Who guards the guardians?

17th August 2012 at 01:00
HMIs' complaints procedure comes under criticism

Education Scotland will publish a new complaints procedure for school inspections next month, but the revised process will not include provision to appeal against inspectors' professional judgements or evaluations, despite pressure to do so.

The head of Plockton Primary, Niall MacKinnon, has been crusading on the issue for years, following the inspection of Torridon Primary in Highland in 2004 and six follow-up reports.

He argued that HMIE used the old 5-14 guidelines to evaluate the single- teacher school when its head, Anne Macrae, was simply ahead of her time in implementing Curriculum for Excellence.

Former education director Keir Bloomer also raised concerns about public accountability in a review of the Torridon Primary inspection process, which he was commissioned to right by HMIE last year.

Kenneth Muir, director of inspection at Education Scotland, told TESS this week that he recognised the question of "who guards the guards?" remained, but asked: "If there was a post-inspection review, who would carry it out?

"All we can do in terms of what we have control over is to try and make the system as open, fair and transparent as we possibly can."

The new complaints procedure has been drawn up as part of Education Scotland's ongoing review of its policies and includes advice from the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman, said Mr Muir.

The ombudsman will not investigate a dispute about professional judgements or evaluations, he added, but will arbitrate only on whether a complaints procedure is robust, sound and deals with what it needs to deal with.

It was standard practice for headteachers and education authorities to have the opportunity to challenge and discuss an HMI's draft report prior to publication, he said. Even at the post-publication stage, reports could still be amended if additional evidence was submitted that was deemed relevant.

In recent years, the focus of inspection had moved in favour of professional dialogue with a school, he stressed.

Anne Macrae was suspended from her post at Torridon Primary two years ago. Her case was taken up with the ombudsman by John Spalding, a retired primary head from England, who had a holiday home in the area. He argued that the report was "unjust, unfair and unnecessarily damning". But he was told he had no locus, or legal entitlement, to demand a review of the judgements made by the inspectors.

HMIE appointed Keir Bloomer, former education director at Clackmannanshire, to carry out an external review of Mr Spalding's complaint last year. His remit, he said, was to look at the way in which Mr Spalding's complaint had been dealt with at earlier stages - not to consider "the validity or otherwise or the evaluations made by inspectors".

Mr Bloomer told TESS: "I think the first major issue that my report unearthed was that the way in which their current procedures are interpreted by HMIE means they don't give scope to someone to challenge the inspectors' findings and judgements.

"Two things are worrying about that. In the case of Mr Spalding, no one ever told him that - he always thought he would get an answer to the real questions he was asking when in fact he never would.

"The other more general question is whether for a major public agency that is an appropriate way for dealing with a complaint."

Mr Bloomer acknowledged that it was not in the public interest to open up to external review every minor or major complaint about a school inspection as this would "effectively stop the inspection process taking place".

But he added: "I tend to feel that if there is a complaint which is of significance and contains an element of public interest - and a priori seems to be at least a debatable case - then there ought to be somewhere to go.

"I am not suggesting an open door entirely, but some sort of manageable process."

Elizabeth Buie, elizabeth.buie@tess.co.uk.

Original headline: New complaints procedure but no way to appeal judgements

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