School inspections - are they for improvement or accountability?

Written by Tom Freeman on 15 March 2016 in Feature

The role of Education Scotland's school inspections comes under scrutiny of its own

When a school is visited by inspectors, no matter how much inspectors or management might frame it as a positive experience, it can be an anxious experience for teachers.

It is entirely understandable and appropriate for the event to be taken seriously, of course, but how is the data which is collected used, and how visible should it be for teachers and parents? In short, what or who are inspections for? Improvement or accountability?

The role of inspections was highlighted recently by the Scottish Conservatives after Liz Smith MSP discovered, via a written question, that the numbers had gone down. The figures showed 137 of the country’s 2,543 schools were inspected in the last academic year, down from a high of 491 in 2004/05. 


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Keir Bloomer, former director of education and Curriculum for Education architect, said inspections are now “virtually useless as a source of information for parents”.

Conservative leader Ruth Davidson took the opportunity at First Minister’s Questions to announce plans to separate the inspection regime from improvement agency Education Scotland, suggesting inspections were too close to those who set policy. 

“We want an inspection regime that demands high standards and improvement from coasting schools and, crucially, we want parents to be given regular and up-to-date information,” she said.

In her reply, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon insisted the inspection regime is already independent, and said parents and other members of the public will be able to see how schools are doing through the new national improvement framework.

In a letter to newspapers, Carole Ford, the former president of head teachers’ professional association School Leaders Scotland, said the merging of inspections into Education Scotland had resulted in a focus into the implementation of Curriculum for Excellence as opposed to checking standards.

“Compliance is therefore more important than standards for schools wishing to receive a favourable report. HMIE inspections failed utterly to detect the sharp drop in literacy and numeracy levels in our schools, absolute proof that they are no longer monitoring quality and standards, merely conformity to the Curriculum for Excellence,” she said.

Is Education Scotland’s dual role blurred? The Scottish Parliament’s Education and Culture Committee asked this question as part of its examination of all the public bodies serving Scottish education.

Bloomer told the committee last summer: “Do schools see themselves as customers of the main national agencies—in this case, Education Scotland and, to a lesser extent, the Scottish Qualifications Authority? Do they believe that those are places where they can get help in solving the problems that they experience? 

“I suspect that the answer to that question is no. Schools tend to view those agencies as bringing about ways of imposing upon them policies that have been devised further up the system. That seems to be the wrong way round.” 

Education Scotland argues it has adopted an improvement-focused approach, designed to build the capacity of schools to self-evaluate and improve themselves. 

“Rather than being something to ‘get through’, we have developed inspection as a helpful process to identify areas for improvement and assist in securing it,” it said in its submission to the committee, claiming it would be “unlikely” that an Education Scotland intervention “would be the sole reason for improvement” happening in a school.

“Fundamentally and ultimately, our main customer is the learner,” Education Scotland’s chief executive Dr Bill Maxwell told the committee.

Maxwell said inspections serve three purposes. First, he argued, they should improve schools and teachers’ capacity to drive their own improvement. Secondly, they should assure parents of the effectiveness of the service. Thirdly, he said, it “allows us to advise ministers on how progress is being made nationally or in particular regions on key priority areas.” 

During the last academic year, the period raised by the Scottish Conservatives as being short on school inspections, Education Scotland was instead engaged in supporting schools with the implementation of the new Curriculum for Excellence senior phase, according to the agency.

And not everyone believes the role of inspections should be about accountability. In its own submission to the inquiry, the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland (ADES) said, rather than too few inspections, there were actually too many. 

“While there is support for the ongoing self-evaluation programme and the validation of this through inspection activity, ADES feels there is too much inspection activity across education and children’s services and, despite recommendations from the Crerar Report and promises from the various inspection bodies for a more targeted and proportionate approach, the amount of activity has actually increased. 

“While ADES supports external inspection activity and can demonstrate how that can benefit schools and local authorities, the main desired outcome is school improvement and not accountability. Accountability can be demonstrated in other aspects of public sector scrutiny,” it said.

Scotland’s biggest teaching union, the EIS, went further. “Inspection statistics might suggest the need for a more strongly supportive approach and possibly the abandonment of formal inspection altogether in favour of a model designed solely to provide support to teachers and educational establishments,” it said.

Instead, Education Scotland has introduced ‘surprise inspections’, where a school is given as little as two days to prepare for a visit. On the one hand, this will reduce the stressful time leading up to an inspection, but will it reduce stress overall? 

An EIS spokesperson told Glasgow’s Evening Times: “It may also create other practical issues if they are announced during a period of unexpected staff shortage.

“There may also be a potential risk of head teachers putting staff on year-round alert due to the short notice nature of inspections. As ever, the key to positive inspections will continue to be dialogue with all staff.”

Pilots of the new approach began in October. Also due to be tested this year are ‘neighbourhood reviews’, designed to give parents an overview of a secondary school and its cluster of surrounding primaries and nurseries. 

These changes are an attempt to move focus from the establishment to the learner, according to Alastair Delaney, director of inspection at Education Scotland. “Rather than inspecting the establishment itself, the inspection will instead focus on the learner’s journey and their experience of the different elements of their education,” he said.

But will it drive up standards or be less of a stressful ordeal for teachers? That remains to be seen. 

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