Going Dutch over how to improve inspection

11th March 2016 at 00:00
Netherlands sends team to advise Education Scotland on its school evaluation regime

A crack team of Dutch school inspectors has touched down in Scotland to review the country’s school inspection system, focusing on how inspectors interact with staff and gather evidence for their reports, TESS can reveal.

The move comes after a survey suggested that a minority of headteachers still find that inspections place “unacceptable demands” on staff and senior leaders (see graphic, opposite).

As Scotland prepares to introduce a new inspection regime in August, Alastair Delaney, head of inspection at Education Scotland, stressed his determination for it to be positive and supportive.

The Dutch evaluation would help to ensure Scottish HMIs engage with schools “collaboratively and cooperatively”, he said in an exclusive interview with TESS.

Mr Delaney said it was vital that Education Scotland’s inspection process was supportive in practice as well as in theory. He added: “People get fixated on what we inspect, but actually, the really important thing about any change we make from August is that our approach is still about working alongside and working with. We want to work with schools and for them to feel that it is a positive, constructive, helpful process.”

‘A more supportive role’

News of the Dutch visit comes after Education Scotland faced criticism from Conservatives over the number of inspections, which dropped from nearly 500 in 2004-05 to just 137 last year. It would take 19 years to get round every school at that rate, they said.

Education Scotland responded by saying that it had reduced inspections and taken on a more supportive role during the implementation of the new curriculum. Inspection in recent years had become about improvement, not “scores on the doors”, Mr Delaney added.

But Greg Dempster, general secretary of the primary school leaders’ organisation AHDS, said that many headteachers still found the inspection process “inevitably stressful” and that his organisation had been pushing for a change to the system (see box, “Our survey said...”, opposite).

The Dutch school inspectors arrived in Scotland on Sunday and, over the course of a fortnight, they will visit four primaries and two secondaries where Education Scotland is trialling new approaches to inspection.

The “peer review” was organised through international inspection body, the Standing International Conference of Inspectorates.

Scotland was matched with The Netherlands because both have mature inspectorates – the Dutch inspectorate is the oldest in Europe, while Scotland’s is the second oldest. They are also deemed to have similar processes and approaches.

The Dutch evaluation will feed into the new inspection regime expected to be introduced in August, said Mr Delaney.

“They are inviting us to go across in the autumn and do the equivalent for some of their inspections,” he added.

For two years, Scottish school inspection has been under review, with a wide variety of new approaches being trialled in schools and local authorities (see box, above). Proving controversial are the new “unannounced” inspections, where schools only have a few days’ notice before inspectors call, instead of the current inspection notice period of two or three weeks.

The teaching profession was split on the issue, Mr Delaney told TESS. But feedback from the trial carried out in the autumn had been positive, he said.

“Some headteachers involved have said that they did spend the weekend before [the inspection] working, but that was better than spending three weekends working. We are still evaluating, though.”

Shorter inspections, which would see the length of a school visit halved to two and a half days, were another option on the table, but this approach was proving more problematic, Mr Delaney hinted.

The body had run trials of the approach in the autumn and would have to carry out more to see if it could work, he said.

Mr Delaney said that inspectors would need time to collect the information for the new National Improvement Framework (NIF). He said: “It’s very well saying ‘just visit a school for a day’, but if you don’t have time to gather enough evidence to justify an evaluation for the NIF, there’s got to be a balance.”

He said: “Parents want to know how well their child’s school is doing. They will get that information from a range of different sources, including from the NIF and our inspection reports.

“The focus in Scotland for inspection has been helping things to get better, to help the whole system to improve.”

Inspection reports would, however, be changing in a bid to make them more parent-friendly, he added (see box, “Reports revamped”, above). Education Scotland is expected to unveil its new approach to school inspection in June.


A fresh approach

Education Scotland is testing out new ways to carry out school inspections. These include:

Short inspections, which last 2.5 days instead of a week

Short-notice inspections. Schools given a few days’ notice ahead of an inspection, instead of a few weeks.

Thematic reviews. A trial has reviewed the senior phase in Moray.

Neighbourhood reviews, focusing on how a child moves through a secondary school and its associated establishments: nurseries, primaries, the local college.

Negotiated inspections. Schools have a say in what inspectors come to look at: they could ask for a new literacy approach to be evaluated, for instance.

Reports revamped

The letters to parents that are currently published by Education Scotland following an inspection are so bland that they are next to meaningless, parents organisations have claimed.

However, as part of the body’s review of school inspection, it plans to revamp its reports.

The last time they were changed was in 2011 when inspection reports to parents were cut in size and the ratings, from “excellent” to “unsatisfactory”, were dropped.

Today, parents receive a letter following an inspection – three or four pages long – which summarise the inspectors’ findings. At the end of the letter, the strengths and weaknesses of the school are summed up.

One possible replacement for this system is to make the letter shorter – just two pages – and simply list the school’s strengths and areas for improvement.

To see an example of the new version of the report that will go to parents, go to bit.ly/ParentsReport

Our survey said...

Greg Dempster, general secretary of the primary school leaders’ organisation, AHDS, said:

“AHDS surveys nursery, primary and ASN school headteachers following inspection. While responses are far from uniform, there is considerable commonality. For example, more than 80 per cent report an overall positive experience, with many calling it affirming and praising the professional dialogue with inspectors.

“Returns often describe the inspection as ‘inevitably stressful’ with the period between notification and the inspectors’ arrival described as worse than the inspection itself. In response to ‘What one thing would you change about inspection?’, two regular suggestions are to reduce or remove the notice period and to remove gradings. We have been pushing on these points for a number of years. It is often common to suggest improved feedback to staff individually or as a group.

“The headteachers involved in the try-outs praised the inspection teams, the short notice and shorter inspections (the shortened notice period, in particular). All the try-out reports were positive but the headteachers reflected that with the shorter inspection, they wondered whether inspectors had sufficient time to gather evidence to allow them to justify statements if delivering negative messages.”

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