Osler stands his ground

3rd September 1999 at 01:00
HMI's boss cites 'huge range of accountability' to refute critics who say Inspectorate is a law unto itself

THE head of the Inspectorate, facing ever-intensive demands for control of his empire, faced down his critics this week and has now been given heavyweight ministerial support.

Douglas Osler has rejected renewed calls for a review of HMI, the latest from the Association of Directors of Education. Directors launched an unprecedented attack earlier this year, accusing Mr Osler of an "inappropriately patronising and authoritarian" approach to target-setting.

The ADES's demand for a full probe coincides with the Education Bill, which will extend powers to inspect education authorities. Michael O'Neill, ADES president, told a seminar of directors in Edinburgh last Friday that the Inspectorate expects everybody else to be accountable and committed to continuous improvement.

Mr O'Neill said any review should probe the Inspectorate's dual role in devising policy and then judging its effectiveness, criticism of which reached a peak after last October's report on modern language teaching. He also called for an audit of skills in the Inspectorate, which he said had considerable educational expertise but did not necessarily understand the complexities of delivering an education service.

But Mr Osler told The TES Scotland that the Inspectorate was faced with "a huge range of accountability". It was statutorily responsible to the First Minister and the Education Minister, and it was subject to investigation by the National Audit Office, the Parliamentary Ombudsman and the Scottish Parliament.

"We are also accountable every time we publish a report," Mr Osler said. "When we inspect a school, for instance, we have to justify our conclusions every time we discuss the draft report with the headteacher and be able to back that up with evidence."

Mr Osler said HMI took additional voluntary action to check on its performance, such as surveying parent and school opinion of the inspection process. Inspectors are also submitting themselves to external evaluation through the European Foundation for Quality Management.

"So we have very much taken on board the message that, if we expect people to submit to external evaluation, we must be prepared to do the same," he said.

Mr Osler also challenged the view that HMI pronounced on the effectiveness of its own policies. "That is a misunderstanding of how the system works. We don't make policy - ministers do. It would be irresponsible if the biggest stock of evidence in the system, gathered through inspection, was not made available to ministers for them to take the policy decisions."

The senior chief inspector was backed by Peter Peacock, the Deputy Minister for Children and Education, who heard the criticisms first hand when he attended the ADES seminar. Mr Peacock countered that HMI's insights were "unique".

But he was forced to make clear that the Inspectorate's advice was scrutinised by policy advisers, senior officials and ministers. "So don't imagine that Inspectorate advice is always automatically accepted," he said.

Mr Peacock told a meeting in Lerwick last week that HMI reports were "helpful and balanced", pointing to strengths as well as shortcomings. It was press reporting in some newspapers that was unbalanced.

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