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We need to ask who guards the guards

After 10 years, it is time to review the role of lay inspectors in schools, says Douglas Osler.

The Scottish Consumer Council's (SCC) report on lay involvement in inspections in Scotland reminds the Executive that issues of effectiveness and consistency require review. We need an independent look at the diverse existing practices and to consider whether lay contributors should be confined to an individual public service or used across the services inspected by Executive review bodies.

Lay involvement was introduced after the Citizen's Charter in 1991 and HM Inspectors of Schools, as they then were, pioneered the initiative in Scotland with a pilot of five lay members in 1992-93.

The SCC publication takes issue with several features of lay involvement in inspectorates in Scotland. When it became a requirement in 1991, there was no attempt in the then Scottish Office to develop a common approach and the result is a series of unplanned, contradictory styles.

For example, the police inspectorate employs a part-time, paid lay inspector for a three-year term, whereas HMIE relies on unpaid volunteers with no time limit on service, who lack the title "inspector". That raises the issue of whether a single lay inspector, absorbed into the organisation for a three-year term, can be said to represent the broad spectrum of public interest. On the other hand, can those drawn from HMIE's pool, doing a limited number of inspections a year, compete in any real sense with the contributions of the professionals? They cannot.

From the beginning, there was a danger of lay contributors becoming absorbed into the ethos of an organisation because they were either overwhelmed or lacked the confidence to make their view stick. We hoped that by using a wide range of people, not too often, and by limiting the time that they would serve, this problem might be overcome.

One chief inspector in England (not in education) told me that he would not offer any training because, as soon as his professionals trained the "lay" members, their "layness" would be jeopardised. It was also cheaper.

There is yet another style of lay contribution in the Scottish Executive. A layman leads the prisons inspectorate. It has the only chief inspector or head of a regulatory body in Scotland where professional knowledge is a bar to appointment. It is an interesting anomaly but it certainly introduces lay involvement at the top.

The SCC report also takes issue with the word "lay", describing it as negative, "focusing on what people are not (that is, professionally trained) rather than what they are". An odd piece of logic, as the point is they are "lay" and not professionally trained in the discipline they inspect.

It is questionable, of course, whether any section of the population can be identified as having a lay approach to any public service. Professional inspectors in education, for example, are also parents, users of adult education, members of the public. Their evaluations often owe as much to their experience in the multitude of other roles we all have as to their particular professional background.

The SCC believes the involvement of lay people in inspections "can be seen as one of many initiatives to develop public involvement in public services and as an aid to accountability and representation".

It is doubtful that any of the current arrangements achieve that. Certainly all the lay schemes bring a broader range of the public into inspection teams, but do they do anything that inspectors would not do for themselves? In education, I always doubted that.

Much more important was the overall impression of openness and attention to public concerns given by the presence of lay members within the inspectorate. It saw off the accusations that the inspectors of public services were in the pocket of their fellow professionals.

The notion that lay involvement brings greater accountability does not hold water in some of the inspectorates' arrangements. Although the lay members might write notes for the reporting officer and comment on the final draft, they do not make a direct contribution to the report from the outsider's perspective. If they did, that would sharpen things up. Also, the lay contributors are not accountable to anyone other than the inspectorate which recruits them, thus lessening their room for independent comment.

They might not be used again.

If a lay contribution is to be genuinely reassuring to those who read the final report and use the institution, it is arguable that, in the case of schools for example, the selection of a lay member from the pool who has no connection of any kind with the school being inspected is the wrong approach.

I wonder if the lay member in each inspection should be a parent nominated by the school. He or she would be the school's advocate on the inspection team without training and without contributing to the inspectors' final report. The parent would produce a statement for the school evaluating the extent and effectiveness of the inspection coverage against its guidelines and drawing out lessons to be learned by the school from the inspection.

That would be a more challenging appointment for the inspectors and more meaningful for the school's advocate.

Lay involvement is here to stay if government continues to hold it as important, although there have been signs that inspectorates could quietly erode the arrangements without much comment being passed. It is time, as the SCC suggests, to review the arrangements across Scottish inspection and regulation bodies and seek to establish common principles.

Many of these issues support a new approach in which lay contributors would be recruited by the Executive for deployment across public service inspections. This would strengthen their contributions and give them a specific line of accountability outside any one inspectorate or review body. It is time for an independent look at the past 10 years.

Douglas Osler is former head of the education inspectorate in Scotland.

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