Tavish Scott: School inspectors need independence again

Exams beckon for secondary school pupils the length and breadth of Scotland. The prelims, or preliminary exams as my English teacher used to call them, are a test run for the real thing in the spring.

Exams beckon for secondary school pupils the length and breadth of Scotland. The prelims, or preliminary exams as my English teacher used to call them, are a test run for the real thing in the spring.

What is often forgotten is that teachers and schools face exams of a different kind. A school inspection is a formidable experience for all staff and the entire school. The subsequent publication of a report into how well a school teaches really matters – and so it should. But there is an aspect of this process that should be reformed. The school inspectors of the former Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education have been merged with Learning and Teaching Scotland into something called Education Scotland.

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So the inspectorate is no longer a standalone body. It is part of a wider government quango. The crucial independence – and perception of independence – has been lost.

In 2000, the parliament’s education committee investigated the Higher Still programme and, on a cross-party basis, agreed to separate education policy from inspecting schools. School inspectors had been responsible for devising the Higher Still exams. The education committee concluded that the conflict of interest was not appropriate for ministers, inspectors or, most importantly, children.

Today the same applies. Education Scotland provides policy advice to ministers. It is responsible for the Curriculum for Excellence and the new exams being rolled out across Scottish secondary education. Yet, in time, inspectors will have to analyse and judge the effectiveness of these reforms. That creates a conflict of interest.

In 2000, the then education minister Jack McConnell pre-empted the committee and split policy from inspection. He was correct.

So what should happen today? Take the example of Audit Scotland, which scrutinises the nation’s finances. Very little taxpayers’ money is spent in Scotland without this group of experts and accountants investigating how well it is done and to what effect. Audit Scotland reports to parliament, not the government.

Similarly, the Information Commissioner reports to parliament. The Commissioner is nothing short of a right nuisance to national and local government of all political persuasions, ensuring citizens can get answers to questions that politicians and bureaucrats would prefer to hide.

Of course there is a need for a national education policy. Any education minister needs to know about standards and the longer-term trends of whether an exam system is equipping young people for life, work and wider society.

But what is correct in principle for the auditing of public money and the releasing of state information should apply to school inspections. The current education minister, Mike Russell, was an author of the 2000 committee report. It was the right argument in 2000, Mike – why not do the same again?

• Tavish Scott is Liberal Democrat MSP for Shetland