School Inspections: what next? (Dr Bill Maxwell)
Let me start by saying how pleased I am to have returned to take up the reins at HMIE at such an interesting time in the evolution of Scottish education. Curriculum for Excellence is going through a crucial stage of implementation. Early years and skills strategies are gathering pace and a full-scale government review of teacher education and training is underway. In the wider world of public service improvement much is also changing. We have just been partners, for example, in launching Scotland’s first ever national scrutiny plan, presenting an integrated view of how the key scrutiny bodies are working together to provide assurance across all areas of local authority services, including education. Then there is the implementation of the local government ‘concordat’ and Scotland’s first National Performance Framework, in which the evidence from inspections play a significant part.
So much is on the move and, as I took up post, it seemed to me very timely that I should set in train a significant review of how the inspectorate goes about undertaking its role and how we need to adapt the way we go about our core business for the future. It is a key part of my job to ensure that the inspectorate also continues to evolve in ways that match broader changes in the education system, and that the way we go about school inspections, for example, continues to be fit for purpose.
So what is the purpose of school inspections? Essentially I think our inspection programmes exist to do three main things. Firstly, they are there to provide assurance to parents and the wider community that schools are offering high-quality education for their children thereby promoting public accountability for the resources that schools use. Secondly, they provide rich opportunities for inspectors to identify effective practice and then go about actively spread this practice, or principles derived from it, to other schools across the whole of Scotland. Thirdly our inspections give us a uniquely broad base of evidence about current, front-line practice, which enable us to give solid advice to Ministers and their officials to inform their decisions about national policy.
All three of these purposes need to be borne in mind when we are reviewing our individual inspection frameworks and all three have certainly influenced the way that school inspections have evolved in recent years.
School inspections have changed out of all recognition since I started as a new recruit to HMIE in 1994. The last major set of changes, introduced around two years ago, were designed to ensure a focus on the quality of children’s experiences and achievements in the broadest sense. Inspections now build very directly on schools’ own self-evaluation. They aim to maximise opportunities for professional discussion, and to use that discussion to generate improved outcomes for all children.
The 2008 changes aimed to responded to a number of factors including the maturation of self-evaluation in schools and in the support and challenge functions of local authorities; a national drive to streamline processes of inspection for those being inspected; the introduction of Curriculum for Excellence and the need to ensure most effective and efficient use of HMIE expertise and resources.
Since these new school inspection models began, we have received very positive feedback from headteachers who have experienced them. Almost all headteachers and most staff have told us that inspections have been helpful. Similarly, almost all staff have expressed positive views about the principle of building on the school’s self-evaluation. Equally, however, I know there is no room for complacency. We expect to see continuous improvement in schools. I am committed to ensuring continuous improvement in the inspection process too.
So, whilst there are certainly considerable strengths evident in the way the current school inspections are now working, I think it is nonetheless timely to take stock of the whole school inspection framework with a view to ensuring it is as effective as it can be, fit-for-purpose and sustainable in the challenging times ahead.
This autumn, HMIE will publish a paper called Principles of Inspection and Review. It will set out the principles which HMIE are committed to applying across all the different sectors of education and services for children. It will provide a key point of reference against which all of our inspection frameworks will be measured, starting with a review of how we inspect schools.
Our new School Inspection Framework will be launched for consultation later this year and will be introduced through piloting from April 2011. Given that feedback from stakeholders tells us that our existing school inspection methods are working well, the extent of change within individual inspections may not be radical, but we will certainly build in a stronger focus on Curriculum for Excellence and other issues raised by the consultation may include:
- a reconsideration the ‘generational’ cycle of inspections, currently every seven years for primary schools and six years for secondary schools;
- the length of advance notice for inspections (we give three weeks notice at present);
- new approaches to inspecting very small schools;
- increased pupil involvement in school inspection (building on the success of student participation in college reviews at present); and
- the option of involving senior staff in aspects of the inspection process.
Perhaps our greatest privilege and our greatest asset is the ability to visit classrooms across the whole of Scotland to see children’s experiences at first hand. The direct observation of learning and teaching gives us a unique insight into what really matters in schools right across Scotland. It allows us to make authoritative evaluations about the quality of education and to give well-informed, learner-centred advice to ministers. We will certainly retain that element strongly in our next generation of inspection models.
Our new School Inspection Framework will be finalised in response to feedback from a wide consultation exercise this autumn. We are keen to get as much consensus around our new approaches as possible and would encourage all AHDS members to engage in and contribute to the consultation exercise. AHDS is already represented on an external reference group which is helping us develop the proposals for wider consultation.
I am very keen to ensure that inspections support improvement and development work in schools, and promote innovation across the system. I am concerned when I hear suggestions that, if schools do something innovative, they will be criticised for it. On the contrary, schools should be have every confidence that where inspectors find innovative developments which are well-planned and likely to lead to improved experiences and outcomes for children, they will be delighted and the school will receive considerable credit as a result.
Indeed I place a high priority on the inspectorate’s role as a disseminator of effective, sometimes innovative, practice, drawing on the engagement we have through inspection and feeding it back through a range of other methods which are helpful to teachers. These include good practice guides such as our Learning Together series and our Journey to Excellence website. We certainly do not want to prescribe to schools how they should do things, but we do want to offer constructive challenge and access to ideas about teaching and learning from across Scotland which teachers may not otherwise come across.
And there are other new ways in which we can provide extra support for building capacity for change in the education system. In May of this year, I announced HMIE’s plans to provide extra support for implementation of Curriculum for Excellence from August until December 2010. Work will focus mainly, but not exclusively, on secondary schools. Although a huge amount of very good work has been done in primary schools to implement Curriculum for Excellence, we all know that much remains to be done to ensure that all children benefit fully. Our work willaim to build capacity in schools and local authorities and to ensure that there are sustained arrangements in place to provide continuing support and challenge in the future.
Inspections will continue in primary schools this autumn. HMIE will continue to support the implementation of Curriculum for Excellence through professional dialogue with staff during inspections; and finding, sharing and publicising the best examples of good progress.
As the new academic year begins, one of my key objectives is to ensure that teachers increasingly see the inspectorate as a constructive force that helps them learn and improve whilst also giving parents and the public the assurance they need to have confidence about the quality of the education being provided in schools for their children. If we achieve that we will help achieve better outcomes for Scotland’s young people and I look forward to working with you all in partnership towards that end.