HMIE needs to share power

18th September 2009 at 01:00

Schools and education services need to be held accountable to the public they serve. Such logic is inescapable and leads countries to create national bodies to inspect and audit services to ensure that high standards are maintained and that society gets value from money. In Scotland, we are fortunate to have an internationally-respected body in the form of Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Education to fulfil such a function.

Yet the inspectionaudit landscape is under inspection itself, following on from the Crerar review which considered how we might reduce the burden of inspection in terms of running costs - and more importantly - in terms of the repeated forms of inspectionaudit imposed on public bodies.

It is with this in mind that I would like to explore the potential of an alternative system for inspectionevaluation that closes the "accountability gap" between the serviceschool being inspected and those who use it.

If we consider existing inspection formats, the "gap" between the users and the service is filled by the inspection body which undertakes to scrutinise the service "on behalf" of the public who pay for and use the service. Good inspectionsevaluations make significant use of evidence gathered from such user groups, and organisational self-evaluation will often engage in productive 360-degree exercises which gather evidence from a wide range of "stakeholders".

But what if we could develop a model whereby the users were more involved than simply being "consulted"? What if they were helping make judgments about its quality?

Of course, those of us involved in the delivery of public services can see many problems arising from such an initiative. These would centre on the reliability of non-professionals' judgments; issues of fairness and objectivity; potential for abuses of power; small interest groups having a disproportionate effect on a judgment (and subsequent direction of travel); and the potential for bullying or intimidation of staff.

In addition, there would be queries about the burden such an expectation might place on those stakeholders who might be interested in participating. These would arise from the need for time to be given for training; the pressure to present a positive picture of a local service; the fear that a negative judgment on quality could backfire on them as users; and the possible stress that engagement in such a process could engender.

Much of this is informed by our positive experience of engaging with a wide range of stakeholders to evaluate the quality of the education service in East Lothian. Over two months, we supported the involvement of heads, many elected members, representatives from unions, and a significant number of parents and young people.

The key to the success of the initiative was the contribution made by HMIE to develop our competence to engage in rigorous self-evaluation. Such a model empowers a local community to judge the effectiveness of a local service - as opposed to taking it out of their hands. In such a way, it builds capacity and an on-going improvement process which goes far beyond the traditional "snap-shot" external inspection.

Our hope over the year is that some schoolscommunities will volunteer to participate. The role of the authority would be to offer support and build local capacity to undertake rigorous stakeholder evaluation of the quality of education being provided.

The reward for such participation would be a reduction in the authority's external scrutiny of the school throughout the year and, importantly, an improvement agenda arising from the process which is focused and benefits from the shared ownership of the entire community.

Don Ledingham is acting director of education and children's services in East Lothian.

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