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How was it for you? (Your inspection, that is)

Well, the dust has settled, time has passed, the report is out and perhaps now is the time I am best able to look back and reflect on the inspection process I was involved with during the last term of the 2014-15 school session. We had returned following the Easter break, and I and a two teachers were heading off on the Tuesday for a residential with our P6s to Edinburgh, when I got the 'confidential' phone call as we waited for the bus. Not ideal, but I suspect the timings for such communication rarely are, if ever, ideal. So I had two days in Edinburgh with lots of excited P6s, trying to remain mindful and in the present, when all the time my mind was actually very much elsewhere. I received a text from school informing me on the Wednesday that 'The box has arrived. We have put it in your office and told no-one.' My DHT had recognised the contents straightaway and had been able to stop our administrator from taking it to the staffroom to ask 'Has anybody ordered something from Education Scotland?' Like everything, the breaking of the news to staff had to be managed and it could wait for my return.

In Scotland we are subject to inspection by Her Majesty's Inspectors for Education (HMIE) who were subsumed into Education Scotland when this replaced Learning and Teaching Scotland and the two organisations were rolled into one, though they still very much directed by the Scottish Government.The current pattern of inspections has tried to keep to a seven year cycle, so that a school would be inspected at least once during a child's passage through their school. They have struggled more and more to keep to this seven year cycle, but it was generally what was still in place up to the end of last session. We had last been inspected as a school in 2007, so we were expecting a visit pretty soon. We get two weeks notice of an impending inspection in primary and three weeks in secondary schools.

Once you have received 'the box', which contains paperwork and questionnaires for pupils, staff and parents, you then have a couple of weeks to issue these and get the required paperwork together, and some of it off to the HMIE team ahead of their visit. You also get notice of who your Managing Inspector (MI) will be and some details of the team they will bring. The MI also phones the headteacher a few days after the notice of inspection is received to go over some details, answer questions and generally try to put the headteacher at ease, whilst still recognising the stresses involved in the process. The inspection regime has changed a lot in Scotland over the years and attempts to be much more supportive and collaborative in tone and nature, and perhaps more of a professional dialogue around where the school is at, focused on the learning of the pupils. This was to be my fourth inspection, third as a headteacher, and I can see they have changed from my first experience which was very focused on policies and paperwork to the one we have now which is much more about the learners and learning. In my first inspection you still had the inspector who was sat at the back of the class, clipboard in hand, and giving little away, whereas now the inspectors are very much more hands-on and open in their approach. The process is still stressful for all staff and school leaders, but it is more humane now and recognising of those stresses. The tone is a lot more collaborative and it feels more like something that is done with you, rather than to you, as much as possible in such a scenario. 

So how did ours go and what were the lessons that might be applicable for others? I need to keep all this as general as possible of course to protect the confidentiality and integrity of all involved, but I think I can do this and still be able to share some big messages, as well as some of my own views. I understand that a lot of this may be particular to the Scottish system but I also think there may be messages and experiences that have resonance for other systems too.

On my return from Edinburgh I immediately called all staff together to inform them of the impending inspection. From the moment we received the notice, I saw my main role as keeping everyone calm and getting them to realise and recognise all the aspects of the school we are proud of and should look forward to sharing with our visitors. We had been preparing the ground ahead anyway by giving that same message for a number of years. Now we just needed to keep reminding everyone of this and to stop them from over thinking and trying to second guess the inspectors. I have always argued that if we are concentrating on the things that are really important, then inspections, reviews, audits and the like will take care of themselves. This was our opportunity to to see if this was true and to celebrate our development journey. We should look forward to telling the school's story.

The Managing Inspector contacted me by phone early the next week. From our first contact she was at pains to reassure me and all staff about the process and arrangements. She understood that staff would be stressed but she was looking to work in partnership with myself and the DHT to minimise this as much as feasibly possible. She went through some of the basic arrangements with me and answered one tor two questions I had regarding the week of the inspection. She left me to get on with completing arrangements and necessary paperwork and said she would be back in touch again ahead of the visit. I must say that from our first conversation over the phone the MI worked hard to allay concerns and to answer any questions. The MI is the key person in leading the inspection and so you need to build a relationship and an understanding with him or her. I have no doubt this is easier with some than others and you may have to work harder with some, but you have to find a way of working together otherwise the inspection will be flawed and weakened as a result. Not that the process is perfect in the first place!

And so it was that the inspection team arrived Monday lunchtime a couple of weeks later. In the meantime we had completed all the paperwork required, a lot of which we had been updating on an ongoing basis. The amount of required paperwork was not great and was fairly easy put together. Staff had made sure the school was looking as good as it could and we had met with all of them in groups and individually just to reassure them about what they were doing. We had a number of staff off work due to illness and I had already alerted the MI about this. We were fortunate that we had a few retired teachers who were willing to come into school during the inspection week to help us out. Which is another point about the inspection process. You need to accept and understand when situations and circumstances conspire against you so that you may not be able to showcase  the school as you wish. But that's the reality of day to day work in school and it is an opportunity for,you to demonstrate how you cope in such circumstances and the procedures you have in place to ensure learning continues. Any inspector worth listening to understands the issues that can present themselves on a daily basis for school leaders. Yes, it is frustrating when events conspire against you but you just need to learn to roll with it and not beat yourself up, or put more pressure on yourself or others, because of such events.

The first meeting is what is called the 'scoping meeting' where the headteacher and DHT, or other SMT if you desire, talk through the self evaluation pro-forma previously submitted, expand on the information given and answer questions from the team. This is an important meeting as it sets out where the school is on it's development journey, gives and understanding of the school ethos and culture and allows you to identify key areas that you would like the team to look at and which you feel provide evidence of the school's strengths. My explanation began with getting the team to understand how we were driven by our values and how we then started building everything from the learning experiences and understanding of our pupils. They generally listened and asked nĂºmerous questions as they sought to understand the school. We had identified the culture and ethos of the school, the impact of practitioner enquiry and where we were with the national 1+2 modern languages programme as areas for closer examination. We also laid out where we thought we were in terms of development and Curriculum for Excellence and how we used self-evaluation to identify where we were. Following this meeting, the team then met to discuss what they had heard and prepare for visits to classrooms beginning the following day. We had a lay inspector as part of the team and he began meetings with parents, pupils and community members on that first Monday afternoon.

The rest of the team arrived on Tuesday, we had a team of six, and they began their classroom visits on Tuesday morning and these continued up to Thursday lunchtime. Myself and the DHT had a number of meetings, usually two or more a day, with the MI and other team members as they challenged and probed about what they had seen, and about systems and structures we had in place. These were all important as the MI acknowledged the model they were seeing was not one they found in many schools they visited, and because we kept paperwork to a minimum, they wanted to understand clearly our approach and the thinking that lay behind this. This was great to hear because it showed they had no set curricula model or approach they were looking for, they were more concerned with impact for pupils and learners. I tend to believe, and said, that the HMIE and others, tend to start with systems and structures and then build the learning around these. I had already explained how we did this the other way around, and they were fine with this, and they went out of their way to understand our approach.

Anyway, we must have succeeded because at the end of the week the lead inspector acknowledged that everything we said about the school on the Monday and during our conversations, was what they had seen and heard over the week. They agreed with us, mostly, about where we said the school was and what our strengths were. They identified a couple of points for us to look at but acknowledged we were aware of these already and they expressed confidence in us to be able to continue to take these forward. I didn't agree with everything they had to say, but there wasn't much that I was prepared to get into too much dispute about.They would not be returning, which the inspectors will do within twelve months if they have concerns about a school, and we could get on with moving the school forward as we had planned. Result!

So what are main messages for school leaders from our experience?

a) Know your school well and have sound self evaluation practices
b) Be confident in your practice and your strengths
c) Be prepared to explain and defend your approach and your position
d) Engage with the team and the Managing Inspector, be pro-active in this
e) Do not try to second guess what the inspectors might look for or at
f) Work hard to keep staff calm and boost their confidence, you set the tone for this
g) Keep the main thing the main thing
h) Make sure the team see all the things you want them to see
i) Accept that everything is unlikely to be perfect
j) Keep speaking to all staff during the week
k) There will be ups and downs and it will be challenging
l) See the whole process as a positive one which will help you understand the school better
m) Be open and don't try to hide things, they are not stupid
n) Keep smiling

The whole week was a mix of highs and lows for all. It was certainly demanding and challenging for myself and all staff. But, if you recognise and respect the job the inspectors have to do and the agendas they are going to come in with, you are better able to deal with the whole experience. The inspection itself only lasts one week and it can help inform you as you seek a more holistic view of where your school is at. After it is over, the findings may help you as you write your next development plan and may help you with individual issues. If not, you continue to move on, as you would anyway.

As we approach a new school year in Scotland there will be a number of new models of inspection being piloted across the country as the HMIE and Education Scotland look to improve what they do and make it more appropriate and meaningful. This is one of our strengths in Scotland and perhaps why our whole inspection process is a lot more supportive and collaborative than those found in other countries. There is still an accountability element to what we do but there is also much more emphasis placed on professional dialogue, collaboration and self-evaluation to the betterment of the system as a whole, and the learners in it.


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