Executive pledges: We won't presume to know what's best

3rd September 1999 at 01:00
Peter Peacock still has some way to go to sell mandatory inspection to the directorate, reports Neil Munro.

THE inspection of education authorities will be "genuinely collaborative", the Deputy Children and Education Minister assured directors of education last week.

Addressing a seminar on the forthcoming Education Bill run by the Association of Directors of Education, Peter Peacock said HMI would hold discussions about what constitutes a good education authority, on which the inspections would be based.

Mr Peacock added that inspection teams would include professionals from other authorities who understood how local government works. "This should not be seen as the Scottish Executive assuming it knows best," the former convener of Highland Council declared.

He added that inspection of education authorities, the cornerstone of the Bill which places new statutory duties on councils to improve standards in schools, would be regularly reviewed. The review team would be led by the head of the Scottish Executive Education Department and include two local authority chief executives, a director of education and someone with an industry background.

Mr Peacock said he would give more thought to how underperforming education authorities could be brought up to the mark.

But his assurances did not fully convince his audience. Walter Humes of Glasgow University said Mr Peacock did not mention that the review team would also include the head of the Inspectorate - "a hint there of insider dealing which is of concern".

Dr Humes disputed whether HMI could offer an "independent" external evaluation given its close relationship with ministers and central role in policy making.

Bob McKay, a past ADES president, also expressed doubts. "Despite our shared agenda of welcoming diversity, of emphasising the importance of outcomes and of focusing on the whole child, schools that have been inspected will say it's compliance not their effectiveness that is being inspected." But Mr Peacock mounted a robust defence of the role of HMI and said he did not want to see inspectors become less rigorous.

Michael O'Neill, the ADES president, said directors accepted the need to be accountable to the outside world. But he warned that there was no evidence to show external inspection led to higher achievement.

Mr O'Neill cited a study south of the border by Philip Hunter, former president of the Society of Education Officers, who found that schools which had been inspected performed no better than those which had not.

Mike McCabe, the South Ayrshire director, called for authorities to do more to support each other, sharing best practice but also revealing "the warts".

Roy Jobson, director in Edinburgh, had a bruising encounter with the OFSTED schools inspectorate when he was in charge in Manchester, and wanted to know who would inspect the inspectors. Mr Jobson also underlined the importance of holding councillors to account as well as officials.

Archie Morton, the Argyll and Bute director, emphasised the need to monitor the impact of outside forces on education authorities as well as the input from other council departments.

Alan Blackie, East Lothian's director, said authorities must use the chance offered by the Bill to bring more coherence to the growing amount of external auditing they had to face.

Despite some doubts, however, the association has generally given a warm welcome to the Bill. "There are to be no hit squads for failing schools, no privatisation through the kind of education action zones we have seen south of the border and a central role for local authorities," Mr O'Neill said.

He also endorsed the approach of setting out general duties rather than detailed prescription and guidelines rather than statutes, which would allow for local solutions to local issues.

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