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What if a school fails?

In the first of a regular series, Douglas Osler argues that sending 'hit squads' into schools is a gesture not a solution

THE cry has gone up again: "send in the hit squads". We have been here before and there have been many discussions with many ministers (and there have been many ministers, but more of that another time) looking for a formula that would satisfy the "but what if . . ." philosophy. The "what if" is what happens if an individual school or education authority fails to take action to improve the deal for pupils.

It is a perfectly reasonable question. There are few unsatisfactory schools in Scotland but there are some, and there are not many authorities without the capacity to bring about improvement but there are some. The quality of education should not depend on whether you happen to live near a well-run school or within the boundaries of an effective authority.

Ministers have always had adequate statutory powers to intervene where schools or authorities perform unsatisfactorily. The issue has always been the form of the intervention not the powers. Thus the call for hit squads.

Until the 1980s, it would have been unthinkable that government would see it as its role to intervene. Only in the 1980s, really from Michael Forsyth's time, did governments begin to take an interest in the quality of individual schools rather than in the performance of Scottish education as a whole. One sign of that was the shift from annual inspection of a statistical sample of schools designed to inform ministers about the overall quality of education to a commitment to publish more frequent reports on individual schools. A school was no longer just contributing to a national sample. It was the focus of public attention. The accountability lines were changing.

Parents are more concerned about the quality of the school they use than about the effectiveness of the local authority, that is until their school is clearly weak and not improving. Then the focus of parental attention shifts to the authority. That is often sparked by an unsatisfactory inspection which confirms that all is not well.

Then the follow-up report might show that little or no progress has been made. Whose fault is that? The focus is back on the authority. I remember the frustration experienced by HMI when a follow- up inspection revealed that neither the headteacher nor the authority had taken action to improve the school. There was nowhere to go to bring further pressure to bear. That is why I was always keen to see the accountability that comes from inspection being extended to local authorities. That was fairer to schools and brought accountability to lie alongside responsibility.

In the case of individual schools, the remedy is easier. It always surprised me how quickly an unsatisfactory school can be turned round.

Usually, it meant a change of headteacher because, in most cases, the problem is people not policies. The combination of new management and an effective education authority will bring about rapid improvement. That happens regularly because, by and large, we have effective education authorities. That is why the way we respond to underachieving schools is better than the "failing schools" labelling elsewhere. Apart from not believing that there is such a thing as a school which is failing in its totality, I never saw the point of formally closing a school on Friday and reopening it on Monday with the same building, same resources, same staff but a new headteacher. We do a lot of things better here.

We can do better than hit squads too. Yes, there are problems but the best approach is to use the existing system. We already have adequate safeguards in place. We just need to use them. The local authority should always retain responsibility for the quality of the local education service.

ho would join the hit squads, anyway? HMIs are hired to evaluate not to implement change. Elsewhere in the UK, retired educationists have comprised the "intervention panel". Their recent experience does not always make them obvious choices but they are available and well-known names satisfy the public lust for action. There have also been suggestions that a successful authority could send in troops to a weaker one. In a country this size, that is invidious and professionally humiliating. If those occupying the relevant posts are unable to do what is needed, they should be removed not sidelined. Anyway, we have all seen what can happen when someone lauded for their success becomes a travelling expert and weeds grow rapidly in their own backyard.

A panel of "critical friends" might be a possibility, giving the officials a group with whom to discuss ideas but it should publish its advice along with the authority's response. If it is really down to the quality of the people involved, there is a case for paying more attention to the recruitment and training of education officers. Much effort has gone into training headteachers and continuing professional development will reinforce the skills of teachers but more should be done for those who pursue their careers in local authorities.

The answer, then, relies on quality people in responsible posts and public monitoring and follow-up. The most effective way to improve the system is through the system. It works well in most parts of Scotland. This is not an excuse for doing nothing. Unsatisfactory performance requires emergency action and quick resolution.

Talk of "hit squads" is a gesture not a solution. Hit squads won't bring about the improvements that matter if you are sitting in a classroom.

Anyway, no right-minded politician wants a failed hit squad making a mess on his electoral doorstep. What we need, though, is an emphasis on ensuring quality in his public statements. When a minister does that, it reassures and warns.

Douglas Osler is former senior chief inspector of education in Scotland.

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