Light-touch regime with a bit of a bite

5th February 2010 at 00:00
Graham Donaldson spent eight years as senior chief inspector of education. Neither turbulent nor plain sailing, his tenure has seen necessary change, a little controversy and some tragedy

Graham Donaldson has good reason to be pleased with himself as he heads off into retirement - well, off to conduct his review of teacher education. The golf course will have to wait a while.

Despite unprecedented challenges, not least the troubling circumstances surrounding the death of Borders head Irene Hogg after the inspection of her school, he appears to have successfully repositioned the inspectorate so it is no longer just on what one insider called the "accountability, scrutiny and audit wing".

One inspector said: "It is thanks to Graham that we have now changed to drive improvement and to be seen as a partner in Scottish education - in the system, not outside it looking in". Donaldson draws attention to the HMIE strapline of "Improving Scottish Education" as a small but clear symbol of his approach.

The inspectorate is certainly a changed animal from the one he joined in 1983 - the year when its reports started being published (he wrote the second one). Although "highly professional", he describes it then as isolated, male-dominated (now 60 per cent female) and with inspectors whose background was overwhelmingly a secondary one.

So the leopard has changed some of its spots, but inspection still has its critics and Donaldson concedes that the changes he has overseen to introduce a "light-touch" regime remain a "work in progress".

Ken Cunningham, general secretary of School Leaders Scotland, acknowledges that the 63-year-old Glaswegian has made "a significant attempt to address some of the main concerns around inspection, but I'm not sure he ever managed to get his philosophy and approach into the system itself, so that what he would say in public about procedures was not always mirrored in school inspections on the ground".

But Greg Dempster, general secretary of the Association of Headteachers and Deputes in Scotland, acknowledges that Donaldson's "strong, clear leadership" has led to an inspection model "which has been much better received by our members than its predecessor".

It would not be quite true to say that Donaldson's eight years in charge of HMIE have been the most turbulent in the organisation's recent past: that would be a more accurate description of life before devolution when relationships between teachers and the inspectorate hit an all-time low, particularly under the Conservative governments of the 1980s and 1990s.

But he has had to cope with major changes, largely brought about by devolution and the greater public scrutiny to which HMIE is now subjected. The myriad pieces of new legislation required constant adjustments, including fresh areas of work in special needs, the teachers' agreement, the inspection of education authorities, leading the teams scrutinising child protection and the highly-complex demands arising from curricular reform.

Of all these, he is - perhaps surprisingly - proudest of being asked to take on the "hugely important and controversial" area of child protection in 2005, to the point where other inspectorates accepted the authority of HMIE and where it was acknowledged in Parliament as "a model of rigorous inspection".

Donaldson faced a delicate balancing act when he took over from Douglas Osler in 2002, after six years as deputy. As the insider, he might have been expected to pursue "business as usual". He says this was not his intention, since he had a clear view that inspection had a single purpose - to improve education so that it was better for learners. This is one of his constant messages for new inspectors: "it helps to keep focused on that when you're delivering difficult messages," he says.

Inevitably, differences remain about whether he has struck the right balance in making the inspectorate more "cuddly" as well as retaining what he calls its essential "bite". His style is personable, even affable, which might incline observers to the former view.

But Donaldson has not stinted to deliver blunt messages, like his predecessor, where improvements are required. His overall assessment, summarised in another of his innovations, the Improving Scottish Education series, is that Scottish education "has improved and is improving but it is not improving fast enough".

John Stodter, general secretary of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland, commends Donaldson as "tactically very astute in being able to anticipate the future and align the organisation to accommodate changes". He "combines intellect with a personable style and so he did inspire confidence".

Donaldson's comments about change exemplify this: "I believe the inspectorate has got to be just behind the cutting edge of innovation: not ahead of it because what you are trying to achieve will be seen as unrealistic, and not too far behind because it would be a drag on innovation."

Perhaps the most telling sign of how his stewardship is regarded is that, despite the tragedy of the Irene Hogg case and whatever views people might have had about that inspection, the unions did not use it as a stick with which to beat HMIE.

That is, surely, an achievement.

Is inspection up to scratch?, page 21

Neil Munro,

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