HMIE has been brought to task over the rigidity of its inspection process, writes Elizabeth Buie.
Two of Scotland's most high-profile secondary headteachers have criticised the HMIE regime for its inability to measure schools that do not fit its standard template.
Hillhead High in Glasgow and Larbert High, near Falkirk, received largely positive inspection reports this week - but their heads have taken issue with the way inspectors graded some aspects of their attainment.
Ken Cunningham, head of Hillhead, and Neal McGowan, head of Larbert, point to specific aspects and circumstances of their school which, they argue, put them outside the norm but which inspectors could not or did not account for.
Hillhead received an "excellent" grading for equality and fairness, seven "very good" and seven "good" gradings. But there was a marked divergence in its rating for attainment in S3-4, graded as "adequate", and its attainment in S5-6, graded "very good".
Mr Cunningham, who is retiring in June and will become the new general secretary of School Leaders Scotland, the successor body to the Headteachers' Association of Scotland, says: "Any reasonably-thinking person would ask a serious question about why a report can say a school is very successful at raising attainment at S5-6 and yet, somehow or other, three or four months before, it looks as if it is hugely under-performing."
He says he sought to explain the school's S3-4 attainment performance with a series of points, but that the inspectorate "can't look at schools that are different or unique and change their template or their statistics to suit".
Hillhead High's particular characteristics are, he says:
- a third of the school is bilingual, which education research shows has an impact on attainment;
- two-thirds of the roll are boys;
- it presents pupils for only seven Standard grades (plus a wider educational course) as opposed to the usual eight. This meant, says Mr Cunningham, that it was penalised in a straight numerical comparison of qualifications with other schools;
- because of its local population, which includes ethnic minorities and families attached to Glasgow University, it has a large transient population - up to 80 or 90 pupils moving in the space of two years. Mr Cunningham argues this has a statistical effect on its results.
Mr Cunningham claims that inspectors' evaluation of the school's attainment affected the gradings they gave other aspects of the school's performance.
David Cameron, Stirling's director of children's services and vice-president of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland, made a similar point to the Headteachers' Association of Scotland's November conference: "If you are not seen to measure up to the attainment standard, that has a depressing impact on other gradings across the report."
Neal McGowan, who is regarded as an expert on discipline, argues that some of the school's innovations did not feature as strongly as they might have in the HMIE evaluation because raw attainment was the "key driver".
Thirteen of the 17 indicators in his school's inspection report were rated as "good" or "very good", but quality of attainment in S1-2 and S3-4 was graded as "adequate" and in S5-6 as "weak".
Mr McGowan says he does not take issue with the fact that attainment in his school has to improve. But he feels inspectors failed to take account of the school's move to early presentation of Standard grades. "They were hoping our children would be at the same level by the end of S1 in terms of Level E as others get them to by the end of S2," he says. "If we had run a traditional S1-2 curriculum, we would have come out of it really well in terms of attainment."
HMIE refused to comment.