Call to bolster heads
In a sombre and reflective talk to last week's national conference on continuing professional development, Glenn Rodger said the death of Irene Hogg, who was the headteacher of Glendinning Terrace Primary in Galashiels, shook his department to the core.
He commented: "Was there anything we could have done? How did we support our headteachers? There is never one answer - it's never 'just work' - but we have been reflecting."
HMIE should also reflect, said Mr Rodger. "There is a place for external evaluation to look into what the authority is doing and what schools are doing. I don't have a problem with that. But there is an issue about the impact HMIE sometimes has on a school in terms of anxiety, and there's a need to see if there are ways of alleviating that."
Mr Rodger said he had held meetings with headteachers in his authority to find out how the council could better support them.
In the wake of Miss Hogg's death, he took "three days out" and talked to 10 heads each day. Some headteachers were in tears, he said, because they keep things "bottled up" and "have to be seen to be leaders but underneath might be in turmoil".
The "clear message" that came out of the meetings, according to Mr Rodger, was that the "challenging agenda" had gone too far and the council's quality improvement team was, in the eyes of head-teachers, becoming an extension of HMIE. He added: "The danger we face is doing less of the supportive work and more of the challenging role," he said.
In some local authorities, there was too much challenge and no support, according to Greg Dempster, general secretary of the Association of Headteachers and Deputes in Scotland.
"It is extremely important for quality improvement officers to know the schools in their area and to take a formative approach in any work they do, suggesting areas for improvement but working with the school to achieve that.
"It is a criticism often levelled at HMIE that they make statements in reports such as 'leadership is weak', but don't say in what way or how it can be rectified."
Mr Rodger suggested one answer could lie in developing "learning communities" to stop headteachers from becoming isolated and allow them to "share and speak out". Sometimes, it might be appropriate to offer headteachers mentoring beyond the first five years in the job, he suggested.
Good quality professional review and development for headteachers should also be in place, not just "a nice conversation about areas for development".
In the Borders, the authority was using "distributed leadership" - leadership at all levels of an organisation - to enhance the support available for schools. Senior heads, said Mr Rodger, were being given the opportunity to take on a "broader leadership role", getting involved in peer reviews and complaints investigation.
He added: "They get a different perspective, work in a different environment and engage with the practices in another school. The heads that have done it thoroughly enjoyed the experience."