Putting Learners at the Centre: Towards a Future Vision for Scottish Education

Report provided to Scottish Ministers by Professor Ken Muir on the replacement of the Scottish Qualifications Authority, reform of Education Scotland and removal of its inspection function.

10. Inspectors


HM Inspectors were first appointed in 1840 and have made a significant contribution to Scottish education since that date. On 1 April 2001, Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Education in Scotland (HMIE) was established as an executive agency of the Scottish Ministers under the terms of the Scotland Act 1998[49]. This status was designed to strengthen the ability of HMIE to carry out its work independently and impartially. HMIE was amalgamated into Education Scotland which was created on 1 July 2011 as the lead public body for assurance and education improvement in Scotland and a key partner in helping achieve the Scottish Government's vision of excellence and equity.

From the outset, concerns were expressed about having both the improvement and assurance functions sitting within the one organisation, Education Scotland, albeit internal arrangements were put in place to protect the integrity and impartiality of the organisation's inspection (more recently referred to as scrutiny) function. In a similar way to SQA having both an awarding and regulatory function within the one body, it was felt by many that Education Scotland having an inspection function within the same body charged with supporting improvement created potential conflicts of interest and compromised the organisation's ability to perform both roles well.

In June 2021, the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills indicated that the inspection function would be removed from Education Scotland[50]. This decision was warmly welcomed by many respondents to the public consultation and in the engagements I have had.

While most supported the removal of the inspection function from Education Scotland, there were views that the approach to inspections (and general inspection ethos) was also in need of fundamental review and change to make it more supportive, creative and formative. This included the need for a renewed focus on improvement and support at the heart of the process, with an approach that was genuinely more collaborative instead of what was sometimes seen as a punitive approach at present.

"There's an opportunity to establish much more supportive evaluation practice and get away from making people write reports and fill in questionnaires and allowing them to concentrate on their teaching practice. The risk is that it just falls into the same old practice again and perpetuates the culture of enmity."

(Third Sector)

"Inspection is not just about scrutiny but about support and improvement and also about celebrating success."

(Secondary School)

"The reform of a national inspectorate, separate to the function of Education Scotland should be considered carefully. A body which works with the system in a supportive and collaborative way would ensure best outcomes. A move towards a body which is overly scrutinous and critical would be damaging to the system and create a culture of fear. Recognising the journey and progress is crucial."

(School/Centre Leader, Primary School)

Changing some of the language attached to inspection was also urged to help address negative perceptions of the process. Suggestions to address this included removal of the word 'scrutiny' which does not imply support and challenge and encouraging greater use of terms such as self-evaluation, building capacity and supporting improvement. There was a strong view, particularly among teachers, practitioners and PSAG members that the use of grades no longer aligns well with an increasing focus on greater collaboration, self-evaluation and improving outcomes for all learners.

"The word scrutiny needs to be dropped in favour of inspection. Scrutiny implies a static approach which is not focused on improvement but is focused on checking against a fixed standard. Inspection needs to be more dynamic and responsive."

(Local Authorities/Local Government)

"The report style and grading systems needs to be changed and more in line with a supportive culture of quality improvement activity… This should also be linked to a vision for Scotland's education system, and this should be reflected in the quality improvement activity."

(School/Centre Leader, Secondary School)

Another key theme that emerged from my discussions was that there must be corresponding clarity around who has responsibility for monitoring improvement, with clear accountability protocols in place for ensuring that inspection findings are acted upon and result in positive change for learners. It is recognised that local authorities have prime responsibility for the provision of education. However, a regular concern cited by senior leaders in schools was that some local authority evaluation activities did little more than mirror HMI inspections, adding significantly to bureaucracy and workload for school staff.

In my discussions with a range of teachers, practitioners and officers of local authorities, there was support for an increase in peer reviewing at local and regional levels and an increase in the use by the Inspectorate of the validated self-evaluation model that had been developed. It was felt that an increase in such approaches would help to build greater trust and confidence across the system and promote a much-needed culture of continuous improvement.

Another common theme shared with me was that whoever was responsible for carrying out the inspection function, children and young people as learners should always be at the forefront of the inspection design and outcomes. It was suggested that inspectors need to be advocates for the users of the services they inspect, including children, young people, parents and carers. Others also encouraged increased involvement of children and young people in any reforms to inspection processes to ensure such changes like these were more learner-led.

"They tend to pick like…you know like a very specific student. Like one who looks nice and is usually getting really good grades. And I guess I get that, but then you leave all the other students, especially like students who might have a really hard time in school, them. Like they get left out and then maybe the teachers who aren't teaching the best or students who are struggling they are pushed to the back and they don't have their voices heard and then it just feels like why are we having inspections anyway? I think if students had an opportunity to be involved in the inspections it would look a lot different and a lot of people who don't get put in front would be able to, you know, talk about the issues they are having and maybe get them fixed. I don't know, I think we should be involved, you know?"

(Secondary school age learner)

Further comments made to me on inspection suggest that the following would also be important:

  • Inspection should maintain a clear focus on evidence of the quality of the experience of children and young people and on maintaining high expectations for their learning.
  • Inspectors should have up-to-date knowledge of the education system, its curriculum and expectations, with more input from those who know the current school education context and the needs of children and young people.
  • Inspectors should take a more holistic view taking into account local contexts and looking at the school's previous performance and the performance of neighbouring schools before evaluating current performance.
  • Approaches to inspection should build significantly on the current practice of involving senior leaders and teachers, practitioners and local government officers in inspection teams, allowing a greater focus on validated and peer self-evaluation.
  • Clear legal, structural and governance arrangements should be in place to ensure transparency and public confidence in the inspection body and its processes.

Links to the early learning and childcare sector

Current practice whereby ELC establishments are inspected by the Education Inspectorate and the Care Inspectorate came in for regular criticism during my engagements. It was felt that this sector was disproportionately subject to external accountability and much more so than other parts of the education system. Practitioners and managers in the ELC sector were especially critical of the Care Inspectorate producing a revised inspection Framework in June 2021[51] at a time when plans had been put in place to create a shared inspection Framework with Education Scotland. Many remained puzzled and frustrated as to why this has been allowed to happen at the policy level and questioned the extent to which there had been sufficient communication across relevant directorates and divisions in Scottish Government on the matter.

Overall, there was strong support for a shared framework being developed in the ELC sector as a means of reducing confusion, bureaucracy and workload.

"Whatever form the agency will take it would be preferable if there could be a strong working relationship with the Care Inspectorate in order to streamline the inspection process."

(Trade Union/Professional Association)

It was also stressed to me, particularly by local government representatives, of the need to have greater clarity on the roles and responsibilities of scrutiny bodies who hold local authorities and others accountable. Specific reference was made to the Education Inspectorate, the Care Inspectorate and Audit Scotland in this context. In establishing an independent Education Inspectorate, there is a need to avoid the reported confusion, overlap and bureaucracy this brings.

Further inspection considerations

Some of those with whom I engaged questioned the logic of re-establishing a separate inspection body for education when what they felt was needed was a more integrated inspection body covering wider children and family services. Their main argument for this was that education did not operate in a vacuum and that a number of other services in health and social care impacted directly on learner outcomes and required to be considered and evaluated at the same time as education.

A few went on to suggest that now was the time to create a single generic inspection body for public services more generally, not least as a means of giving greater coherence to the effectiveness and value of public service provision. However, it is my view that such a generic approach can compromise the ability of inspections in education to drill down into classroom practice and may encourage a 'tick box' style of scrutiny.

Overall, however, most respondents supported the removal of the inspection function from Education Scotland, the creation of an independent education Inspectorate and saw this as an opportunity to improve and rethink the inspection more generally.

"The removal of scrutiny from Education Scotland would provide an opportunity for a new scrutiny landscape to be established. It would represent an opportunity to create this to meet the needs of an educational system which has changed significantly over the last ten years and which continues to change. There are opportunities to review not only what is subject to scrutiny but also how this scrutiny may be undertaken e.g. a greater involvement of stakeholders or inspecting themes across schools or Learning Communities. Any proposed changes to scrutiny should build on what is going well rather than a deficit model. Changes should be subject to further consultation and be implemented within a realistic timeframe."

(Local Authorities/Local Government)

It was also suggested that changes to inspection provided the opportunity to consider the use of more unannounced visits which may provide a more accurate reflection of practice on the ground (rather than planned for/rehearsed visits).

"…if inspections are unannounced that would add an element of schools consistently needing to do the right thing rather than just performing well when the inspectors are there."

(Teacher/Practitioner, Secondary School)

"Inspection should be non-intrusive so that schools/teachers do not spend too much time preparing for inspection. The system should be designed to be fair and predictable to all schools, focusing on a supportive set of outcomes."

(Third Sector)

Opportunities for involving more practitioners in inspections, especially those with recent classroom experience or specialist subject expertise was also seen to be important.

"It is crucial that assessment is informed by practice and shaped by those who understand the needs of learners. Inspection should be a formative and developmental process as well as validating good practice and celebrating success. It should equally provide support and challenge where appropriate. Curriculum development needs the input of sector leading practitioners."

(Secondary School)


The creation of a separate education inspection body is a genuine chance to create a more dynamic, creative and responsive inspection system, with opportunities to:

  • maintain the integrity of inspection as a constructive, evidence-led process, independent of all of the main interests;
  • align inspection with the vision of putting learners at the centre and incorporate the implications of the UNCRC;
  • demystify the inspection process and make it more transparent, for example by ensuring inspectors have greater direct engagement and professional dialogue with teachers, practitioners and schools and increasing the involvement of associate assessors and local authority officers as part of a more collaborative approach to inspections that supports professional learning and builds capacity;
  • explore different models of inspection, for example, peer review, shadowing between schools in local areas to remove competition and encourage more supportive/collegiate inspection processes and devolve more responsibility to local authorities on the timing of inspections;
  • build in a greater focus on sharing promising innovations as a key part of the value the Inspectorate can add to promote the spread of effective practice;
  • capitalise on the increased use of the latest digital technologies to promote and share inspection findings; and
  • integrate wider health and wellbeing priorities, poverty and attainment issues, and inequality, child protection, discrimination and harassment scrutiny into the re-imagining of inspection.


The most commonly cited risk was seen as failure to include all relevant stakeholders in any planning and implementation of change to inspection.

"The primary risk is that an inspectorate is seen as either a school appraisal tool or is an organisation comprised of educational academics or those no longer at the "chalk face." This can be greatly mitigated by having a grassroots involvement of centres peer reviewing each other and sharing of good practice, led by learners and practitioners."

(Secondary School)

A further potential risk includes the lack of staff capacity to implement the changes needed to deliver any new inspection models due to recruitment/retention issues likely to arise during the period of transition. There is also a risk that the inspection process continues to be seen as adversarial instead of supportive and improvement focused. Finally, there is the risk that communication around any change could lack clarity on the role, remit and mode of operations for the new Inspectorate.

Mitigating measures

I suggest that the following measures would help alleviate risks resulting from the creation of an independent Inspectorate.

  • Providing appropriate resourcing to deliver effective high quality external evaluation activity and build positive relationships with all stakeholders.
  • Regular engagement and communication with existing HM Inspectors and other staff likely to be involved on progress with transition to the new body.
  • Ongoing consultation and engagement of all relevant stakeholders in any future reforms to inspection models, including the possibility of relevant stakeholders being involved in the governance of the new inspection body.
  • Clarity on the role and remit of the new body, including the early revision of How Good is Our School? (HGIOS) to better reflect the changed context in Scottish education, providing greater clarity of expectation in key areas.

Towards an independent Inspectorate

In his 2018 report on the Welsh Inspectorate A Learning Inspectorate Independent review of Estyn, Professor Graham Donaldson[52] pointed to international contexts which showed that the ways in which evidence and evaluations from inspection can have an impact fall into three broad categories. The first was in providing evaluative reports for parents/carers and the public, sometimes to inform school choice. Secondly, inspections give assurance nationally, locally and at school level about the quality of education being provided. Finally, they promote improvement and building capacity either through direct engagement or through the provision of evidence and advice to inform policy and practice. Professor Donaldson pointed out that these categories are not mutually exclusive. However, it is essential to be clear about their relative importance if inspection is not to become undermined by internal contradictions and competing external expectations.

Feedback I received from the public consultation and engagements confirmed that there is strong support for an independent inspectorate that is engaged in activities that cover all three broad categories set out above. It was clear that while independent, external evaluation should be central to the work of the Inspectorate, HMI should also look to work closely with local authorities and establishments to support their evaluation and improvement functions.

Building on recent work undertaken by Education Scotland, the independent Inspectorate should:

  • be responsible for the inspection of education at all levels of the system – from early years to adult learning, including thematic inspections required by Ministers, for example in Initial Teacher Education;
  • build capacity and support improvement through identifying and sharing effective practice and advising the proposed national agency for Scottish education on the outcomes of the Inspectorate's activities;
  • work with the proposed national agency for Scottish education to develop evidence informed education policy based on independent evaluations of practice;
  • support the drive towards empowerment with a strong focus on self-evaluation and an establishment's capacity to improve;
  • collate and share data and other intelligence on what is working well and what needs to improve and identify any barriers in the system;
  • evaluate major changes in the education system, including education reform, on the quality of children's and young people's experiences and impact on standards; and
  • report annually to the Scottish Parliament on the performance of Scottish education as well as provide a longer-term, authoritative, 'state of the nation' evaluation which might usefully include evidence from research findings and from international experience.

Recommendation 13: A new Inspectorate body should be established with its independence enshrined in legislation. Its governance should reflect this independence, with the body funded by the Scottish Parliament, staffed by civil servants and inspectors, the latter of which are appointed with the approval of Her Majesty via the Privy Council.

Recommendation 14: Building on recent work undertaken by Education Scotland on re‑imagining inspection, the new independent Inspectorate should undertake the functions set out in section 10 of this report. Critical roles of the independent Inspectorate will be to support improvement, evaluate major changes in the education system and report annually and over longer periods, on the performance of Scottish education.

Recommendation 15: As a matter of urgency, the new independent Inspectorate should re‑engage with the Care Inspectorate to agree a shared inspection framework designed to reduce the burden on ELC practitioners and centres.

Recommendation 16: The new independent Inspectorate should undertake an inspection on the effectiveness of the new, proposed arrangements designed to support change and improvement at local and regional levels. This should be completed within two years of the new Inspectorate coming into operation.



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