Inspection vindicated

22nd January 2010 at 00:00
Education inspectors and council exonerated in inquiry into headteacher's suicide

Primary heads now feel much more positive about inspection. This turnaround in attitude emerged as the report on the fatal accident inquiry into the suicide of Borders headteacher Irene Hogg exonerated HMIE and Borders Council from any blame for her death.

In his determination, issued on Tuesday, Sheriff James Farrell acknowledged that Miss Hogg's death was "inextricably linked" to the outcome of the inspection of Glendinning Terrace Primary in Galashiels in March 2008. But he made no recommendations for changes to the way in which the council supported her or HMIE carried out the inspection.

Miss Hogg, 54, had been head of the school for 18 years and is believed to have reacted badly to criticisms during the inspection. Her brother, Roger Hogg, blamed the inspection and the strains of her job as a teaching head for her decision to take her own life.

But a post-inspection survey completed by members of the Association of Headteachers and Deputes in Scotland (AHDS) has disclosed that nearly 80 per cent of heads reported a positive overall experience, and many praised the inspectors for their approach. This contrasts with the 40 per cent who were positive about inspection in the report published last year on the recruitment and retention of headteachers in Scotland.

Sheriff Farrell noted that HMIE had begun to review its school inspection processes in 2006, two years before Miss Hogg's death, and had now shifted its emphasis from "inspection of the school to inspection with the school".

Last year's report on headteachers concluded: "While there is only a small amount of evidence from our study as to the impact of recent inspectorial changes, there would still appear to be room for more generous, informed, professional dialogue in respect of school self- evaluation, external scrutiny and the nature of accountability."

In its response to the outcome of the Hogg inquiry, HMIE stated: "We welcome the fact that the sheriff found no fault with the conduct of the inspection or with inspection procedures overall. Although no recommendations have been made about our work, HMIE will continue to review our processes as part of our continuing drive to improve."

Greg Dempster, general secretary of the AHDS, said: "Inspection is still a very stressful experience for many headteachers, with a significant proportion telling us about marked increases in workload and stress levels in advance of inspection. Most say stress levels come down during the inspection week. This begs the question: `Why are schools so concerned about inspection?'

"Perhaps it is due to past experience under different models, but I believe this anxiousness comes from the fact that they know their school will be given a public summative assessment based on a snapshot in time. If that HMIE snapshot is negative, accurately or not, then it turns into public humiliation for the school, with the headteacher at the centre."

Sheriff Farrell's findings also noted the considerable efforts made by Scottish Borders Council to support Miss Hogg once she had reported her growing anxieties, in particular Yvonne McCracken, head of school services, who was Miss Hogg's line manager, and Karen Gray, a quality improvement officer.

Mrs McCracken told The TESS: "There is no doubt that headship is a challenging role, and likely to become more so - although rewarding as well. My concern is that, as councils shed staff and shrink at the centre, we may not be able to continue offering heads the kind of support we have done in the past."

In its official statement, Scottish Borders Council said: "We note that the sheriff has recognised the support mechanisms we have in place for staff, and the procedures we follow in relation to HMIE inspections."

The council has now phased out teaching heads and has introduced joint headships, a move it had begun before the inspection of Glendinning in March 2008. Mr Dempster said this was one possible solution where teaching heads have been stretched too thinly, but he said it should not be seen as a "one-size-fits-all" answer.

He added: "Simply put, the management burdens of the job need to be taken into account when deciding how much teaching time it is reasonable to expect a headteacher to undertake. This may mean adjustments to the balance between teaching and management time in some areas, rather than introducing joint headships around the country.

"Joint headships are often a response to a lack of applications for vacant headteacher posts, rather than concerns about the viability of the role of teaching head."

The sheriff's full judgment can be read at


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