Time to reimburse caring volunteers

16th May 2008 at 01:00
HM Inspectorate of Education is central to ensuring appropriate scrutiny and assessment of educational establishments across the country, and it has served the Scottish education system for more than 160 years
HM Inspectorate of Education is central to ensuring appropriate scrutiny and assessment of educational establishments across the country, and it has served the Scottish education system for more than 160 years.

HMIE's programmes of inspection and review are designed to ensure real improvement in the experiences and achievements of learners. They identify and share good practice on a national basis, while highlighting areas where weaknesses exist. They also focus on ensuring that young people are safe and well cared for.

To achieve this, however, we have required capable and committed people, known as lay members, to volunteer their time to inspect and report on educational facilities and resources across the country. It is the unfortunate reality, though, that we continue to benefit from this invaluable contribution at the personal expense of lay members, thus putting the quality and overall future of the service in jeopardy.

Most inspections and review teams include a lay member whose experience lies outwith education or services for children. Lay members, 107 of them, take a particular interest in the ethos of the school or college, relationships between staff and learners, and how insitutions interact with their local community and establish partnerships with parents.

As monetary reward has never been a factor in this, the intentions, dedication and integrity of those volunteering is never in question. However, I feel now is the time to ensure that fairness prevails and people willing to contribute to bettering public service should not do so at personal expense.

Each school inspection takes two to four days, which includes time for preparation, reading and draft comments. The work is spread over a period of one to four weeks, depending on the establishment. Lay members may be called on to inspect two to five schools during the year (each school within a reasonable travelling distance of their home) for a period of up to five years. To do the job, two days' initial training is given, more if needed. The maximum time a volunteer lay member is expected to be involved is about 20 days per annum.

As lay members are supposed to represent a cross-section of the community, they are expected to include people in paid employment who are required to be absent from work for these 20 days. It is fair to assume that many employers would not, understandably, wish to finance what amounts to a month's salary for no product, so, those in employment lose up to a month's salary, not to mention travel expenses and so on.

In contrast, children's panel members, who are equally selected from a cross-section of the community, are rightly reimbursed for loss of earnings when attending panels or training. Jury members are similarly reimbursed. Why will the SNP Government not give HMIE the funds to reimburse its volunteer lay members?

I urge HMIE to review its position and ensure that lay members are compensated appropriately for any personal expense incurred while taking part in the inspection of our education system.

George Foulkes MSP was chair of Lothian region and Cosla education committees from 1974-79.

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