First casualty in war of words

16th February 2001 at 00:00
The first monitoring of local authorities by HMI has left at least one licking its wounds, reports David Henderson.

East Dunbartonshire has achieved a notoriety it would rather avoid by becoming the first casualty of the tough new statutory monitoring of local authorities by Her Majesty's Inspectors.

Sam Galbraith, the former Education Minister and local MSP who introduced mandatory inspections last year, said: "I always suspected there was a problem. Once again, it shows complacency at the top in Scottish education, although I know the authority has taken steps to remedy this," he told The TES Scotland.

The inspectors do not spare their criticism. The authority lacks vision, leadership and good management, and relationships with some secondary heads are described as "strained and sometimes acrimonious".

It receives no plaudits in either the very good or good category and most of its operations are said, at best, to be only fair. Three key aspects are said to havemajor weaknesses and are deemed unsatisfactory.

Jack McConnell, the Education Minister, described the East Dunbartonshire report as "very worrying". The council will submit an action plan to him by April 10.

The verdict on the authority, led by a minority Liberal Democrat administration, will leave others due to receive HMI visits in no doubt about the determination of inspectors to subject education departments to full public scrutiny.

Mr Galbraith announced the new regime last August with the aim of inspecting all authorities within five years. This week, he restated that authority inspections were "the most significant feature" of the education Act he introduced last summer.

Vicki Nash, council chief executive, largely accepted the HMIs' criticism as "a fair reflection" of its education work. But she points out in a line-by-line analysis of the report that key personnel and structural changes have taken place since the inspectors visited last autumn. Sue Bruce, the strategic director in charge of community services, including education, took office last August. She replaced Ian Mills, former education director, who failed to secure his job in a restructured department last spring.

Ms Bruce said: "This report is a tool for moving forward and not standing back and complaining."

Officials are now to convene an action plan within eight weeks to tackle the shortcomings and will involve stakeholders across the service, something they did not do before,according to the inspectors.

While Ms Nash accepts the HMI verdict, she points to mitigating factors, not least several years of successive budget cuts to keepwithin government spending targets. East Dunbartonshire still receives the lowest per capita funding even after this year's more generous settlement.

"One of the key issues throughout the life of East Dunbartonshire is that inspection reports and Accounts Commission reports show that our schools are performing well and they are an integral part of the authority," Ms Bruce states.

The council is "disappointed" that it never received due acknowledgement by the inspectors for its progress in pre-fives' work. It is the only authority in Scotland to offer 100 per cent provision for three and four-year-olds, starting from the lowest base in the country.

WHAT THOSE HMI CRITICS SAID IN DETAIL

The most scathing comments from HMI are reserved for vision, leadership and management, and policy development.

East Dunbartonshire had been "slow in establishing a clear and distinctive vision for education" and - four years after being set up - school boards were unable to identify vision, values or aims for education. Stakeholders felt the authority was "visionless".

The inspectors add: "There was no consensus about, or sense of ownership of, the direction of the service and no means of evaluating success in its work. Establishments largely developed their own aims in isolation from each other and from the authority."

The criticism continues: "Despite routine business being taken forward in a mainly satisfactory way, the leadership and management of education within the council had been unsatisfactory."

Management had been too reactive and therefore slow to tackle major strategic issues; there was a failure to define roles and expectations and in key areas there was little sense of partnership with schools. In some secondaries, "a relationship of trust" had broken down. The council responds by pointing out it only has nine secondaries and that the breakdown should have been quantified.

Among other comments, the inspectors say that heads of service did not work as a team.

The council had failed to deploy its staff to its central functions of quality assurance and school improvement.

The elements said to be unsatisfactory are vision, values and aims; effectiveness of leadership and management; and mechanisms for consultation.

FE Focus - page 26


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