The jury’s out on trials of short-notice inspections

2nd October 2015 at 01:00

Education Scotland has recently revealed that short-notice inspections – where schools are given just two days’ notice ahead of a visit – are to be trialled. Currently primary schools in Scotland receive two weeks’ notice before inspectors call, and secondary schools three weeks, with unannounced inspections taking place only where there are serious concerns about the care and welfare of children; five such inspections were carried out last year.

Education Scotland envisages that these new, (almost) unannounced inspections will be shorter, more focused and involve fewer inspectors. The approach is to be trialled in nine schools from the end of this month, along with some other new strategies. These include inspecting a whole local authority on a particular theme such as well-being, and cross-sectoral “neighbourhood” inspections that look at what learning is like for pupils as they progress through school.

The EIS teaching union has been measured in its response to the prospect of short-notice inspections, probably because there is no clear line to take: teachers are divided. Earlier this year, EIS general secretary Larry Flanagan told TESS that some teachers like the idea of getting rid of the stressful lead-in period before inspections, but others prefer time to prepare. Meanwhile, the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association is in favour of a move to “no-notice” inspections, having debated the issue at its annual congress this year.

Teachers who argue for shorter lead-in times claim that the move would ensure there is no window-dressing by senior management: badly behaved children could not be sent home for the week and teachers would not feel obliged to prepare every lesson as if it were “a crit”. They also hope that “pre-inspection inspections” – conducted by local authorities to prepare schools for the real thing – would become rarer.

It is worth noting one teacher’s concern that a surprise inspection regime could prompt the running of “mock snap-inspections” instead. The EIS has also warned of the potential risk that “headteachers put staff on year-round alert”. Both scenarios have played out in England, where schools have faced no-notice inspections for some time.

This is not the first time that such a move has been mooted in Scotland. The last time was in 2011 but the idea was rejected – despite some strong support during the consultation process – because no-notice inspections were deemed by Education Scotland to be “problematic from a practical point of view”. There were also concerns that they would increase anxiety among staff and make it harder to involve parents.

Much of that debate is being echoed in 2015. But among the most vocal this time is the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, which has welcomed inspectors getting “a taste of the school as it really is”. It is interesting that teachers increasingly feel the same way. But they should tread very, very carefully.

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