When a granny announces she is a former pupil of yours, you know you've probably seen it all - you'll certainly have lived through most cycles of educational change. But whether you're an ancient mariner like me or a raw recruit, the heightened expectation of an inspector calling sends a certain frisson through the metabolism. The HMI (which became HMIE in Scotland in 2001) descended on my own school in 1999, five years into my post as head - long enough not to be able to blame my predecessor or to argue for more time. We were ready though, and we looked on their coming as an opportunity to test our own judgments against national, professional standards.
Like all Scottish schools, we already had access to a suite of "quality" indicators ("performance" indicators back then) and had used them to judge where we thought we were and to plan where we wanted to go. We had canvassed a range of opinions in the process, including media contacts, HMI themselves, advisers, universities, crucially parents and pupils, and the local and wider community, and, of course, our staff. It was all made much easier with a staff whose basic agenda was raising expectations and achievements of children: get that right, the rest will follow.
HMI did indeed confirm our prognosis, rated us very good or good in most aspects and identified for us the areas where they thought we could do better. The building came in for the worst criticism. We fundamentally agreed on where we wanted to go. Back then, the process was simple - they would return in around a year and see how we were progressing with our action plan, formed in co-operation with the local authority.
But the revisit 18 months later was complicated by our merging with another secondary and operating off two sites while awaiting significant refurbishment. With HMI convinced that the building issue was being addressed and that we had made major inroads into the key action points while amalgamating two schools, they signed us off with appreciation of the work the staff had done.
Since then we have had three visits from the now HMIE; one to enquire about the McCrone settlement on teachers' conditions of service, and two for good practice in social inclusion and race equality. This is another side of HMIE's work; investigating progress in key government initiatives and identifying and spreading good practice. We have also just had an authority triennial review, carried out by its own officers. This highlights key quality indicators giving a balanced view of the work of the school generally, as well as targeting those indicators relating to current national priorities. Again, this was geared to confirming - or otherwise - our own self-evaluation. It was helpful, though time-consuming, because, as we tried to raise our game as a new school, we needed an external view of our progress.
We will assess our current improvement plan to take account of issues that surfaced in that review and when HMIE visit us again for a full inspection (now every six years), I hope the school will again be looking for confirmation, or in the words of the Scottish self-evaluation bible, "How good is our school?" Under recent changes, depending on the success of the visit, HMIE may not wish to return to assess progress. If that is so, it will mean they recognise the school as one that is self-improving, requiring little additional support to keep moving forward.
All sweetness and light then? Far from it. There is still a lot of pressure and paperwork, though less than previously. There are still challenges to the final report, but usually the authority, HMIE and school agree suitable wording. There still is no consensus that the latest legislation giving the Executive additional powers to send HMIE into severely underperforming schools is necessary or desirable. But critically, what has helped has been the addition to HMIE teams of associate assessors, themselves current practitioners, who bring a particular dimension to the inspection and, in Scotland, lay inspectors, who are usually particularly focused and helpful.
But who watches the watchmen? I suppose the evaluations from schools and authorities; the pressure from teacher and headteacher associations when it goes belly up; and, for sure, the watchful eye of the nation's press. Screw-ups do not make comfortable reading for school or government. If the agenda is the attainment, achievement and nurture of our young people, schools, authority and government should be working together to achieve that - not driving each other apart. Without being complacent, the combination of sound self-evaluation materials, flexibly applied; the supportively critical role of HMIE; and an equally supportive, responsive authority should provide a triangle of intelligent accountability that serves our young people for some years to come.
Ken Cunningham is head of Hillhead high school, Glasgow