A new system of scrutiny is essential to ensure HMI cannot act as judge, jury and executioner, says Fred Forrester
ONE of the significant changes to the Standards in Scotland's Schools etc Act was made at the instigation of the Parliament's education, culture and sport committee. The proposed code of practice for HMI in inspections of education authorities was extended to cover all inspections. Clearly lobbying by teacher unions and the publicity surrounding the inspection of Musselburgh Grammar persuaded MSPs that the Inspectorate was over-influential and lacking in accountability.
There is still, however, a need for fundamental reappraisal of HMI's role. It should take place in the context of the Act, which is intended to give education authorities and individual schools responsibility for maintaining and improving standards.
In recent years HMI has introduced new forms of inspection with minimal consultation and little notice. Standard inspection was introduced as a means of reconciling the demand for more frequent visits with limitations imposed by staffing. Because it was thought too limited in scope, it is being replaced by a "standards and quality" inspection. These changes, which were presented as technical, had considerable implications for schools and teachers.
Two years ago a completely new form of inspection was announced without consultation. Because of well-publicised cases of child abuse in residential schools and of serious bullying in schools (leading in one instance to the suicide of a pupil), HMI would carry out "care and welfare" inspections. These would be unannounced. The inspectors would simply turn up at the door.
This procedure is far removed from standard inspection, which is announced about two months in advance, where the actual inspection is preceded by a "profile visit". Unannounced inspection arose from the fear that there would be a "cover up" in a case of suspected child abuse or bullying. Fair-minded people might regard this as acceptable in the particular circumstances of child abuse or systematic bullying, especially in a residential setting such as a school hostel. But the Inspectorate was unwilling to restrict the new procedure to these circumstances.
In a throwaway remark at a meeting with Educational Institute of Scotland representatives, Douglas Osler, the senior chief inspector, said that there was a group within the Inspectorate who believed that unannounced visits should become the norm and who wished to use care and welfare inspection as a pilot. To be fair, it was also indicated that this proposal was opposed by some HMIs.
Musselburgh Grammar was the first secondary school to be subjected to "mainstream" unannounced inspection. I mean by this that it has no residential unit and there had been no accusations of child abuse or systematic bullying. Several other secondary schools underwent the same process in the spring of last ear.
Attempts by the EIS to discover what would trigger an unannounced inspection were unsuccessful. We were assured that HMI did not act on the basis of a tip-off or an unsubstantiated parental complaint. The impression given was that these inspections took place on a random basis, but this is hard to believe. It it likely that the choice of Musselburgh Grammar was due to a belief by some HMI that all was not well in the school.
So the school had an unannounced inspection at what Terry Christie, the headteacher, has said was a low point in regard to community trouble spilling into the school's precincts. The inspectors witnessed a brawl at the school entrance. Matters were made worse by the extraordinary publicity which accompanied the report. There is evidence of unofficial briefing by Scottish Executive officials at which the phrase "the worst school in Scotland" emerged.
Musselburgh did not in fact differ from similar comprehensives in the east of Scotland. Its buildings had serious deficiencies which, thanks to significant investment, are now being put right. It did not have adequate arrangements for dealing with pupils having emotional and behavioural difficulties. A support base for such pupils has now been created.
There were staff communication and management difficulties. All comprehensive schools have these problems to some degree. Musselburgh was singled out because of the vagaries of a new inspection procedure and not because of any objective consideration of the quality of the education provided in it. Its results are consistently good and its extracurricular activities, including sport, highly regarded by the townspeople and by other schools in the area. Mr Christie and his staff have every reason to be aggrieved, although they have done their best to conceal their true feelings.
There is now a crisis in confidence in the Inspectorate in the minds of teachers throughout Scotland. This was evident at the EIS's conference in June. Speaker after speaker recounted bad experiences of inspections. A body which was once looked upon as part of the profession is now regarded as a hostile presence.
The cause of the malaise is that the Inspectorate has a dual role as a quality assurance agency and the formulator of government policies. The latter role has always existed but has become much more prominent in the past two decades. So the inspectors are now seen as going into schools to police the delivery of Inspectorate policies - the so-called judge, jury and executioner effect.
A solution lies in the separation of quality assurance from policy formulation by establishing a separate Scottish Schools Quality Assurance Agency, at arm's length from the Executive. As for "care and welfare inspection", it should be quietly forgotten and the wounds allowed to heal.
Fred Forrester is former depute general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland.