Why the inspector should continue to call

ABOLISH independent school inspection, says the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland (ADES). We agree, says the primary school headteachers' union, the Association of Heads and Deputies in Scotland (ADHS). Well, they would, wouldn't they?

It is understandable that, after the tragic suicide of Miss Irene Hogg, the teaching head of Glendinning Terrace Primary School in Galashiels, and the resulting fatal accident inquiry that laid no blame on the manner of the critical school inspection she endured, that her brother should call for the abolition of Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Education (HMIe).

Understandable, yes, but nevertheless an overreaction towards a process that has existed for some 170 years and evaluates the quality of pre-school education, all schools, teacher education, community learning, further education – and the local authorities that manage so much of it.

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Give the responsibility to us, says John Stodter, the general secretary of education bosses ADES, and we can inspect ourselves and the schools we run – without so much as a blush over the conflict of interest that such self-evaluation of his colleagues' management would ensure.

Mr Stodter suggests that, instead of inspecting individual schools, HMIe should check over only what councils are saying in their own evaluations, although how this could be done effectively without duplicating such procedures or going into schools and possibly upsetting teachers is not clear.

Let our council bosses inspect our primaries, says Greg Dempster, general secretary of ADHS, complaining that HMIe does not visit schools often enough and "drill down" into enough detail.

Such criticisms suggest that what is required are more inspections, possibly with greater in-depth analysis, rather than the once-every-seven-years snapshots.

Mr Dempster's opinion also flies in the face of a post-inspection survey completed by his own members that showed nearly 80 per cent of heads thought inspections provided a positive overall experience and that many had praised the inspectors for their approach. Such a resounding vote of confidence for HMIe compares with a satisfaction level of only 40 per cent in a similar report published last year.

The key aspect of school inspections is surely that they are independent of the provider. Could we trust second-hand car dealers with their own inspection reports if we abolished independent MOT certificates for cars over three years old? Of course not. Nor should we trust quality control of our schools to those that run them.

Most of Scotland's public schools came out of the Kirk establishing a school in every parish before they gradually came under local authority control. Self-governing and often reflecting the individual character of the all-powerful school dominie, the inspectorate provided a national standard and an independent insight that helped to raise standards.

When school management became more centralised under council officials and never-ending Scottish Government initiatives, the importance of the HMIe grew because it was one of the few institutions that could report on a school's performance without being leant on by councillors or council officials seeking to protect their own empires or reputations.

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Scotland's schools inspectorate played a central role in helping Scotland to develop a reputation for educational excellence and then trying to maintain it. Were it not for the regular reports of HMIe, the evidence of Scotland's educational decline would have remained in council vaults, letting politicians off the hook.

That the inspection process is stressful to teachers or that the process could be improved upon is not denied, even by HMIe – but to make it stress-free would probably mean it offered no serious critical analysis that would be in the public domain and available to parents.

Quality control reports from local authorities would be back-scratching exercises seeking to avoid the difficult and unpleasant issues confronting some schools as the councils' unwillingness to release comparative school attainment figures demonstrates.

What, then, can we do about schools inspections to make them more relevant, more accessible and understandable to parents and education bosses alike?

First, the reports themselves still leave room for improvement in the language they employ.

Although involved throughout my adulthood in education, either in a professional capacity, as a consultant to the General Teaching Council for Scotland and as Conservative education spokesman, or privately, as a parent who used the state system for my children, it took me a while to get used to reading the diplomatic and education-speak they use.

Second, we could do more as a country to encourage discussion about education, raising its value and importance in the public mind. Ensuring HMIe is more regularly in front of the Scottish Parliament's education committee – presenting its findings and initiating real in-depth discussion about what can be done to help improve the achievements of pupils – would aid this process. Not looking at individual schools but looking at trends would initiate much-needed evidence-based scrutiny.

Discussing also the merits or faults of the individual local authorities that HMIe inspects – just like Audit Scotland looks at the performance of health boards and reports on them to the parliament's audit committee – would undoubtedly help encourage more debate about each council's performance.

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When last were your council's educational standards given such an airing?

Indeed, there is every reason to see the Auditor General and Audit Scotland as the model for reforming HMIe – making the Chief Inspector of Education accountable to parliament, rather than the government of the day that will always have its own agenda and own axe to grind.

Open up the debate through our parliament and the work of HMIe and we shall deliver critical analysis and encourage a thousand flowers to bloom.

• Brian Monteith is policy director of ThinkScotland.org and a former Conservative MSP.

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