Scrutiny on the bounty

21st December 2007 at 00:00
The current school inspection system is not working. This is for the very reasons given in the recent Crerar report on the scrutiny of public services in Scotland: burgeoning content, multiple scrutiny instruments, duplicate data requests in different formats, a vast increase in the intensity of scrutiny, and removal of the capacity to manage through over-regulation.

The starting point for a scrutiny debate in education should be that there are options. But HMIE has closed these down. We are now to "improve" and no longer "develop". Development plans are to become improvement plans. But why? Is our understanding of the nature of learning and teaching now so complete, so static, that all that is left is to "improve" and to increase our ratings on the quality indicators? It clearly is not.

Scotland is undergoing a profound change in the nature of learning through the implementation of A Curriculum for Excellence. This focuses on the "capacities" relevant to learners in a 21st-century society, urging linked contexts and wider skills. The Crerar review recommended a thematic approach to future scrutiny, and the curriculum changes are a prime example of this process as it should - or rather could - be. So why not let us get on with it?

The Assessment is for Learning programme has placed a major new focus on the formative nature of assessment. If we are to work in this way with pupils, then surely the developmental and audit processes applying to us should be formative too? It is only possible to work in terms of bridgeable "next steps" relevant to our contexts, resources, timescales and time availability, especially given the heavy externally imposed initiative load.

An HMIE inspection is presented as faults to be rectified by an "action plan". But accountability in the formative culture I am proposing becomes contact and response, a single process of engagement. We should indeed "give accounts" - to education authorities, to the Government - but the process needs to be formative, literally forming developments. The input of an informed external opinion from time to time should become an integral part of this process, not some- thing wholly separate and threatening, as now.

The scrutineers now steer the ship, but I do not think they should. I have spoken out against the captain. Am I to be marooned on a lonely distant island, or worse, be made to walk the plank? Are others of the same view or am I a lonely buccaneer? Are there enough of us for a mutiny?

The current school inspection system should be suspended immediately, especially the arrival of "The Box" and its crushing "totality of everything at once". There should now be a consultation concerning a new formative approach to accountability in education, based on the principles of Assessment is for Learning.

The curriculum system, pupil assessment system and scrutiny system should work together and be based on the same formative approach.

Niall McKinnon is a headteacher in the Highlands.

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