It's a royal connection that only young brains would make. "A little girl recently asked me to say `Hello' to the queen for her," says Hilary Long. "She assumed that because we're Her Majesty's Inspectorate, we'd be seeing her every day. It's a serious job, but they give you lots of laughs."
The job is associate assessor - a teacher, headteacher or college lecturer who joins an inspection team two or three times a year, or is sometimes seconded full-time to the inspectorate. There are now almost 500 AAs, as they are known - five to every one full-time inspector - so it's not surprising that their influence is considerable.
It's not just a matter of numbers, says senior chief inspector Graham Donaldson. "The perspective of someone who still thinks daily about how to teach or run a school adds an extra dimension of peer assessment - one that Scotland has pioneered - to our inspection teams."
The first associate assessors, a mere handful, were recruited in the mid- 1990s, by direct approach to professionals who had impressed the inspectors. It was a method used for some time. "I was principal teacher of maths when I became an associate assessor six years ago," says Alan Pithie, the new headteacher at Auchmuty High in Fife.
"I'd been inspected twice and then was invited to become an associate assessor. I've been going out on inspections two or three times a year ever since. It's been a tremendous experience and I intend to keep on doing it, even though I've just been appointed head at this school.
"As well as giving constructive advice and lending expertise, you learn so much as a professional yourself. It's a two-way process. You're in a great position to pick up ideas and innovations to take back to your own school."
Nowadays, authorities and colleges are invited to nominate candidates they feel have the qualities needed to become an associate assessor. These include being a firstclass practitioner, says Mr Donaldson. But not all would be comfortable "sitting across from someone, looking into their eyes and discussing their professional practice".
To do that well takes a combination of personal qualities and professional development. "You have to be strong analytically, to act on the evidence of what works for children, rather than being wedded to what works for you. You're often dealing with people who are apprehensive, so you need interpersonal skills to put them at their ease, to show them you're looking for good practice, not hunting for failure."
Hard messages do sometimes have to be delivered, says Hilary Long, a full- time early years associate assessor on secondment from the Care Commission. "I still find that difficult. You're talking to a human being who can feel hurt or angry. But people who have not done well sometimes say how helpful the experience has been.
"The recent change in the inspection model means that we're doing things with people, rather than to them. We engage in professional dialogue, spend time with them, explain how inspection works, offer reassurance. They feel more valued and it's much more rewarding for us, the inspectors."
While the new inspection model has been in place for just one year, the change in attitude and approach it embodies had its origins earlier, Alan Pithie believes - when HMIE first invited full-time practitioners to work alongside them.
"The culture change at the inspectorate was a big thing, and I believe associate assessors had a lot to do with it. Previously, inspectors were full-time civil servants who had come out of their original careers. Discussions about schools went on behind closed doors. Gradually, there came a recognition that there was a lot to be gained by having people on inspection teams to whom teachers could relate."
It is not just the inspectorate that has benefited, says Mr Pithie. "The partnership forged with schools - through the new inspection model - is leading to a healthier relationship between schools and local authorities. Education officers are now taking a similar approach, working with their schools to make self-evaluation happen throughout the year.
"That partnership is transferred to the inspectors when they come in. As a result, we're getting a more reflective culture in schools, a greater insight into teaching and learning. I feel, though, that some authorities could make better use of their associate assessors, in communicating and sharing the good practice we see in schools all over Scotland."
That national perspective is a rare privilege, says Ms Long, one of 11 associate assessors - 10 women and one man - in early years for all Scotland. "I'm the longest surviving member, so new people often shadow me, and I've been all over the country inspecting early years learning. There are local differences, but overall it is a positive picture.
"We do one, sometimes two, inspections a week. Usually I do them myself, but with a large nursery there will be two of us. I also join primary school inspection teams for nursery and early primary. You don't get a chance to draw breath. But it is the most wonderful professional development. A real pleasure of the job is seeing the children enjoying their learning and developing their social skills. These have been the best years of my life. I love this job."
Associate assessors have a key role in the new model of inspections and are here to stay, says Mr Donaldson. But the model itself is not the final word. "As the context of education changes, so will the inspections. "Feedback from the first year of the new model has been very positive. But 10 years from now, there will be other ways of doing inspections. We constantly review how to strike the balance between assuring the quality of education and engaging constructively, building capacity.
"The new model is very much in tune with the culture we're all trying to create, as an education system, through A Curriculum for Excellence. Inspection will help lead that process and the associate assessor has a key role to play."
And the ideal associate assessor?
"That would be a high-quality professional, in the fullest sense of the word, whose instincts in any situation are what's in the best interests of the children."
Jean Best: headteacher Sheuchan Primary, Stranraer, part-time AA, seconded full-time for the past year
The most useful advice to schools preparing for an inspection, based on what I've seen as an associate assessor, is to look closely at the self- evaluation. A lot of schools see it as a job for the headteacher. It shouldn't be.
If everyone gets involved - children, parents, teaching and non-teaching staff and management team - it becomes much more effective, both in terms of the inspection and for how well the school moves forward.
In the most effective schools there is a depth of understanding of self- evaluation because it's a big team effort. Everyone then knows what's happening and why - and not just straightforward things like new playground equipment, but learning and teaching.
We do one inspection a week, so it is quite hectic. On Monday morning you're off to a new school which could be anywhere. It's a beautiful country though, so I don't mind the travel. Towards the end of a visit I provide input to the report. The managing inspector then writes it and emails it to me the following week for comments. So compared to being a headteacher, you do get your weekends back.
I really like the new style of inspections, which is all about dialogue and working with schools. People often comment that if they'd known what inspection was like nowadays, they wouldn't have got so worked up. Mind you, in some of the 24 schools I've inspected so far this year, we've had to give hard messages. But it's not about telling people off. It's about working with them to improve their practice.
We aim to leave the schools we visit in a better place. The bottom line is that we're there for the children. If they are being short-changed, you can't just walk away.
Patricia Scott: headteacher St Luke's High, Renfrewshire, part-time AA for seven years
The main thing we do is listen carefully to what a school is saying about itself. That's the starting point and it is distinctly different from the previous model of inspection.
It began for me when I was depute head at St Luke's, responsible for pupil support. Following an inspection in 2001, I was invited to a training and selection event - they do it differently now - and from that time I worked on inspecting pupil support under the old model.
In the new model, all our roles are broader. So I look closely at meeting children's learning needs, but everyone on a team contributes to that. I do one or two inspections a year. During an inspection, as each day unfolds, there is constant dialogue, sharing information, triangulating the evidence that's emerging.
We look to confirm a school's self-evaluation, which takes us into a range of activities - observation of classes, working alongside teachers, interviews with staff, pupils, parents and community partners. We also look at quantitative data, the progress of attainment and achievement. The focus of all the self-evaluation, and of everything we do during an inspection, is the impact a school is having on its pupils.
I've learnt so much from the inspections and the training HMIE provides - it's some of the best CPD I've ever had. You then bring all that back and share it with your school and local authority. Along with the other associate assessors in East Renfrewshire, I deliver presentations and workshops to teachers and quality improvement colleagues.
In fact, arising from the four "excellents" St Luke's got in its own recent inspection, we had a study group here recently from the Borders. We've started sharing the good practice beyond our own authority.