Good, but it could be better

24th February 2006 at 00:00
HMIE launched a landmark report on 'Improving Scottish Education' at a major conference on Tuesday. Elizabeth Buie analyses the first assessment to encompass pre-fives through to lifelong learning

Scotland's senior chief inspector of schools has thrown down the gauntlet to the education community to step up a gear in improving learning and teaching, self-evaluation processes and leadership.

In what was effectively HMIE's "state of the nation" report, Graham Donaldson gave praise where he felt it was due, but warned of important weaknesses across all sectors.

According to inspectors, the key strengths of the system included the level of achievement of many learners, the overall quality of the curriculum, learning and teaching, and the quality of staff and their genuine commitment to young people.

But Mr Donaldson put the professionals on notice that they had to raise their game. "In too many cases, there is an unacceptable variation in the quality of learning and teaching across classes," he said. Many youngsters do not develop the required "competences, capabilities and values".

In a comment that reflects the tensions between inspectors and inspected, Mr Donaldson noted: "The challenge for inspection and other systems of accountability is to promote creativity and well-judged innovation without losing focus on standards, quality and effectiveness."

He acknowledged that "space is needed for imaginative teaching which can make learning relevant, lively and motivating".

The inspectorate chief also appeared to empathise with critics of "innovation fatigue" when he took a swipe at "the number and variety of national and local initiatives (which) represents a considerable challenge to those who provide education", and said that "sensible prioritisation has been difficult to achieve".

The inspectorate's underlying theme in all sectors of education was the need for schools and others to be more self-critical and analytical about performance, as well as the need to demand more from learners.

Mr Donaldson called for a reassertion of the professional roles and responsibilities of teachers, and a focus on leadership which still showed important weaknesses across all formal education sectors. He described a professional approach as "embracing innovation, taking responsibility for personal performance and development, and encouraging and supporting each young person as an individual".

The curriculum review needed to define clearly "those elements which should form part of every young person's education, irrespective of perceived ability, social background or school attended".

Mr Donaldson twice underlined the importance of all pupils being the focus of activities that are often taken to be directed only at the less able pupils.

These included an emphasis on being literate and numerate, even for those who intended to go on to higher education, and on every pupil having access to vocational education, which should not be seen as an alternative to "academic education".

Mr Donaldson drew attention to the variable performance of education authorities and noted that "some have much work to do to match the standards of the best". An HMIE report on this will be issued shortly.

He acknowledged, however, that "some problems or weaknesses are deep-seated and may appear intractable. It is essential that any such problems are identified at an early stage and necessary action is taken before they can impact so directly on the learners involved."

* Next week: HMIE on lifelong learning.

Leader 22

What works

HMIE's prescription for sustained improvement is a recognition by all staff that there is a need for improvement and that improvement is possible.

"When staff accept advice and support positively and commit themselves to collaborating actively in the change process, there is likely to be a very positive impact," the report states.

"Giving learning and teaching the highest priority results in improvements in ethos, behaviour and outcomes for learners."

The report adds that, where inspection has identified weak or unsatisfactory provision and overall cause for concern, the key to progress has often been "a transformation in leadership" - either by a change of headteacher or by a change in the approach of the headteacher in post. In either case, what works is fresh insight, the building of new relationships and partnerships, the introduction of improvement strategies and shared leadership under the overall direction of the headteacher.

The report highlights other "signposts" to how schools and education centres can improve:

* Increase levels of visibility of senior staff around the establishment.

* Revise remits for senior staff, allowing them to focus more on learning and teaching.

* Access and apply relevant good practice from other sources.

* Focus on improvements to learning and teaching.

* Improve whole-establishment systems for communication.

* Particularly in the schools sector, ensure consistent responses to behaviour issues, adopt positive behaviour strategies and recognise the links with the curriculum, learning contexts and learning activities.

* Devolve more decision-making to drive forward improvement initiatives.

* Strengthen self-evaluation systems, processes and outcomes.

* Engage learners in the improvement process.

* Concentrate on improvement activities which are outcome-directed, manageable and achievable.

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