Simple ideas that work;Inspection

12th November 1999 at 00:00
That's what Her Majesty's Senior Chief Inspector Douglas Osler (right) likes. Julie Morrice reports on the view from the top and asks two recently inspected headteachers and their local inspectors: "How was it for you?"

The hushed atmosphere, sleek furnishing and wide open spaces of Victoria Quay in Edinburgh, the home of the Scottish Executive, offer a stark contrast to the ambience of the nation's schools.

It might be the heaven good teachers ascend to in the after-life. If so, then former history teacher Douglas Osler must have been very good indeed. Her Majesty's Senior Chief Inspector of Schools has a spacious office on the top floor with endless, serene views of docks, hills and sky.

It would be easy to assume that here the daily concerns of teachers are but a rumble from the distant factory floor. In fact, Osler and his depute Graham Donaldson come across as understanding and supportive of teachers. But they show a carefully honed edge of steel that says nonsense will not be tolerated.

"There is not enough public acknowledgement of the strengths of the Scottish education system," says Osler. "But at the same time, we are not very good at doing something about our weaknesses." HMSCI believes our society is too tolerant of excuses, that our children could be achieving more than they are, and that low teacher expectation plays a significant part in that under-achievement.

Tackling this problem is something the HMI aims to do in partnership with schools. Osler may believe absolutely in the need for schools' strengths and weaknesses to be opened to the public gaze, but he wants schools to be active participants in that process. He points to a range of developments in the HMI that demystify inspection and encourage schools to take responsibility for assessing their own performance.

Most influential among these developments has been the publication of How Good Is Our School? First released 10 years ago to allow schools some insight into the criteria on which they were being judged, this document has become a cornerstone of self-evaluation.

"Ten years ago, schools didn't know about themselves," says Osler, who has been in post since 1996 and was depute for four years before that. "Now, with self-evaluation, schools must feel more secure in what they are doing, and more aware of their strengths and weaknesses. And inspections are more effective."

He is quick to point out that evaluation, whether by school or inspectorate, is not an end in itself. "Self-evaluation can become self-deception or self-congratulation. The whole thing has to be about a commitment to improvement."

With that in mind, a teacher is now to be put onto every inspection team. Osler hopes this will work in two ways. First, during an inspection, the "associate assessor" can offer the teacher's point of view, but with the objectivity of an outsider. When assessors then go back to their own schools, they take with them an appreciation of evaluation from the inspector's point of view.

Using How Good Is Our School? to get "ahead of the game" and argue your own corner meets with Osler's approval. So does using Standards and Quality in Scottish Schools to compare your own school's attainment with national levels, and even to bring out your own school report.

Meanwhile, Osler insists, the inspectorate is listening to schools. HMI has recognised that schools are given too much notice of inspections. A shorter notice, they think, means less time to worry and less distraction from the school's real job. So from now on the notice will be three weeks, not six or seven.

That said, Osler admits that there is little to be done about the fear and trembling that comes with notice of a school inspection. "There is an inevitable element of tension and concern," he says. "But we find that those people who are most concerned are often the best professionals."

The media may have been debating the role of the HMI in past weeks, but Osler is clearly happy with his organisation and secure about the fairness of the inspection process.

He hotly denies that schools feel misrepresented by inspection reports. He emphasises "the sophisticated process of interlocking evidence" inspectors use to draw their conclusions, and the "huge amount of analysis, evaluation and discussion" behind the final report.

What there is, he suggests, is unhappiness at weaknesses being made public. And there is disappointment from individual members of teaching staff at the lack of detailed comment on their achievement. "We are interested in the quality of teaching in the school as a whole, but we are taking on board the fact that individual teachers feel they don't get enough feedback."

Inspectors now spend time before an inspection explaining the process to all staff. "We do work quite hard to respond to teachers' views," says Osler. "And the fact is that a school's view of inspection is different before and after the inspection - their opinion becomes more positive."

As the Education Bill begins its progress through the Scottish Parliament, Osler's vision of the future for HMI is securely rooted in its past. He is bewildered by public fears that HMI will metamorphose into an imitation of Ofsted: "We've been an inspectorate for 160 years. The idea we would use Ofsted as a model is just silly. We have more contact with the Netherlands inspectorate than we do with Ofsted. It is important to base inspection policy on your own traditions and education system."

The furore about HMI's dual role as policy adviser and quality inspector is given typically thorough treatment. Far from separating the two functions, Osler argues that inspection keeps curriculum development within the bounds of reality and possibility. "The HMI is a national body with a greater body of information on education than any number of research projects could collect," he says. "It should be influential."

When it comes to inspecting the inspectors, he points out with feeling that the HMI is more accountable than any education authority. "The inspectorate is accountable to ministers, to the national audit office, to internal civil service reviews. We're accountable every time we publish a report. Our guidelines will be published on the Internet next month. There is nothing secret about our work with the Scottish Consultative Committee on the Curriculum, for example, and ministers' decisions are based largely on our public reports. It is up to ministers what else they want to make public.

"It is a very flattering idea that ministers just accept our advice. I would love to be the commissar for education people seem to think I am, but it is just not the case."

So five years from now, it seems we can expect more of the same. The most influential developments are likely to be the inspection of education authorities, which Osler clearly sees as essential, and an increased frequency of inspection. The aim is to achieve a generational cycle, an inspection every seven years in primary schools and six years in secondaries.

"It should be frequent enough to be constructive," says Osler. "But we are anxious not to make schools inspection-dependent. We don't want to undermine self-evaluation, which alone can lead to school improvement."

Douglas Osler likes things that work; simple ideas that cut through the cant and get results. Target-setting is his flavour of the moment. "One of the reasons I like targets is because they get down to the level of the individual child. The whole process, from education authority level down, depends on improving the achievement of the individual child in the individual classroom. And the significant results will come from improving the achievements of low-achieving children.

"There have been so many good initiatives in recent years, from improving school ethos, to devolving budgets and improving community links. But targets may be the thing that translates all these other initiatives into improved attainment. Targets might just be the magic ingredient. Wait till 2001, we'll know by then."

* THE PRIMARY - 'There was nothing in the report we hadn't identified ourselves'

Reading the newspapers you might think that every other school in the country was getting a damning report from HMI. But the inspectorate says the vast majority of reports tell schools to build on their existing strengths. That was certainly the experience at Toryglen primary in Glasgow. "We knew we had work to do in certain areas," says headteacher Carol Varty, "but there was nothing in the report we hadn't identified ourselves."

At the time of the inspection - February to March 1999 - Mrs Varty had only been in post for six months. So she had recently evaluated and audited the school's performance. "From a personal point of view it was useful to have somebody come and confirm my ideas," she says. Although she found the inspection "quite frightening and very stressful", Mrs Varty has nothing but praise for the inspection team. She feels they took a lot of time to field staff questions and allay fears, and were coming to the school in a positive spirit.

Margery Browning, who led the inspection team, returned the compliment: "It is a great privilege to be in schools and see teachers at their work. It's fascinating to look at a school and see the processes that lead to the performance of its pupils." In the case of Toryglen, the report paints a picture of a school with its sights firmly fixed on improved attainment. Although the inspectors felt that the quality of teachers' planning and pupils' learning was only "fair", they identified "the hard work and commitment of teachers and ancillary staff" and "the strong leadership of the new headteacher" as key strengths.

Margery Browning points out that the inspection process can offer schools a national view of attainment they may not have had before, and can therefore raise the expectations staff have of pupils.

* THE SECONDARY - "You can rearragne priorities, but what is going to drop off at the end?

"Why can't they say excellent if they mean excellent?" asked some members of staff at Larbert High School, Falkirk. Larbert's report, published in March 1999, was very good by any standard. But headteacher Rosemary Holmes says it took her a long time to convince staff of this. The blandness of the official report was a let-down for staff after a lot of work on documentation and then the two-week period of the inspection itself.

Rosemary Holmes found the time the inspectors were in school very difficult. Teaching staff were jumpy, never knowing when an inspector might walk in the door. And she felt rather left out.

"I felt cut adrift from the whole thing," Ms Holmes says. "But the lead HMI often came down at the end of the day and told me what they'd been doing, which helped.

"Really I would prefer it if they just walked in off the street. You wouldn't have all this long preamble, and if you are functioning well as a school, there is nothing to worry about."

She also points out that the work doesn't stop at the end of the inspection. She has to produce a follow-up to the action plan, and a version for parents. She wonders where time is going to come from for the closer monitoring and quality assurance asked for in the main points for action. "You can rearrange priorities, but what is going to drop off the end?" Ms. Holmes says.

The HMI who inspected Larbert High, Gill Robinson, replies: "In making our recommendations we are conscious of the pressures on staff." She feels, however, that prioritising and staff time can be worked out in a school's development plan with support from the education authority. Responding to the disappointment of Larbert High staff at some of the wording in the report, she suggests that a wider reading of other school's reports would show how good Larbert's is. "There was some excellent practice at Larbert. It is always rewarding to see that, and have the opportunity to tell people about it."

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