HMIE unveils targeted approach to inspection

25th February 2011 at 00:00
Inspectors to act as `professional coaches', while parents' complaints could spark a visit

The biggest change in school inspection in a generation is unveiled today by HMIE.

Gone are seven-yearly inspections; they are to be replaced with a more proportionate and targeted approach based on "intelligence" from parents, local authorities and other sources.

The notice required before an inspection team arrives is reduced to only two weeks, perhaps even less in future. And inspectors are to be seen more as professional coaches than "external examiners".

"We will be inspecting with schools rather than doing it to them," said Bill Maxwell, senior chief inspector.

The inspection system will become more "parent-friendly" too, Dr Maxwell told TESS.

Bespoke reports for each school will be more akin to two-page letters to parents, although a more detailed feedback report will be written for the school's senior management, with a confidential copy passed to the chair of the school's parent body.

And inspections of subject departments will be replaced with a more cross- curricular approach, focusing on literacy and numeracy across children's learning.

The new inspection framework follows a national consultation launched by Education Secretary Michael Russell, who was concerned that small school inspections in particular were disproportionately heavy-handed.

The consultation received more than 3,000 responses and will be implemented from August by the new Scottish Education Quality and Improvement Agency (Seqia) - the body created from the merger of HMIE and Learning and Teaching Scotland.

The move comes as HMIE was planning to cut its budget by 10 per cent, although its financial planning is complicated by its pending merger with LTS, which will mean a reduction in staff from both partners in the next few years.

There will be changes in tone - it will be "all about inspection for improvement", says Dr Maxwell, but there will be "more inspection where it really matters".

This direction of travel was set by his predecessor, Graham Donaldson, in 2008 when he announced a more measured, proportionate inspection regime that allowed inspectors to pull out early where they were satisfied with a school's performance.

Professional dialogue

HMIE has also been encouraged by the success of its work last autumn in secondary schools which needed support implementing Curriculum for Excellence.

Stephen Shaw, headteacher of Morgan Academy and a member of Dundee's curriculum steering group, endorsed its supportive approach after his school received a day-long visit from two inspectors last year.

"A lot of what they said confirmed our own views but when you get that confirmation from HMIE, it is always reassuring. They also gave us some ideas," he said.

Dr Maxwell stressed that HMIE's tone and attitude during inspections was very important. Its support for CfE in secondary had been "an innovative way for us, engaging in coaching mode", while 90 per cent of respondents had seen the exercise as one of professional dialogue.

That exercise should be seen as a signal to the sector as to how the new agency, Seqia, would work, he said.

The days of ranking schools in quasi-league table form, according to how many "excellent" quality indicators they receive, may also be numbered. Although a small number of QIs will still be included initially, HMIE is considering scrapping them altogether. "An over-focus on a few QIs is not over-helpful," said Dr Maxwell.

Jim Thewliss, president of School Leaders Scotland, who has been critical of HMIE for placing too much emphasis on exam attainment and too little on a school's overall achievement in the context of its catchment area, welcomed the shift in emphasis. "Our concerns are being allayed in a great many ways," he said.

Subject surveys

But both SLS and teaching union the EIS stressed that the move away from cyclical inspections to more targeted visits ran the risk of stigmatising schools undergoing inspection.

Dr Maxwell stressed that the vast majority of inspections would be part of a national sample, although some will result from "intelligence" received from parents, local authorities or district inspectors suggesting that the school's performance gives cause for concern.

Instead of inspecting four subject departments in a secondary school, as currently happens, HMIE will conduct a national programme of thematic surveys - with around three subject areas covered each year. This will involve one or two inspectors visiting about 12 schools; science will be one of the first subjects to feature.

Where to find it

What changes will the regime bring?

The new system will:

- abandon the current six-yearly and seven-yearly inspections in secondary and primary;

- strengthen and extend use of self-evaluation;

- align inspection more closely with Curriculum for Excellence;

- strengthen focus on users when carrying out inspections, giving more opportunities to parents to meet a lay inspector at different times of the day;

- reduce notice from three to two weeks;

- publish clearer, more accessible reports for parents;

- make the follow-through more clearly part of an ongoing process - where there are concerns, a more intensive inspection will follow and specialists will be brought in from different parts of Seqia;

- make inspections of rural school more streamlined and proportionate.

Big picture

Inspectors' three big questions in future

- How well are pupils achieving and how good are the outcomes?

- What is the quality of learning and teaching in the classroom?

- How effective is the school at improving itself?

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