IN WHAT will inevitably be seen as creating a "MacOFSTED", the Education Minister has decided to hive off the bulk of the schools inspectorate into a separate executive agency and strip HMI of its lead role in policy development.
Jack McConnell believes that, whatever the actual reality, the perception has grown that HMI sits astride a blurred line in which it is seen as judge and jury of policies which it has helped to formulate. After just a few weeks in the job, he has quickly realised that this is inhibiting the dialogue he wishes to have with teachers, parents and others.
The mainstream inspectorate will henceforth concentrate exclusively on inspection as a semi-autonomous agency within government, with effect from December 1. They will be expected to make the same robust public criticisms of national policies where required, as the reports from the chief inspector of prisons invariably do. Mr McConnell's speedy move, announced in a statement to Parliament yesterday, will be interpreted as a slap in the face for Douglas Osler, the head of the inspectorate, who has always prized the insights which he believes policy involvement has brought to inspection, and vice versa.
Mr Osler nonetheless welcomed the shake-up, in which he will lead the inspection agency, until his anticipated retirement in 2002, along with Graham Donaldson, one of the two deputes. Colin McLean, the other depute, will be absorbed along with a small inspectorate core into the Scottish Executive Education Department.
"I welcome the Minister's decision to grant agency status to HM Inspectors of Schools," Mr Osler said after the announcement. "It is right to review our role in post-devolution Scotland. This change will strengthen the independence of inspection and reporting and lead to a fresh clarification of the inspectorate's relationship with Ministers and the rest of the Scottish Executive Education Department."
Although this will be greeted with scepticism, the Department insists that "this is being done with Douglas, not to Douglas". The move nonetheless anticipateswhat is expected to be a hard-hitting report from the Parliament's education committee on the HMI leadership of the Higher Still reforms, which are seen to have made such a damaging contribution to the summer exam results fiasco.
Officials say, however, that this should not be seen as a judgment on how HMI handled this and other controversial initiatives such as the 5-14 curriculum and primary testing. "It should be seen as questioning the appropriateness of a group of people with a core function, inspection, being drawn to perform other tasks which are not part of their core function," one official said. The split "would help to make clear that ministers are not receiving two competing streams of advice."
The Executive is also adamant that there is no intention of creating an Office for Standards in Education in Scotland to follow the controversial inspection regime in England. OFSTED is separate from the Department for Education and Employment in Whitehall and has no responsibility to ministers, neither of which will apply in Scotland.
Calls for a clear separation of the HMI roles of policy advice and inspection grew into a crescendo when inspection reports pronounced critically on teachers' performance in implementing national programmes which schools saw as flawed. These were principally modern languages in 1998 and three reports on writing, science and maths issued together last December.
The Educational Institute of Scotland issued a vitriolic condemnation at the end of last year alleging that the inspectorate had moved from "a culture of support to a culture of blame." Sam Galbraith, the former Education Minister, found himself having to insist repeatedly that "ministers make policy, not HMI".
Mr McConnell, having impressed with his swift moves to sort out the exam results debacle and to simplify the national priorities for education, will now win warm words from the unions and education directorate for refocusing the remit of the inspectorate.
He will need the resulting political capital: he might have to spend some of it very shortly on preventing the post-McCrone negotiations from running into the sand.
Leader, page 16