No-notice school inspections could be introduced in Scotland as early as next year, TESS can reveal.
Primary schools are currently given two weeks' warning ahead of a visit from Education Scotland inspectors and secondaries receive three weeks' notice.
But unannounced inspections are up for discussion again as part of a review of the school inspection system, it has emerged. Education Scotland is due to publish a report this summer outlining any proposed changes, with new approaches expected to be introduced in 2016.
An Education Scotland spokesperson said: "As part of this review, we have been considering no-notice inspections along with many other measures to ensure that inspections and reviews reflect education today and the changes that have taken place over the last few years.
"We are in the middle of an extensive consultation process, the findings of which will be published in the summer."
Union bosses say that teachers are divided on the issue. Some like the idea of getting rid of the stressful lead-in period before inspections but others prefer time to prepare, according to Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the EIS teaching union, and Seamus Searson, general secretary of the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association (SSTA).
The EIS had yet to determine an official position on no-notice inspections, Mr Flanagan said.
Meanwhile, teachers attending the SSTA annual congress next month will decide their union's position on the controversial policy. "At most union conferences everyone agrees, but this issue has our members split down the middle so there should be a good debate," Mr Searson said.
Headteachers are also divided on the issue: many primary leaders say they are open to no-notice inspections but their secondary counterparts are often opposed to the idea.
James Thewliss is currently headteacher of Harris Academy in Dundee and is set to take over as general secretary of secondary headteachers' organisation School Leaders Scotland this summer. He said: "It is better to hold discussions with inspectors on the back of full contextual and background information. We are more than happy to discuss a reduction from three weeks, but these instant, walk-through-the-door inspections do not have a good history in schools."
Primary headteachers tended to favour a move to no-notice inspections or shorter lead-in times, said Greg Dempster, general secretary of primary school leaders' body AHDS.
AHDS surveys every primary and nursery inspected by Education Scotland about a month after a visit, asking headteachers what they would change. About 20 per cent say they would favour no-notice or reduced-notice inspections.
Mr Dempster said: "In principle we don't have any objection to no-notice inspections, but we would have to be clear about how it would work."
There were "significant potential pitfalls", he added. Inspectors could arrive when a large number of students were away on a trip or the headteacher was out on a course. AHDS would also object, he said, if no-notice inspections were run alongside the current inspection regime, with some schools being given two or three weeks to prepare and others no preparation time at all.
Mr Dempster added: "We would have an anxiety about no-notice inspection being seen as just another way of doing the same thing. But if the product of these inspections is seen differently, if all inspections are moving in this direction or if a pilot is taken forward without the results translating into reports, then we would have no fundamental objections."
The ongoing Education Scotland review of school inspections was triggered by significant changes to education delivery in Scotland, including the introduction of Curriculum for Excellence, and societal changes such as demographic shifts and the increasing use of technology.
Changes were last introduced to the inspection process in 2011, when the consultation process revealed that some respondents felt strongly that unannounced inspections should be introduced.
However, this was rejected because no-notice inspections were deemed by Education Scotland to be "problematic from a practical point of view". There were also concerns that they would increase anxiety among staff and make it harder to involve parents.
State of the nation
A report published by the Scottish government in June last year looked at the inspection results from 420 schools (bit.lyInspectionDataScotland).
About 90 per cent were deemed satisfactory or better when it came to the three indicators the Scottish government uses to measure how well schools are doing: improvements in performance, learners' experiences and meeting learners' needs.
l 69 per cent were good or better across all three indicators;
l 24 per cent were very good or better;
l 10 per cent were weak or unsatisfactory.
About 240 schools and 90 preschools are inspected in Scotland every year (bit.lyScotFramework).