Challenges are needed for development, but support is necessary to sustain improvement. The difficulty education inspectors face is getting the balance right, writes Douglas Blane
A key tenet of modern education and management theory is that challenge alone is inadequate to bring about improvement. While being pushed, learners need support too.
Walking the high-wire between challenge and support, as learners develop and their needs evolve, is a key teaching and management skill - whether it applies to teachers with their pupils, education authorities with their schools or HM Inspectorate of Education with the authorities it has to inspect in the wake of the Standards in Scotland's Schools etc Act 2000.
The tricky balancing act is the theme of this weekend's annual conference of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland. Three years on from the Act's mandate, there is a feeling that HM inspectors should provide more support to schools and authorities, says Ken Greer, the senior education manager in Fife and a former inspector, who will be speaking at the conference on the different roles of HMIE and education authorities.
East Dunbartonshire was one of the first authorities to be subjected to an HMIE inspection. "Authorities around Scotland knew they were going to be challenged by the inspectors in the same way as individual schools had been challenged for years," says Sue Bruce, who only a few months before the inspection was appointed strategic director for community services, a post that covers education, housing, social work and culture. "The report hit our desks on February 14 and was the worst St Valentine's Day mail any of us had seen."
The long list of quality indicators judged as either unsatisfactory or only fair came as a shock to the authority, whose good school results had painted a rosy picture of education as a "high performing, smooth running and successful service".
"All of us working here spent about 24 hours feeling angry and bruised," says Ms Bruce. "Then we decided we were going to show them we could sort it out. It brought everybody together and created a lot of positive energy.
"We were given eight weeks to produce an action plan, which we did after analysing every word of the report and its wide-ranging recommendations."
After the inspectors dropped their bombshell, Ms Bruce at first felt that more support might have been forthcoming. "A big concern was that we might develop a plan we thought was good and put all our efforts into it and then the inspectors would come back a year later and say 'Sorry guys, you've been going in completely the wrong direction'," she says.
This concern was so great that when the inspectorate made its hands-off position clear, East Dunbartonshire sought feedback on its plan from the Scottish Executive. Informal comment that big errors in concept or direction would have been remarked upon enabled the authority to proceed.
The authority then approached the education consultants Learning Unlimited to work with them as external moderators, explains Ms Bruce. "We needed to make sure we didn't get carried away with the detail of what we were doing, because it was such a huge programme and the pace of change was so fast.
"Their job was to act as a sounding board and to stick pins in us periodically. It worked very well."
At the heart of the improvement process was the support generated from within as everyone worked towards an agreed set of goals.
"We consulted teachers, headteachers, school boards, unions. We consulted on targets and policies. We consulted beyond our own directorate. There was a real rush of commitment from everyone, which has stayed the pace.
Consultation is key to the way we work, then and now."
The inspectors returned to provide interim progress notes. Then, two years after the first visit, they carried out a full follow-up inspection and wrote a report that gave the authority smiles all round.
Progress and achievement were noted in all areas. A vision, values and aims for education had been formulated and were widely understood. Educational roles and responsibilities were clear. There was consultation and communication with all the parties involved. Planning for improvement set a framework for meeting national priorities and senior officers had clear expectations of continuing improvements in schools.
"It is really a question of the role of an education authority," says Ms Bruce. "Our schools had been unclear how they fitted into the authority and what it could do for them. The clarity of roles and responsibilities, which I believe is vital, wasn't there.
"You need strong headteachers who know their roles and responsibilities, strong directors and heads of service who know their roles and responsibilities, strong classroom teachers who know their roles and responsibilities. When all that is in place, people go into work knowing what they are doing. They have a framework in which growth is encouraged and there is scope for innovation and flair."
Looking back two years to the absence of inspectorate support on implementing detailed plans, Ms Bruce says: "It was a first time for all of us and the scrutiny was on the inspectorate as much as on the authority. No doubt they have since refined the process.
"But they did not just come in and barge all over us and walk away.
District inspectors have continued to work with us since the follow-up.
"I would like to think that the whole experience, and the way we in East Dunbartonshire handled it, was informative and helpful to the inspectorate.
It was to us."
Ken Greer says: "Inspectors are now moving to work more closely with education authorities in following through rather than following up inspections."
This closer engagement with authorities and schools - "in proportion to the perceived need for improvement" - is intended to exploit the inspectors'
wealth of knowledge of good education practice garnered across the country.
But he urges caution. "HMIE should certainly offer advice on good practice, but I would argue that they should remain at arms' length," he says. He fears that if the demarcation of responsibilities becomes fuzzy, the system's role in continuing to improve education could be impaired, with inspectors reviewing the quality of their own advice, not the extent to which it is taken on board.
The proposal to give Ministers powers of last resort to intervene "where education authorities do not make improvements recommended by school inspectors" and ensure action by the authorities simply plugs a gap, says the Education Minister, Peter Peacock.
However, as the experience of East Dunbartonshire demonstrates, criticisms by inspectors tend to have a galvanising effect.
"I read the press coverage of the draft Bill with some bemusement," says Mr Greer, "because if relations had got so bad that legislation had to be invoked, there would be major questions about what the authority was doing anyway. As a senior manager in an education authority, I am fairly relaxed about its implications."