Education Scotland faced a major grilling by the Scottish Parliament’s Education and Culture Committee last week, coming under fire from MSPs of all colours.
Criticisms included the overinspection of schools, with Scotland’s biggest teaching union, the EIS, proposing an end to formal inspections altogether. The agency was also too close to government and so remote from schools that many teachers did not believe it helped them to do their job, MSPs heard.
Education Scotland, formed in 2011 after the merger of HM Inspectorate of Education and Learning and Teaching Scotland (LTS), gave evidence alongside major education unions.
“Significant numbers” of teachers held negative views of the inspection process, according to the EIS union, citing damage to staff morale, stress and excessive workload.
In written evidence, the union urged the “abandonment of formal inspection altogether in favour of a model designed solely to provide support to teachers and educational establishments”.
Education directors’ body ADES also found “too much inspection activity across education and children’s services and, despite…promises from the various inspection bodies for a more targeted and proportionate approach, the amount of activity has actually increased”.
And Conservative Highlands and Islands MSP Mary Scanlon said that when she and other MSPs discussed Education Scotland with education directors, there was “a huge groan of disapproval…no one had a good word to say about you”.
Ms Scanlon added that she had spoken to many teachers in small rural schools who had never worked again after inspection, and who felt “humiliated in their own communities”.
Such cases were “a very small minority”, Education Scotland chief executive Bill Maxwell insisted, but on rare occasions inspectors found people who were “not in the right job”.
Inspection in Scotland was not confrontational as it was in other countries, he added, and new inspectors were trained in social skills.
Many schools had found inspection to be “hugely empowering and positive”, with 97 per cent of headteachers telling a questionnaire it had helped them to improve, he said.
Spread too thin?
Dr Maxwell was “surprised” at suggestions that Education Scotland was spread too thin and that, while it inspected all schools thoroughly, it did not provide all areas of the country with the support LTS had offered.
“Perhaps this is some of the nostalgic stuff for LTS [but] we can’t just continue churning out resources in areas that aren’t a priority, which we might once have done when resources were more available,” he said.
Education Scotland chief operating officer and director of inspection Alastair Delaney agreed, highlighting that fewer than 10 per cent of inspections resulted in a complaint.
But ADES general secretary John Stodter cautioned that, despite employing nearly 400 staff, Education Scotland had a “top-down approach” that offered “far too little bespoke local support” to schools.
The EIS, meanwhile, saw the classification of the agency’s staff as civil servants as evidence of centralisation. The union complained that Education Scotland, which receives a large chunk of its funding annually from the Scottish government, was “increasingly politicised”.
The Royal Society of Edinburgh also identified “inherent risks in a body that has both policy development and quality assurance responsibilities”.
Dr Maxwell, however, could not recall a specific case where an inspection or piece of evaluative work had been challenged on the basis of a lack of independence.
“I am certainly not feeling any pressure to be uncritical of government [but] I don’t see the role of the agency, to be honest, as being some sort of completely left-field organisation that lobbies government,” he said.
‘Turbulent staff feelings’
Many Education Scotland staff are themselves not entirely happy in their jobs, surveys have suggested. But although Mr Delaney was “very aware” of this feeling, he said that such a sentiment was currently common in all areas of the civil service.
Dr Maxwell conceded that there was a “fair bit of turbulence around staff feeling” after the 2011 merger.
There was, however, some praise for Education Scotland. The EIS, for example, said that it had worked well with the agency on tackling bureaucracy and promoting leadership in primary schools.
Dr Maxwell said that Scottish education had been on the up since his organisation was formed in 2011, and “our contribution is positive to that overall improvement”.