"I'm delighted to be back," says Bill Maxwell, the senior chief inspector of schools. He has been earning his spurs in Wales for the past two years as head of its Estyn education inspection service, returning to take charge of HMIE at a time when inspectorates throughout the UK are being scrutinised as never before.
In his first full interview since being appointed, Dr Maxwell made it clear he sees the way forward through further self-evaluation by schools - which may or may not come as comforting news for the arch-critics of the current regime.
He will be acutely aware that, however inspection develops, Education Secretary Michael Russell is on the case. In February, he said that "the time has come to look afresh at the balance between self-evaluation and external inspection".
Dr Maxwell revealed that he and his colleagues are busy drawing up plans for the future, a cornerstone of which is likely to be a greater emphasis on "intelligence-led" inspection to target schools which are struggling, rather than what he calls "high volume" inspection. That will build on the legacy of "light touch inspection" begun under Dr Maxwell's predecessor, Graham Donaldson, and extend the kind of support which will be given to schools in the new term to help some of them implement Curriculum for Excellence.
There are precedents for this approach. Inspections of further education colleges, or "reviews" as they call them, concentrate on key aspects of attainment, learner engagement and leadership. And local authorities can opt to have "validated self-evaluation": they reach their own verdict about how they are performing and submit that to the inspectors' independent judgment; at present, the process is voluntary.
"I want to support improvement and development work in schools, incentivising innovative work through praising it and disseminating it through the system," Dr Maxwell says. "I am concerned to hear suggestions that if people do something innovative, they will be criticised for it. Nothing could be further from the truth, although I'm not in the business of praising badly-executed innovation. It is also the case that traditionally-executed practice can produce results. Effectiveness is what matters."
A new HMIE framework, which Dr Maxwell hopes to launch for consultation in September and start introducing from April 2011, will cover other ground, in addition to the possible extension of self-evaluation. Changes could include:
- the cycle of inspections - currently every seven years for primaries and six years for secondaries;
- the timing of inspection announcements (three weeks' warning at present);
- the approach to inspecting small schools (a cause close to the heart of the Education Secretary);
- the extent of pupil involvement in school inspection, similar to student participation in FE college reviews.
HMIE is not likely to depart from its hallowed approach to incremental change, and Dr Maxwell is particularly conscious that inspection cannot be so "light touch" that it erodes the evidence base which gives it the authority to make judgments about how the education system is performing and to provide advice to ministers as a result.
"We will always want to retain in our back pocket the ability to go in and inspect," he says. "So we're looking for a balanced approach, and we want to build as much consensus around the new inspection framework as possible."
A key issue for the 52-year-old senior chief will be how inspection is perceived, irrespective of his best endeavours. While he says evidence of feedback from those who have been inspected is "encouraging", he stresses inspection must be about "professional dialogue".
He adds: "Any inspectorate has got to put a lot of effort into training its inspectors. They must be aware that their job is not just about making judgments, but about how they engage with staff in schools and elsewhere, so that they can drive forward an agenda for improvement.
"The last thing we want after an inspection is to leave behind a demoralised staff, which I'm glad to say is rarely the case."