A parent council in the Western Isles has become the first in Scotland to call in the inspectors to settle a dispute, as a leading parents' leader warns that other authorities could be flouting regulations.
Under the Parental Involvement Act 2006, parents or parent councils were given the right to "make representations to HMIE on matters of interest or concern to members of the parent forum".
Now the parent council of Castlebay Community School on Barra wants action in a row with the Western Isles Council over the appointment of the school's headteacher. The wrangle between it and the local authority dates back to a highly-critical inspection of Castlebay, a P1-S6 school with 100 pupils, published in January last year.
Pastoral care in primary was deemed to be "good" and the climate and relationships in the primary department "very good", but for most indicators the school's performance was "adequate". Meeting pupils' needs and pastoral care in the secondary department were rated "weak".
Quality of teaching across the school was "inconsistent", inspectors found. They wrote: "Across both primary and secondary departments, pupils at times learned at a suitably brisk pace. Overall, however, the pace of learning was too variable and did not result in sufficient and consistent challenge to pupils in their coursework."
In the wake of the report, headteacher David Bowman left and was replaced in November by deputy headteacher Annag MacLean, the head of the primary.
Some parents were unhappy with her appointment and more than half of the parent council members resigned in protest. The school's problems lay in the secondary, they felt, and they wanted to see a secondary specialist brought in to solve them. Someone from outside would also have been less bogged down by past difficulties, they argued.
They also claim that, while they were represented on the selection panel which made the appointment, as the legislation requires, they were not adequately involved in terms of the 2006 Act.
However, opinion in the parent council is split. Some are happy with the appointment and want to put the events behind them.
In the interim, the parent council has re-formed. Euan Scott, who has a daughter in P3 at Castlebay, is one of three joint chairs. "The grievance is with the education authority regarding the appointment procedure in terms of adherence to the new legislation," he said. "The parent council did not get a satisfactory response, and the next level is HMIE. We are seeking to resolve this issue once and for all, so the school can move on."
Western Isles Council said it had "full confidence" in the appointments process. A spokesman said: "Our view is that the legislation regarding headteacher's appointments does not actually require consultation in every case. When there is a generic job specification in use by a council, as in this case, there is simply no scope for consultation to take place with any one parent council."
But Judith Gillespie, development manager of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, dismissed this as "a spurious response from the Western Isles Council which will not hold water". She said parents from other authorities had been in contact with the SPTC claiming they had not been properly consulted on headteacher appointments; legislation requires parental consultation on the person specification and involvement in leeting as well as representation on interviewing panels.
Whether HMIE will step into the breach remains unclear. Graham Donaldson, the senior chief inspector of education, said it was still considering whether the case came within its "competence".
A follow-through inspection report on Castlebay, issued on Tuesday, said the school had made some improvements since the original report and that senior management was working well as a team. But there was still too much variation in quality and "parents are anxious for the school to improve".