The fist in HMI's velvet glove;Interview;Bill Clark

15th October 1999 at 01:00
Neil Munro meets a standards hitman with different plans north of the border

BILL CLARK is not keen on translating into Scotland his experience of picking up the pieces from education authority inspections south of the border.

Mr Clark, the new chief inspector in charge of HMI's audit unit, worked closely with "failing" authorities to help turn them round. He also helped others draw up the education development plans all councils have been statutorily required to do since April.

He therefore arrives at a uniquely opportune time as the Scottish Executive moves to enshrine education authority inspections in the Education Bill.

The high-profile casualties from inspections by the Office for Standards in Education, which have led to the sacking of Liverpool's entire directorate except for one official, will add to the wariness in the Scottish directorate.

As senior education adviser in the standards and effectiveness unit of the Department for Education and Employment, it was Mr Clark's job to follow up OFSTED reports on authorities. A condition of receiving DFEE support can be the removal of the director.

Aged 52, he worked particularly closely with the London borough of Hackney where Liz Reid, recently arrived from Edinburgh as director of education, was forced to hand over the authority's school improvement and ethnic minority achievement services to the private Nord Anglia education agency in a pound;1.2 million, two-year deal.

Islington's entire central education service has been privatised in a contract worth pound;15 million a year for seven years, also won by Nord Anglia. Liverpool is likely to suffer the same fate. But these are the only cases of privatisation so far out of 40 English authorities inspected. The remaining 110 are due to be scrutinised by 2001.

Mr Clark does not envisage similar headlines in Scotland. "I can understand why they moved in that direction in England," he says, "because there is such a huge variation in performance among authorities. But real problems are beginning to emerge, largely because it is such an immature market. Even quite big companies will struggle to provide a quality service which will make the difference that is required.

"I don't imagine for a moment that all 32 Scottish education authorities are performing equally well or to the same standard. On the other hand, I don't believe there are any Hackneys or Islingtons in Scotland. My impression is that the variation in performance is much less dramatic than it is in England."

Mr Clark certainly does not envisage presiding over privatisations. "We would want to enter into discussions with an authority about the findings of a report and how improvements can be made, perhaps using expertise from other authorities where there is demonstrably good practice.

"On the other hand, if an education authority is not delivering the required service to the standards that its community expects, there is no God-given right which says it must continue."

The Education Bill will usher in the same practice for authorities as in school inspections. An action plan will be drawn up if weaknesses are identified and HMI will pay a follow-up visit within two years.

Ministers have made it clear, however, that they want inspections to be a collaborative effort. They have tried to allay criticism that the Inspectorate has no knowledge of how education authorities work by stipulating that at least one member of each inspection team must be a senior professional from another authority acting as a "peer assessor". Mr Clark, meanwhile, has been set a cracking pace - all 32 authorities must be inspected within five years of the Bill passing into law.

He is particularly concerned that inspections should not focus narrowly on education departments but, where necessary, on the contribution of finance, personnel and other central services to the effectiveness - or otherwise - of the authority.

Mr Clark says it is important to shine the spotlight on local councillors as well as officials. In all the cases where the DFEE had to intervene following an adverse OFSTED inspection, "the role of elected members was as critical to the underperformance as was that of the officials".

His other preoccupation in England was to help authorities draw up development plans. These have to be approved by the Education Secretary and failure to submit one that is satisfactory triggers intervention from the DFEE and an OFSTED inspection. The plans there are precisely designed to ensure authorities have strategies to support school improvement, Mr Clark says. They are intended to show the authority is adding value.

The idea is similar to the "local improvement objectives" the Education Bill will require authorities to set. But this "objective-setting" in Scotland will be much more broadly based so it supports a range of national priorities and targets decreed by ministers.

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