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Review of inspection - A response from Greg Dempster

Review of inspection - A response from Greg Dempster

On 26 April, Janie McManus (Interim Chief Inspector of HMIe) informed AHDS and other partners that HMIe will "review school inspection approaches to ensure that they reflect changes in educational priorities."

The exact scope and timescale of the review is not yet clear.  Ms McManus went on to say:

  "The review will explore various aspects of the school inspection process, including the How Good Is Our School? 4th edition framework, activities before, during and following an inspection, and how we report our findings.

  This review will involve thorough engagement with stakeholders. We aim to listen to opinions and ideas to understand perspectives on current inspection practices as well what stakeholders envision for the future of school inspections. It is important to us that we hear from a wide and diverse range of voices across the education sector.

  We will begin planning the review in detail in the coming weeks and will share our approach and how we intend to engage with you in due course. I will provide further details as they become available."

AHDS will engage fully as this review emerges.  We will share our strongly held belief that while HMIe delivers the existing model of inspection effectively, it is not an efficient or effective way of providing assurance about the quality of education across Scotland, nor does it ensure system improvement.  We believe current approaches to inspection require significant streamlining, refocussing and revision to deliver what Scotland requires.   

A shake-up of inspection (Greg Dempster's article published in TESS on 29 April 2024)

In Emma Seith’s article ‘What is the future of school inspection in Scotland?’ of 26th April, Janie McManus talks about Scotland’s school inspection system being “fundamentally reviewed”.

For a great many years, AHDS has been arguing for just that (though there is a strong likelihood we mean different things).

We want this review to:

  • Simplify and streamline the inspection landscape.
  • Take an intelligent and economical approach to providing assurance about quality.
  • Move away from any ‘scores on the doors’ forming part of any inspection reports.

What the system absolutely does not need is more inspection. (And for those who suggest that it does, multiplying the budget of the inspectorate several times over is simply not tenable in the current budget landscape.)

Let’s start with what works well with inspections.

We have a system of school inspection which gets a broadly positive review from school leaders who have recently experienced it (other than the huge additional workload and stress that it brings). They talk of fair, valuable and high-quality dialogue with inspectors.

As such, the comments that follow are not a reflection on the inspection teams who are out and about around Scotland delivering the current inspection model.

So, what are the problems?

The issue with including gradings in inspection reports is that they become a distraction which offers an easy route to simplistic and misleading assumptions about school performance. This has been rehearsed ad infinitum so I won’t go over the arguments here other than to say that AHDS agrees that they should not form part of inspection reporting.

Turning to the way the inspection system is currently organised, moment in time inspections on a sample basis have very limited value in ensuring quality or delivering improvement across the system. Schools not being inspected for the best part of two decades is a big gap in this model but even with a generational cycle of inspections (an inspection every seven years in primary), there are huge periods of time between these measures of performance and the reports quickly go out of date.

Nurseries and nursey classes experience the opposite problem. They face inspections from the Care Inspectorate and HMIe who both bring different expectations to inspections and different frameworks for establishments to navigate. Over-inspection is a very real issue. While work is ongoing to establish a shared inspection framework, this will not reduce the burden of such frequent inspections.

Meanwhile, we have a system which legally places the duty to ensure school quality and improvement with local authorities. What this means is that local authorities need to know their schools well, challenging them to improve and supporting them to do so. With that in mind, why on earth do we have an inspection system which ignores that local authority role and instead focuses on individual schools.

What might a more effective approach to inspection look like?

If the goal of inspection is assurance and improvement, a far more effective model would be for HMIe to inspect the capacity of local authorities to know and support the improvement of their schools.

Local authorities are already responsible for supporting and improving schools. Rather than seeking to duplicate part of that function by inspecting a comparatively tiny number of schools each year, the inspectorate should seek to ensure that local authorities are discharging their duties as effectively as possible. This respects the place of local authorities in our system and avoids unnecessary overlap between their work and that of HMIe. It would also remove the extremely high workload and pressure that goes with a school inspection which can have a huge impact on school teams even if the report is positive.

While it might be outside the scope of the review, we would also like to see the quality assurance and inspection regime completely re-imagined for early years. A primary school with a nursery class is currently expected to engage with inspections from Education Scotland and the Care Inspectorate as well as three self-evaluation frameworks. A nursery school has two inspectorates and two self-evaluation frameworks. This is a huge burden on leadership time in these establishments and must be addressed. The sector should be overseen by one inspectorate – if that means that local authority nursery schools and classes are overseen by a different inspectorate than other environments such as playgroups, private nurseries and child-minders then that is a complexity that should be managed at the system level rather than applying multiple scrutiny and evaluation systems to all. Again, for local authority nurseries and nursery classes, inspection could be much more efficiently undertaken (and offer a bigger lever for improvement) if it focussed on the local authority’s effectiveness in supporting, challenging and ensuring standards in these establishments.

Surely, the education system, parents and pupils would be better served by an approach to inspection which avoids duplicating roles (with the Care Inspectorate and Local Authorities) and looks instead to ensure that those charged with ensuring quality and improvement are effectively discharging their duties?

Not only would this offer the opportunity for the activity of the inspectorate to have greater impact, it would be cheaper to deliver.

Greg Dempster

AHDS General Secretary