provide this information link if the QIO service diminishes?
The functional role of QIOs is school improvement, which became a statutory duty for local authorities under the first Scottish Parliament when it passed the Standards in Scotland's Schools Act in 2000.
"That requirement is why we are there," says Mr McGhee.
Brian Boyd, emeritus professor of education at Strathclyde University and a former president of Aedips, co-wrote a report on the quality improvement service in 2006, "From Development to Improvement: A Step too Far?" (see panel on page 15). He believes the new curriculum will stand or fall on the quality of continuing professional development on offer, and that that is at the core of what QIOs do.
"It is their raison d'etre," he argues. "If they disappear, can schools do CPD by themselves? I doubt it. They do not have the time or the expertise or the capacity."
But not everyone is as supportive of QIOs. In March, in the Cameron report on increasing devolved school management, education consultant and former director of education in Stirling David Cameron suggested the new LTSHMIE agency, which comes into being in July, could be well placed to take on local authorities' responsibility for school improvement. He argues that schools face an "intimidating array of quality assurance requirements" which are both "burdensome and expensive".
But QIOs have an important accountability role, maintain Mr McGhee and Professor Boyd. When HMIE leaves a school, it is the QIOs who pick up the pieces; if the report is mixed - or worse - they will be in the school for months afterwards.
Parents want external groups going in and checking on school performance, argues Mr McGhee, and HMIE has a long way to go before it can be said to be using local intelligence to drive its more proportionate, yet more targeted, system of inspection.
He believes heads and teachers also value the directed support they receive from councils; with assessment for learning taking centre stage in Curriculum for Excellence, teachers need the expertise available from QIOs.
But that view is only partly endorsed by Greg Dempster, general secretary of the Association of Headteachers and Deputes in Scotland. He says his members have "mixed" views about the value of QIOs.
"Some headteachers," he adds, "have had a very positive experience with supportive QIOs, where strong relationships have developed and valued support and advice has been received, particularly at times of HMIE inspection and in terms of support in difficult situations.
"However, often the experience has been that QIOs create work for schools and school leaders as well as restricting their freedom to make decisions about their own establishments," he says.
"Some (heads), where the number of QIOs has already reduced, are finding they can act more quickly in situations since they are no longer second- guessing a QIO or waiting for their instructions."
On balance, his members are not likely to mourn the reduction in QIO numbers but are wary about two things, he comments: the first is the expectations that may be placed on them instead of QIOs; the second is what the remaining QIOs will be able to contribute in a reduced service.
As far as the education authorities are concerned, Ken Greer, chair of the quality improvement network for the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland, says quality improvement is central to what they do: "If an education authority does not have a quality improvement role, then it does not have a role."
He believes, as head of education in Fife and a former HMIE inspector, that the support role of the local authority quality improvement services has grown since 2000, when the inspectorate became an agency and started, in his view, to focus more on inspection than on its more traditional role of support.
Drew Morrice of the EIS argues that if you remove QIOs from schools, you also diminish what schools are capable of doing.
"The QI service is part of the council, rather than of schools, but if you remove that support and challenge function, you raise a further question about the ability of councils to be responsive and to generate change for the system," he says.
"If you remove QIOs from education delivery, you raise a further question about the capacity of a council to run schools."
So why have councils running schools, he asks. If the QIO service is a key justification for local authorities retaining their education function, he finds it ironic that councils are hastily snipping away at the very justification for their existence.
One difficulty is that every authority has its own template for how QIOs should function, which in itself could be a threat to the service.
Gordon Currie, head of education at East Dunbartonshire, has had to slim down his improvement service, although not as radically as some. His authority carried out a structural review which puts him in charge of three education officers, one of whom has responsibility for quality improvement and, in turn, leads eight QIOs aligned to each of the authority's secondary schools and their associated primaries, with nurseries to come into the fold soon. A ninth QIO is responsible for private and voluntary sector nurseries.
He sees QIOs as crucial at this time, when more responsibility is reverting to local authorities to monitor how schools are attaining. He believes a QIO's duties should include everything from transition management planning, to getting Curriculum for Excellence established and carrying out internal benchmarking. His QIOs still have subject remits, although teachers now carry more responsibility for developing curriculum resources.
In Glasgow, QIOs have traditionally been curriculum leaders - or the wielders of "death by a thousand folders", as Maureen McKenna, head of education, puts it.
Glasgow is one of the authorities which has made the biggest cuts to its improvement service in recent years - down from 32 in 2009 to 25. But Mrs McKenna believes it can cut no more.
"Glasgow has a high need of pastoral support for heads because of the deprivation factor, so I am very conscious that I have many headteachers for whom QIOs are a very valuable support and a critical friend - more in the primary and early years than secondary," she says.
"I have very much listened to heads' views on this, and although I have reduced the service and this year have lost four who will not be replaced, I think I am now at a tipping point."
For QIOs, the new Government's policies on everything from local government reorganisation to devolved school management and implementation of the Donaldson report on teacher education will now tip the balance - one way or the other.
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