Same rigour, less stress

30th May 2008 at 01:00
Plans to change the inspection system, effective from August, have received a positive response

Plans to change the inspection system, effective from August, have received a positive response

Schools are to be given more support from HMIE as part of a package of "new generation" reforms of the inspection system.

Advance details of a regime of "maximum impact with minimum intrusion" were released today by Graham Donaldson, the senior chief inspector of education, in an interview with The TESS.

He insisted the reforms were not influenced by the suicide of Borders primary head Irene Hogg following an inspection, or the growing chorus of complaints from headteachers and education directors about the inspectorate's existing approach.

It will not be seen that way by sceptics, but Mr Donaldson said the inspectorate had been considering the issues "for a long time". His plans were given a general welcome.

Mr Donaldson dismissed some of the criticisms directed at inspection as "urban myths", and suggested that the stresses of the process could be removed if headteachers communicated a more positive message about it to their staff.

The changes, which take effect from August, include halving the time inspectors spend in a school from an average of 10 days to five, ushering in an era of renewed "proportionality".

In an effort to cut down on the bureaucracy, inspection will be based on evidence from the school's self-evaluation and will not require as much documentation (schools will no longer have to prepare a separate profile of themselves, for example).

Mr Donaldson said: "It is important that schools see inspection as constructive, something which works with them while not losing the rigour which has to be part of the inspection process."

As an earnest of the inspectorate's good intentions, the five-day period of fieldwork in a school might include only three days of actual inspection, in those schools whose self-evaluation is regarded as "robust" and takes HMIE less time to verify.

"We will then make an offer to schools," he said. "Either they can tell us to leave when the inspection is finished, and we will, or they can accept the remaining two days as an additional resource for inspectors to work with them and help bring about the improvements they want."

The system has faced criticism that inspectors "walk in and walk away", and the extended support will be seen as an attempt to counteract that. A further move in this direction will involve staff receiving more in-depth reports on some of the issues raised during inspections.

Parents, on the other hand, will be given "shorter, more focused" reports more quickly than happens in the current nine to 10 weeks from inspection to publication.

Mr Donaldson believes there will, in future, be a built-in incentive for schools: the better their self-evaluation, the less time they will have to spend being inspected. "It's about encouraging schools to take positive responsibility for their own improvement, rewarding success, challenging complacency and addressing weaknesses," he said.

Inspections will still involve questionnaires about each school to parents, staff and pupils, the follow-through process will continue where the initial inspection has found "significant concerns" and the six-point grading system will remain (although the widely-criticised score of "adequate" will go, to be replaced by "satisfactory").

The frequency of inspections will also not change - one every seven years for primaries and every six years for secondaries. Mr Donaldson pointed out this was hardly "excessive scrutiny," a charge with which he said he had "little sympathy."

But there will be a reduction in the number of quality indicators on which a school's effectiveness is judged, from 15 to no more than seven. The three key ones have already been ordained by the Government in its national performance framework: improvements in performance, learners' experience and meeting learners' needs. Another three or four will be added by the inspectorate.

The reforms are being piloted in a handful of schools in West Dunbartonshire, West Lothian and North Lanarkshire.

They have been welcomed by leaders of the unions, headteachers and education directors, who have all been consulted. "Positive" was the reaction of the Educational Institute of Scotland.

But Bill McGregor, general secretary of the Headteachers' Association of Scotland, commented: "Time will tell." He said heads supported "a challenging inspection regime but not a hostile one".

John Stodter, general secretary of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland, hailed what he saw as "a more differentiated approach based on evidence from schools about their achievements, rather than on a pre-determined set of indicators and benchmarks". He said he looked forward to the same devolved approach being taken to the inspection of education authorities.

Leader, page 24.

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