Education Secretary calls for inspection shake-up

26th February 2010 at 00:00
Michael Russell: Time to look afresh at the system after expressing recent doubts over `intrusion'

Original paper headline: Education Secretary calls for shake-up of inspection process

The Education Secretary has called for a "refreshing and renewing" of the inspection process. Michael Russell, speaking in Edinburgh on Tuesday, has asked Bill Maxwell, the new senior chief inspector of education, to take the lead.

In a carefully chosen passage of a wide-ranging speech on education, Mr Russell said: "Inspection has the ability to be a very positive force in Scottish education but, like everything else, it needs to be reassessed in the context of Curriculum for Excellence and in the light of our changed society. The time has come to look afresh at the balance between self- assessment and external inspections."

The Education Secretary plans to host an event next month, based on Chatham House rules of confidentiality, in which he will bring together inspectors and the inspected to swap experiences of the process and point a way forward.

In his January interview with The TESS, Mr Russell expressed concern at the "intrusion" that was often the experience of schools during an inspection, particularly small schools.

"Inspection is meant to be supportive, and should be supportive," he said then. "I think they (HMIE) are still not there."

One new approach could be through an extension of "validated self- evaluation". This was piloted in East Lothian and has since been undertaken in Perth and Kinross and Orkney. It requires an education authority to evaluate itself, which includes seeking the views of headteachers and parents. The result is then validated by HMIE.

It was highly successful, according to Don Ledingham, the director of education and children's services in East Lothian, and the council now hoped to try out this process in schools. It already has one secondary and its primary schools volunteering to take part in an evaluation of their work, which the authority will then examine.

The hope is that the amount of inspection can be reduced and that the process will not take so long.

The same Edinburgh conference also heard from John Stodter, the general secretary of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland, that there must be a move away from inspecting every single school. Instead, there should be a "differentiated" approach: the 80 per cent of schools that were doing well according to agreed benchmarks should simply be monitored and inspected less, while more effort and resource should go into the 20 per cent that were doing less well.

Ken Cunningham, general secretary of School Leaders Scotland, agreed there was over-inspection - by HMIE, the education authority and the schools themselves. He suggested external inspection was necessary but led by a small central core of inspectors, while the local authorities should carry out the vast bulk of inspections "because nobody knows their schools as well as they do".

One of the most vocal critics of the present inspection system, Niall McKinnon, the headteacher of Plockton Primary, condemned "the culture of judgmentalism in Scottish education: the biggest challenge we face is the accountability of accountability".

But he was told by Graham Donaldson, the former head of the inspectorate, that "the vast majority of inspection reports on schools are affirmatory".

An electronic poll at the conference, which consisted of a wide range of the education community, prompted surprise when 56 per cent agreed that inspections they were aware of had "got it right." The present system of HMIE reporting and school self-evaluation was voted the best way to keep an eye on school performance.


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