– in the Scottish Parliament at 10:20 am on 15th February 2007.

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Photo of George Reid George Reid None 10:20 am, 15th February 2007

Before the debate on school education starts, I must inform members that I am the only Presiding Officer available today and that I require a 10-minute break for a briefing before First Minister's question time. In consequence, I will need to suspend the meeting between 11.30 and 11.40. Therefore, speeches in this debate should be of around four minutes, with the exception of speeches from the Greens, for which I will allow three minutes.

The debate is on motion S2M-5570, in the name of Brian Monteith, on school education.

Photo of George Reid George Reid None

A little over four minutes.

Photo of Brian Monteith Brian Monteith Independent

I am rather hopeful that this debate on schools will be better tempered than the previous debate, but one never knows.

I was surprised to see that an amendment to my motion was lodged, as I had thought that the motion would allow members to contribute to the debate in a variety of ways while raising any concerns that they have. By applauding the work of Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Education and supporting its strategic objectives, the motion allows members to say, for example, "We have concerns about modern studies so we want to know what HMIE can tell us about that", or "We have concerns about special needs education"—which was the subject of the amendment that was not accepted—"so we want to know what HMIE is doing about that." The motion is constructed to allow a broad discussion. Indeed, it will even allow Conservative members to unveil their new education policy, which was revealed only last week. However, rather than talk that up, I will leave them to do that.

I became interested in what HMIE does because I read its reports regularly and I visit schools as a result of the reports that it publishes. Every time that a school in Mid Scotland and Fife is the subject of an HMIE report—be it a good or bad report—I try my best to visit the school to find out people's experience of the inspection, what improvements they are working on and how they are building on the education that they deliver. Anyone who undertakes such visits—I know that I am not the only member who does so—finds that teachers and head teachers have gone through quite a trying experience. The inspection can be very testing and it can put people under a great deal of pressure.

Inspections can result in changes in schools. I have visited several schools after the publication of their HMIE report—as we all know, the process involved in publishing the reports takes some time—only to find that the head teacher was no longer in place because the leadership issues that had been highlighted were now being dealt with. It is a good thing that HMIE reports can bring about a process of change that tries to make schools better. When we make such visits to schools, we also sometimes find that people have a sense of pride and achievement in the fact that their hard work and good delivery of education have been recognised by those who witnessed and reported it on behalf of Her Majesty's inspectorate.

All those things happen as a result of HMIE reports. I could go on and talk further about the great work that HMIE does, but it is not incumbent on me to do so and I know that the minister will do a great deal of that. I can probably say now that I agree with every word that the minister says about HMIE doing a good job.

As with a previous motion for debate that I lodged, my motion today seeks to draw members' attention to the regularity of inspections and the accountability of the inspectorate. I am signed up to the idea that there should be regular inspections. It appears to me that we should ensure that, during a pupil's journey through school, there should be at least one inspection during their years at primary school and one during their years at secondary school. However, through the diligent work of the Times Educational Supplement and parent-teacher associations, we have found out that the most recent inspection for some 32 schools goes as far back as 1983, and some 280 have not had an inspection since 1995. That is a rather shocking figure. I hope that HMIE will address that by building into its programme a policy that ensures that full inspections are carried out in those schools.

The other issue that I want to raise—I leave it with the Parliament as an issue to be considered in future—is the accountability of HMIE. Is the inspectorate accountable to us through the minister? Is it accountable to the public, the pupils and teachers? In my role as Audit Committee convener, I look at how our committee conducts itself. Every month or so, we call before us chief executives of agencies or accountable officers from departments. When I look at the work of the Education Committee—I mean no disrespect to that committee; indeed, I served on its predecessor committee for four years—I cannot find an occasion when the chief inspector has been brought before it to explain in full glory the work of the inspectorate. I am happy to be corrected on that if I am wrong.

Photo of Brian Monteith Brian Monteith Independent

I am just about to wind up, Presiding Officer.

I propose that the inspectorate should come before the Education Committee annually to explain its annual report and all the good work that it does so that its policies can be examined. That is the sort of accountability that the Parliament is about. I hope that members will welcome my suggestion as a way of encouraging more discussion of education.

I move,

That the Parliament believes that Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Education (HMIE) plays a vital role in raising standards of attainment and enhancing the learning of pupils and students at all stages of school and college education and supports its strategic priorities of promoting public accountability through inspection and reporting, working with other organisations to build the capacity of high-quality education and informing education policy development through knowledge of the whole education system, while managing and developing HMIE as a best value public body.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat 10:34 am, 15th February 2007

I welcome the terms of Brian Monteith's motion and the opportunity to pay tribute to the work of Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Education. It might be worth saying that both the Education Committee and education ministers have regular dialogue with Graham Donaldson, the chief inspector. His work and that of his colleagues is very much appreciated.

All members agree that high-quality education is crucial, both to ensuring that children and young people in Scotland realise their full potential and to securing Scotland's future as a highly skilled and internationally competitive nation. Through its inspection activity, its wider aspect reporting and the extensive provision of expert advice and good practice, HMIE plays a vital role in ensuring that every child benefits from such high-quality provision.

I remind members that Scottish education is a significant success story. We are in the top third of Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries and have shown steady improvements in literacy and numeracy. According to the programme for international student assessment, our 15-year-olds are among the highest performing in the world, and only three countries had significantly higher attainment levels in maths, science and literacy. It is right to set that context at the beginning of this debate.

HMIE confirmed that success in its highly influential report "Improving Scottish Education". As the senior chief inspector, Graham Donaldson, noted,

"Inspection evidence shows that Scottish education does many things well and some things particularly well. Most learners are well supported and well taught ... Parents report high levels of satisfaction about their children's schooling."

Photo of Margo MacDonald Margo MacDonald Independent

Can the minister explain why the chief inspector of schools says that standards of literacy and numeracy have risen while, at the same time, universities complain that they have to run basic literacy classes before students can take advantage of university teaching?

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

I accept that there is a series of issues to consider. The whole purpose of having inspection and local authority monitoring systems is constantly to improve and round up the quality of Scottish education.

We have invested heavily in our educational success and will continue to do so to ensure continuous improvement and the raising of standards in the future. Every child should benefit from that.

The inspection system, which is the subject of today's debate, is a world leader and highly regarded on the international stage. HMIE contributes regularly to thinking about quality improvement in countries across the world, most recently in the Czech Republic and Chile. The document "How good is our school?" has proved to be a particularly powerful motivator and has been translated into a number of foreign languages, and HMIE quality indicators are in use in many countries across Europe, Africa and South America.

Although Brian Monteith touched on the following, he did not develop the point. In 2002, we committed to ensuring that the inspection results will be published for every primary school by 2009 and for every secondary school by 2008. That is a huge undertaking, but we are on track to achieve it—in fact, HMIE is ahead of its targets. By the end of March this year, 1,626 primary and 350 secondary schools will have been inspected.

No matter how rigorous the inspection process—it is certainly rigorous, as Brian Monteith said—a one-off visit to a school is not enough on its own to ensure that children and young people receive the standard of education that they should expect.

HMIE has rigorous follow-through processes, but local authorities are primarily accountable and responsible for the provision and quality of education in schools. Every education authority was inspected between 2000 and 2005 and a further round of inspection is now under way.

Self-assessment, quality assurance, local authority quality improvement officers, monitoring of complaints and, ultimately, inspection by HMIE are among the tools in our armoury. If HMIE becomes aware of serious complaints about educational provision, it can and does bring forward the planned date of inspection. Our system for ensuring the accountability of our schools is robust and successful. Scottish education is the healthier for that.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party 10:39 am, 15th February 2007

I, too, support the motion and welcome its terms. We place on record our recognition of HMIE's valuable work in Scotland's education system. I am pleased, however, that the minister has burst Brian Monteith's bubble. In many respects, Brian Monteith is out of date and out of time about what is happening in inspections, HMIE's role in relation to the Parliament and the Education Committee's scrutiny of HMIE.

It is interesting that in the six years between 2002 and 2008 all secondary schools in Scotland will have been inspected. That is what I think Brian Monteith is looking for, but it is already happening. Between 2002 and 2009, all primary schools in Scotland will also have been inspected.

Photo of Brian Monteith Brian Monteith Independent

I know that the member takes a great interest in the affairs of Linlithgow. Can she tell me whether she is satisfied that seven primary schools were not inspected between 1983 and 1995?

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

Far be it from me to defend a Labour-Liberal Democrat Executive, but there were 14 years of Conservative Government between 1983 and 1997. I understand that the member was a member of the Conservative Party during that time, so he must take some responsibility and blame for what happened in that period.

We should move on and look to the future. We have to move towards a culture of continuous improvement in schools, including self-assessment. Schools should not live in fear of the dreaded HMIE visit. Peer-assessment and self-assessment should be part of the culture in education, not just at school level but at pupil level. If we look forward to the types of assessment and inspection that we want, I think that we are moving in that direction.

I record my gratitude to Graham Donaldson for his regular appearances before the Education Committee in the past four years, not least to speak about additional support for learning. I commend the approach in an amendment to the motion that was unfortunately not accepted: there are particular issues to do with additional support for learning that HMIE could rightly address on its regular inspections. I would like that to happen in the future—it is an area in which there could be improvement.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

I am sorry, but I will continue if I may. There is a big agenda issue with HMIE's role in the curriculum for excellence. If we are to change the culture of Scottish education and ensure that teachers have ownership, that they regain and retain their professionalism and that they have control of what goes into their teaching, they must have HMIE's support and know that they will not be criticised for making developmental use of their professionalism to try different things and ensure that more time is spent on the curriculum and less on assessment. The silent partner in any such change would be the Scottish Qualifications Authority. We have to ensure that the SQA and HMIE serve the curriculum for excellence and that the curriculum serves the pupils. It is sometimes possible to change the route of a Titanic, but if we are to change the route of Scottish education, we have to start seeing progress for pupils.

If I have one criticism of Brian Monteith's motion, it is that he does not mention that we must ensure that any improvements in Scottish education are, first and foremost, pupil centred. He will have realised the importance of that from the Audit Committee and Education Committee inquiries and from some of the issues to do with McCrone. In that spirit, I commend the motion and thank the member for bringing it to the chamber.

Photo of Lord James Selkirk Lord James Selkirk Conservative 10:42 am, 15th February 2007

Fiona Hyslop has made a very good speech and I welcome the fact that the independent members have raised the important work of Her Majesty's inspectors of education. The inspectors are a group of immensely highly qualified men and women whose reputation for engaging in the pursuit of excellence says a great deal for their professionalism and integrity. In discussing the current work of the inspectorate, which I regard as admirable, we must think about how education should best be run in the future.

For us, delivering education back into the hands of the teaching profession, combined with reasserting statutory parent power must, through evolutionary cultural change, be at the centre of the strategy. I will therefore focus on three key areas: devolved school management, teaching and the curriculum, and the necessity to reinstate school boards.

The policy of devolved school management is strongly supported by us and the Executive. DSM funding is that which is devolved to individual head teachers to spend. Ministers claim a target of devolving 80 per cent, and eventually 90 per cent, of funding to head teachers' control, but the reality does not match the rhetoric and it is patchy. The proportion of the total education budget that is actually devolved to our local authorities ranges from 95 per cent down to only 57 per cent. We must evaluate the list of budgetary areas that the Executive advises, but does not compel, local authorities not to devolve. DSM guidance should be bolder and aim for more consistent outcomes throughout Scotland.

Of course, another factor that limits the extent of true devolution of spending to schools is the excessive paperwork and bureaucracy that they face. My second point is that, as well as being highly qualified and worthy of trust, head teachers and teachers are best placed to know the specific needs of their communities, schools and pupils. Although the safeguard of some national strategic guidance should be retained, we should give heads more flexibility to implement unique solutions. That would give more prominence to the inspectorate's role of sharing with schools details of best practice. If head teachers had more freedom to innovate, there would be more best practice to share—for example, they would be able to work up their own continuing professional development policies for their teachers.

Photo of Margo MacDonald Margo MacDonald Independent

If every headmaster had complete freedom to set their own priorities, how could we avoid a situation in which parents decided that they preferred the management of a particular school to that of the school next door, which would unbalance the whole school system?

Photo of Lord James Selkirk Lord James Selkirk Conservative

It is obviously important that parents have a say but, ultimately, the head teacher must make the decision. More decisions should be in local control. Parents have a part to play in influencing that process, but decision making should be in the hands of head teachers.

Thirdly, it has been said that

"Teachers continue to regard the matter of indiscipline and how to solve it as their number one priority."

Those are not my words, but the words of Sandy Fowler, who is the convener of the Educational Institute of Scotland's committee on pupil indiscipline. We have long repeated our view that head teachers should be given more powers to permanently exclude the very small number of persistently disruptive pupils, but the Executive's response has been to refuse to publish detailed figures on violence in schools and to complain about our having the temerity to follow up the matter through a freedom of information inquiry. Our message to the Executive is extremely clear: if it does not like our investigations, it should publish the information. After all, only a very rash minister would wish to play down disruption in schools. Moreover, a fundamental principle is at stake—the Scottish public have the right to know.

We want head teachers to have the freedom to shape the organisation, ethos and discipline regimes of their schools. More decisions being in local control would fit in with a more comprehensive implementation of devolved school management. I reassure Mr Brian Monteith that our manifesto plans will be revealed before long.

Photo of Peter Peacock Peter Peacock Labour 10:47 am, 15th February 2007

It is a pleasure to open for the Labour Party. In many respects, today is a remarkable day. It is remarkable for me because this is my first speech as a back bencher after almost eight years in Parliament. It is also remarkable in that Brian Monteith has brought together the words "education" and "consensus", which I do not think has ever happened before—he is usually an extraordinarily contentious man when it comes to education. I suspect that the subject of the debate has been chosen principally because it is the only thing on which the other independent members can agree with Mr Monteith.

That said, the motion gives us the opportunity to examine the inspection system. There is no doubt that people in many countries of the world look with great envy on Scotland's inspection system and its history. Our inspectorate has high quality staff who have great experience and who possess insights into school education that bring enormous benefits to our system as a whole. It is no accident that countries throughout the world look to Scotland to learn about our education system and about our inspection system, in particular. Many countries are adopting our system wholesale.

As Brian Monteith said, we often think that inspection is principally about inspection of institutions, but the inspectors also conduct themed inspections of subjects such as maths or modern studies, which offer insights into the system as a whole and act as a best-practice exchange—an important part of their role, which I would like to be developed further. From time to time, the inspectors produce a state of the nation report—Robert Brown mentioned "Improving Scottish Education". In addition, they can give ministers access to insights into the system that help to inform policy decisions.

As Fiona Hyslop and others have said, individual inspections are regarded as being extremely tough and rigorous and many schools face the prospect with a high degree of trepidation, but in my experience of going round the system over recent years and further back in time, despite that initial trepidation, the experience is almost invariably good. Education is about learning and because teachers understand learning, they learn from the process, as do head teachers, and improvement occurs as a result.

Brian Monteith made the important point that any shortfall that is found should be brought to light. That is part of the purpose of the inspection system. Brian Monteith also rightly said that, invariably, change occurs as a result of an unfavourable inspection, either through the removal of the head teacher or through other changes that improve the quality of the education. Even when the education in a school is mostly good, but deficient in parts, improvement occurs.

Photo of Brian Monteith Brian Monteith Independent

I have another example of a situation in which teachers and head teachers welcome inspection reports. When a report identifies that a school building is letting the pupils down, the head teacher can use it to argue for greater investment in the school infrastructure from the local authority.

Photo of Peter Peacock Peter Peacock Labour

Brian Monteith makes a valid point.

I turn to the frequency of inspection, which is a difficult issue that we must examine. It is hard to strike the right balance: we must hold inspections at a proper frequency and not have a system that becomes an imposition on teachers and head teachers because all they think about is the next inspection. I think that the balance is broadly right at present, but inspection needs to be underpinned by the principle of self-evaluation by schools, which Fiona Hyslop mentioned. As Robert Brown said, "How good is our school?" helps with that. We have more to do in inculcating the culture of self-evaluation and self-improvement.

In that regard, local authorities have a role to play. They are responsible for quality assurance and they have staff who visit schools regularly, which inspectors cannot do. When I was Minister for Education and Young People, I found that there was occasionally a disjunction between a local authority's view of a school's quality and the inspectors' view of it, which is alarming. Over the past few years, such disjunction has been evident in Argyll and Bute and in Dumfries and Galloway. There is a great deal of scope for more work to be done between inspectors and the school quality assurance system to ensure that there is a much clearer conjunction of interests and much greater clarity about precisely what is being measured so that parents can be reassured, not just at inspection time but between inspections, that the system is working for them.

Photo of George Reid George Reid None

We move to the open debate. I ask that speeches be brief.

Photo of Iain Smith Iain Smith Liberal Democrat 10:52 am, 15th February 2007

I, too, welcome the debate. Like Peter Peacock, I was surprised to read a motion in the name of Brian Monteith about consensus. In today's politically correct times, the debate could be referred to as a parenthood and baked-fruit product debate.

It is important to have consensus in a debate on HMIE because one of the key strengths of that body as it has developed in recent years has been its consensual approach to the inspection process. It tries to involve schools in developing its inspection process in order to show them that it is about working with them to improve young people's education. HMIE has moved away from a confrontational approach, whereby the prospect of the inspectors' arrival induced fear in teachers. Brian Monteith mentioned that inspections are a trying experience for schools; perhaps he could help to make matters less trying by not visiting them when they have just had an inspection. It is important that rather than regarding inspection as a trying experience, schools view it as an opportunity to work with the inspectorate to find ways in which they can improve.

Peter Peacock made an important point about self-improvement. By their nature, inspections are a spot check in a particular week. Schools must evaluate and improve what they do every day of the year throughout their children's education, not just when an inspection is due. We have moved away from the situation in which a school would receive investment or benefit from improvements only when a new head teacher arrived or when an inspection was due, and we must ensure that that continues to be the case. It is important to acknowledge that the Scottish Schools (Parental Involvement) Act 2006 will help parents to have greater involvement in ensuring that evaluation and improvement take place in schools every day.

It is also important to acknowledge that HMIE has a much wider role than just inspecting schools. That traditional role is important—given that the first inspector of schools was, I believe, appointed in 1840, it is a historical role—but HMIE is also involved in the overall improvement of Scotland's education. Peter Peacock mentioned the "Improving Scottish Education" report, in which HMIE draws on the experiences of inspections over a number of years to find out where improvements are needed in Scottish education. That document is an important snapshot of where Scottish education is and what needs to be done to improve it.

The role that HMIE plays today, not only in the inspection but the development of education, is extremely important in ensuring continuous improvement. I refer to its work with agencies such as Learning and Teaching Scotland, the people who are involved in implementing the curriculum for excellence, and those in the teaching profession more generally.

Our approach in Scotland can be contrasted positively with that down in England. I remain very concerned about the role and nature of Office for Standards in Education, the equivalent of HMIE south of the border. Although Ofsted recognises that most schools in England are performing well, it takes a much more confrontational stance in its inspections. Schools fear that they may be subject to special measures or to notices to improve—such things do not exist in the Scottish system. Obviously, HMIE recognises that some schools need improvement, but it does not go down the formal route of deeming a school to be a failing school, which does no good for a school's staff or pupils. All schools should be deemed to have the ability to improve; they should not be deemed to be failures. It is important that local authorities in particular respond to the role that HMIE plays.

My final plea goes to the local education authority in my constituency, Fife education. I ask it to respond to the very serous criticisms of the quality of buildings at Madras college. I hope that it will bring forward an action plan for a new Madras college and a new secondary school at the Tay bridgehead in north-east Fife.

Photo of Robin Harper Robin Harper Green 10:56 am, 15th February 2007

I well remember the time, in 1964, when I was awaiting with a dry mouth and sweaty palms my very first inspection. It was the inspection at the end of my first year of teaching—the one that would determine whether I would continue as a teacher, or not. Those days are long past. As Peter Peacock rightly said, people nowadays, both departmentally and individually, welcome inspections, which are now seen as being extremely helpful.

I will spend a couple of minutes talking about the promotion of good practice. In doing so, I have taken the narrow focus of the eco-schools initiative and how HMIE could, and should, be encouraging such good practice. Seventy per cent of Scottish schools are already in the eco-schools initiative. If we look at the health-promoting schools initiative, we see that it has demonstrated what can be achieved in promoting change in pupils' attitudes towards their fitness and health and their behaviour. We now need to apply that approach to sustainable development education, which offers a unique opportunity to equip our young people with the skills and attitudes that they need to ensure the health of our society, our planet, and the building of social capital in their communities.

A visit just yesterday, in which Sylvia Jackson MSP hosted pupils from Kinross high school and associated primary schools in the area, gave me an insight into pupils' feelings on the sustainable development education that they receive at school and from RSPB Scotland. It is clear that the pupils feel that they benefit hugely from the experience of outdoor activities in education, not only in terms of their personal development and empathy towards the environment, but in the invaluable support that such activities give to the academic side of their studies. I took away from the visit an appreciation of the living reality that SDE gives to book learning, and how it reinforces and extends pupils' understanding.

The week before last, the John Muir Trust and Ross high school gave a presentation at Parliament that reinforced my growing perception—indeed, I would go so far as to say, my growing knowledge—that for all subjects, but particularly for biology and geography, outdoor experiences are not an add-on, but an essential part of education. I now have a real sense that outdoor experiences are so essential that they can be regarded as the only and the best way of doing things.

By using practical outdoor activities such as gardening and polytunnel agriculture, less popular subjects have become the most popular subjects. I refer in particular to biology. That is the experience in Hamilton grammar school and doubtless of all other schools that take up the eco-schools initiative. By incorporating activities such as composting, waste recycling of paper and so on, in a cross-curricular way, Hamilton grammar school has inspired the way in which lessons in geography, biology, chemistry, maths and home economics are taught. In six years, the teaching of biology at Hamilton has moved on from one class at standard grade to four classes at intermediate grade and there has been a massive improvement in exam performance.

The strength of both sustainable development education and international development education is the emphasis that they place on pupil engagement in planning and target setting. That must be valued by HMIE, and measured and commended as the overall level of creativity in our schools must also be valued. The great contribution that HMIE could make in this regard is by assessing bottom-up approaches, computer networking, and staff and parental involvement. If it were to do so, it could change to an enormous degree how our schools operate.

Photo of Ms Rosemary Byrne Ms Rosemary Byrne SG 11:00 am, 15th February 2007

I welcome the debate that Brian Monteith has brought to the chamber, although I was a bit surprised to hear that he is disappointed that I had lodged an amendment to his motion. Everyone in the chamber is aware that I have a lot to say on additional support needs. I felt that that area could have been boosted somewhat in the motion.

I acknowledge the role of HMIE and the job that it does in education. Much progress has been made over the past few years in boosting that and in greatly improving the system. Like Robin Harper, I remember being very nervous about HMIE inspections, although not so far in the past as him. I remember finding the experience very daunting. If inspections are done in a positive and non-threatening manner, the feedback that teachers and schools get is one of the good ways in which the system can be improved. Along with quality assurance and self evaluation, inspections can successfully improve the education system, but only if they are done properly.

In my speech, I will focus on equality of opportunity for all. I would like to see HMIE inspections place greater focus on class sizes, for example. In a town that has two or three schools, the intake of primary 1 pupils can lead to 18 in a class in one school and 30 in a class in another school. That will come as no surprise to members—we know it from experience, but it is not equality. I would like HMIE to look much more closely at the standards and level of children who are taught in big classes. We have not done enough research on that, so we need more.

I would also like to see more being done on school meals. Some children in deprived areas still do not have a breakfast club, but magnet schools in middle-class areas do. Middle-class parents are not only vocal but are prepared to put in the money to pay for a breakfast club. That is not equality. A good breakfast in the morning is a good start for our children, so I would like to see HMIE scrutinise that area. Last week, I received a letter from a school in the Borders in which I was told that children at two schools in the Borders do not receive hot school meals. That is not equality. Indeed, I believe that they are the only two schools in Scotland in that category, but I am open to correction on the matter. I want HMIE to pick up on such issues.

I also want to see equal access in our schools to sports facilities, music and drama. At the moment, local authorities decide whether or not to employ a drama teacher, for example. That is not equality. I want HMIE to scrutinise that.

I turn to additional support needs. I am very pleased that specific inspections now take place in this regard. We have had one in relation to autism and we are about to have one in relation to dyslexia. Our HMIE needs to look very carefully at what is being provided for young people who have additional support needs, in which category I include young people who have social, emotional and behavioural difficulties. All too often, those young people and their parents are missed out in the interviews that take place. We need to ensure that the parents of those pupils get the chance either to fill in a questionnaire or to be interviewed on their child's additional support needs. I would also like there to be focus on assessment of such children, identification of their support needs, and planning and reviews. At the moment, a big issue for many parents relates to the Scottish Qualifications Authority's concessions for exams. Practice around the country is patchy, so I want HMIE to place a much greater focus on those areas.

I welcome the debate. I thank the Presiding Officer for calling me and I am glad that I was able to make this speech. I will support Brian Monteith's motion, but I regret that my amendment, in which I expanded on the terms of the motion, was not accepted.

Photo of George Reid George Reid None

We move to wind-up speeches. Again, I stress that members should keep to four minutes. I am advised that I have missed out Richard Baker. I am so sorry, Mr Baker.

Photo of Richard Baker Richard Baker Labour 11:04 am, 15th February 2007

How could you, Presiding Officer?

As we are short of time, I will cut to the chase. All members have welcomed HMIE's reports on schools, so there is no need for me to repeat those remarks, other than to say that I think that the reports are invaluable. Instead, I will speak briefly about HMIE's other work, which has involved commenting on local authorities' school estates reviews. I did not agree with everything that HMIE said about the review in Moray, which would originally have led to the closure of perfectly sustainable rural schools—although there is better news on that today—but it is nevertheless right for HMIE to be concerned about the wider issue of how local authorities maximise educational benefit in our schools.

As well as inspections of individual schools, HMIE carries out themed inspections. If possible, I would like HMIE to carry out a themed inspection of consultation processes on school closures, with particular regard to rural schools. That is not because I think that no rural school should be closed. If a local authority identifies a school as unsustainable because of a falling school roll or other factors; has the evidence to justify that; and has conducted a transparent consultation process, of course the school should close. That will often be sad, because rural schools are at the heart of their communities. However, if the decision is justifiable, the school must be closed.

The problem is that, in the past couple of years, swathes of rural schools, many of which received excellent HMIE reports, have been earmarked for closure by local authorities on arbitrary grounds, with poor consultation with parents, processes that are not transparent and, in the worst cases, direct misinformation to parents as justification for the closure. There has been short-termism and a failure to realise that it is often rural areas that are growing rather than urban ones. In some informal consultation processes, the proposals have seemed to be a fait accompli. The result of all that has been campaigns by parents to keep schools open, which I and many other members have backed. I am glad that, as a result, many schools that were earmarked for closure have been saved, but I am sure that everyone agrees that that is not the best approach to the management of the school estate. Those campaigns are a result of poor consultation processes. The processes have stalled rather than encouraged reasonable and rational reviews of school infrastructure. It is very probable that schools that are unsustainable have not been closed because they were bundled in with the process for schools that are clearly sustainable.

If possible, a consideration of the consultation process would be an excellent themed inspection for HMIE to take on. The inspectorate could disseminate examples of best practice and ensure that local authorities embark on transparent consultation processes that involve parents fully throughout. That would ensure far better management of local schools infrastructure, while rightly maintaining decisions at a local level, and would enhance HMIE's work to ensure excellent provision through its reviews of individual schools. The motion rightly identifies HMIE's good work. On the issue of consultation and other matters, HMIE can make a further positive contribution to education provision throughout Scotland.

Photo of Frank McAveety Frank McAveety Labour 11:08 am, 15th February 2007

I welcome Peter Peacock to the bad boys benches at the back of the chamber. Looking at the members who are seated in the back rows confirms my view about those seats.

There is unanimity among members on the benefit of HMIE's work. That is a bit of heresy for me, as a former schoolteacher, who, like many other members, experienced the dread of inspections and the cupboard rummaging when the inspectors asked how we had acquired various resources and curriculum materials that perhaps contradicted some of the inspectorate's principles on copyright. That is my opening confession. However, HMIE certainly benefits pupils' education.

Brian Monteith has raised three fundamental issues. One is how we ensure a worthwhile frequency of HMIE reports, so that individuals in schools get the benefit of those rigorous reports and can continue to improve. The second is about the value of HMIE reports. Members have mentioned the role of schools when they are found to have both strengths and weaknesses. That is a welcome contribution by HMIE. The third and most important issue is how we engage with teachers, pupils, other staff and parents to ensure that we have a philosophy of trying genuinely to improve the quality of education in schools.

Obviously, debates will arise about what HMIE can assess. We have heard good comments about that from members. It strikes me that the broad principles on which HMIE should base its work are similar to those of schools that operate the philosophy in "How good is our school?" First, HMIE needs to consider the ethos and values of schools, as they can influence and shape the future development of our young citizens. Secondly, it must consider the leadership in schools, not just at head teacher level, but at subject and curriculum level, as well as other good role models in the janitorial and support staff. Thirdly, it should consider the range of activities that are provided; Robin Harper identified that issue. Good state and private sector schools provide a range of activities for youngsters to ensure that they develop. HMIE tries to address those issues, as well as other strengths and weaknesses.

I have taught and been an elected representative in the west of Scotland. The schools in which I taught were in some of the most challenging neighbourhoods in Scotland, if not the United Kingdom but, at secondary level, I have not yet encountered what I consider to be a failing school, although I have encountered failing elements within schools. The frustrating part is that systems have not been put in place to address those issues, week by week or year by year. Departmental failings and attitudinal failings among some staff and others in schools arise consistently. Quality assurance identifies ways in which we can deal with such issues.

We can create a culture of improvement and HMIE is absolutely central to that. However, the culture is predicated on partnership. In my area, Eastbank academy and St Mungo's academy have demonstrated that culture of improvement. Children in those schools, which are in the most disadvantaged part of Scotland, have better work destinations than pupils from any other school in Glasgow and the west of Scotland. That is a remarkable achievement. That work can be assisted through the work of HMIE and through other assessment frameworks.

Photo of Dave Petrie Dave Petrie Conservative 11:11 am, 15th February 2007

The debate has been good. As another former teacher, I have experienced HMIE inspections, which I found to be fair, balanced and comprehensive, with any identified shortcomings followed up, often with necessary staff changes, as Peter Peacock said. HMIE's responsibility runs from pre-school education through to further education colleges and community learning. It is responsible for promoting quality and attainment standards in Scottish education through inspection. It gives guidance to schools on self-regulation, which schools use to judge their performance against Executive targets. I agree with members' comments that that is extremely important. HMIE is also responsible for promoting the review of the national curriculum. I agree with Robin Harper that it is extremely important that we promote the eco-school ethic and with Rosemary Byrne that we must focus on extra-curricular activities.

Overall, the Conservative party strongly supports HMIE's work, which it carries out with professionalism and integrity. However, that work exposes the major shortcomings of our education system. I will raise a few issues with the minister. Half of secondary 2 pupils and a quarter of primary 7 pupils fail to meet the expected levels of literacy and numeracy. The Executive stopped collecting full results from local authorities on pupil discipline because of the failing record on that. I do not disagree entirely with the minister on the PISA report but, among the OECD countries, Scotland had one of the largest drops in the attainment level of 15-year-olds. Last year, 15 per cent of school leavers did not enter work or education. We have had a lot of talk about those who are not in education, employment or training, on which Scotland has the worst record in the UK. More than 18 per cent of pupils play truant. Rosemary Byrne mentioned class sizes, an issue that Fiona Hyslop has often raised in the past. The average size of mathematics and English classes in S1 and S2 is about 30. All teachers throughout Scotland accept that the Executive's target for May of an average size of 20 is not going to happen.

An HMIE report in January 2007 pointed out the failure of the McCrone deal to improve pupil attainment. Attainment among S4, S5 and S6 pupils has not improved and there has been a failure to raise the performance of the lowest-attaining 20 per cent of pupils.

Rosemary Byrne touched on mainstreaming, on which HMIE produced an interim report in 2004. We opposed the Education (Additional Support for Learning) (Scotland) Act 2004. I am all in favour of social inclusion, but a case can still be made for special schools. I have taught pupils with particular needs in schools—they do wonderfully well, but they still need additional support. We recommend that consideration be given to limited special school facilities.

HMIE's 2003 report, "Moving to Mainstream: The inclusion of pupils with special educational needs in mainstream schools", found that, with the right support, in schools that already have good practice in place for mainstreaming those with special educational needs, mainstreaming benefited all pupils. However, such success is limited and even the most successful schools have not been able to meet the needs of all pupils. That has resulted in a fall in the number of special schools and the expertise within them.

Brian Monteith asked about Conservative policy. We are committed to giving head teachers increased powers; to redefining the roles of the Executive and local authorities; to reducing the bureaucracy and regulation in local authorities; and to restoring school boards. Let us hope that the Executive is listening.

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Scottish National Party 11:15 am, 15th February 2007

The debate has been useful. The Scottish National Party thanks Brian Monteith for raising the subject—he is a man who could never be accused of lacking ideas, nor is he slow to give us the benefit of them. While I do not agree with most of what he comes up with, I admire his fecundity. If Brian Monteith does not return to the Parliament after the election in May, this place will be the poorer for it.

As it happens, the SNP will support the motion in Brian Monteith's name. HMIE undoubtedly has a key role in improving Scottish education. Its senior chief inspector, Graham Donaldson, mapped out the route we should be following in that regard in his report on the subject last year. He spelled out the key challenge that is faced by us all—politicians, professionals and parents—in the following terms:

"While many of our young people perform well in school and beyond, too many do not develop sufficiently the competences, capabilities and values which are vital for the future success and well-being both of themselves and of Scotland as a whole. For many, that future success will depend on participation in learning once they leave school ... However, over 20% of adults report difficulties with literacy and numeracy and too many young people aged 16 to 19 are not in education, employment or training."

In other words, the performance of the lowest-attaining 20 per cent of our school pupils has been flatlining for some considerable time. We must break that inertia if we are to progress as a nation. The chief inspector emphasised the need for high-quality leadership, for creating space for imaginative teaching and for more rigour in the development and certification of core skills. He argued that HMIE must make the maximum impact with the minimum intrusion in the system.

I turn to the issues that were raised in the debate. Brian Monteith is entirely mistaken in saying that the senior chief inspector is not accountable to Parliament for his organisation. He has responded every time to the Education Committee's many requests to him over the past four years. The minister explained the changes to the inspection regime, which have been approved by the committee. Fiona Hyslop addressed the issue of culture change, and the very great need to reduce assessment overload and move towards self-evaluation in quality assurance. It was a pleasure to see Peter Peacock in the chamber, this time extolling the virtues of the Scottish inspection system, which is world class.

All that said, neither the inspectorate nor the school system can operate in isolation from its environment. The United Nations Children's Fund report that was published the other day starkly revealed the alienating nature of British society. The United Kingdom is failing its children. Scotland can do better than that. It is time for us to come together to achieve the goal of giving every one of our children an equal chance to succeed in life. The Parliament must grow to meet that aspiration.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat 11:19 am, 15th February 2007

As a number of members have said, the debate has been useful. We are indebted to Brian Monteith for securing it. I should begin with the shameful declaration that, unlike others in the chamber, I am not a teacher but a lawyer, which perhaps undermines my capacity to speak on the matter. I echo other members in welcoming back to the chamber Peter Peacock, with his great wisdom and experience in this area. We have all benefited from his contribution to the debate.

Given the timescale, I will concentrate on issues relating to HMIE. I would say, though, that I have a sense from the expositions from Lord James Douglas-Hamilton and Dave Petrie about Conservative policies that they are nitpicking on the edge of education, rather than engaging with the real issues. Major changes have been made in areas such as school buildings, teacher numbers, quality improvement and the curriculum for excellence, and many other themes have informed the work of the Parliament over the past eight years.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

I had better proceed, if the member does not mind.

As the Executive said in "ambitious, excellent schools: our agenda for action", delivering excellence in education requires both professional freedom and public accountability. We need to build on our world-renowned system of inspection to ensure further sustained improvement in our education system and our schools. As has been said by a number of members, we need systems that are proportionate and which focus on outcomes, promote self-evaluation and provide targeted support to those who are struggling.

In answer to Brian Monteith's point about accountability, it may be worth emphasising that HMIE is an executive agency of the Scottish ministers. As an executive agency, it operates independently and impartially, while remaining directly accountable to Scottish ministers for the standards of its work. It operates in a framework that is laid down by ministers for that purpose.

As part of the broad sweep of action set out in "ambitious, excellent schools: our agenda for action" we have in hand action in relation to inspection and the wider support that HMIE provides to the education system. An excellence standard for school and education authority inspection has been introduced, and a number of schools have come through with flying colours. HMIE is developing a range of materials to support the guidance that is already in place on the definitions of the key characteristics of excellent schools.

Inspections result in change and, indeed, in recognition of the pride and achievement in schools. Brian Monteith touched on that earlier, and Frank McAveety echoed that when he talked about the ethos in schools. The culture of self-improvement that was touched on by Peter Peacock and Iain Smith is a central theme. There are education systems that do not have the approach that is typified by HMIE. Last year, when I went on a ministerial visit to Denmark, I was somewhat surprised to discover that Denmark does not have an inspection system. We operate in a different environment in that regard. The central point, though, is that the thrust for improvement should lie with schools, teachers and education authorities.

Iain Smith contrasted the Scottish system with what many members would regard as England's inferior system, although, admittedly, that system has a different structure. A number of good points were made about issues of sustainable development and outdoor education. How can we have a debate about education without a mention of outdoor education by Robin Harper? Additional support needs have also been mentioned.

We need to look further ahead, too, to consider what form inspection should take after the generational cycle is complete in 2008-09. Inspection is not a burden and should not become so. Responsibility for improvement rests with schools and individual teachers. In many ways, what we are talking about is capacity in the system to secure continuous improvement, and that capacity has increased substantially. The emphasis on educational leadership and the culture of improvement is important in that regard. We are rightly demanding ever-higher standards and accountability. Inspection will remain a key part of that. It will need to be right touch and proportionate, but it is based on the substantial intelligence that we have about the strengths and weaknesses of individual schools.

I support the motion.

Photo of Margo MacDonald Margo MacDonald Independent 11:23 am, 15th February 2007

I hope that members will forgive me if—purely because of the constraints of time—I do not refer to all the speeches. I support Brian Monteith in his basic thrust, which is that someone should inspect the inspectors. Who watches the watcher? I am grateful to the minister for explaining the chain of management and accountability.

I read HMIE's report, "Improving Physical Education in Primary Schools", and found that it contradicted itself. For example, while paragraph 2 said that there was quite a good standard of teaching, paragraph 4 talked about a lack of confidence in physical education teachers. I hope that the Presiding Officer will indulge me, because I will confine my remarks to that subject. I would like to be able to question the inspector about those apparent contradictions. According to paragraph 3.1 of the last report that I read, only 30 per cent of schools had programmes that were very good. The report stated clearly that visiting teachers made a huge difference, but it also referred to the lack of confidence among the classroom teachers who now take physical education in accordance with the target of two hours' PE a week for school children. It said that they often lacked the confidence to explain their attitudes and their reasons for programming physical education as they did.

Those issues are detailed and definitive. To be frank and with all due respect, ministers who are merely lawyers, such as Robert Brown, would probably not be able to answer my questions when they come before the Education Committee.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

Does Margo MacDonald accept that the purpose of having visiting PE specialists is to provide teachers with extra input and expertise? If she has particular issues on PE, I would be happy to meet her to discuss them in more detail, if that would be of help.

Photo of Margo MacDonald Margo MacDonald Independent

I thank the minister for that offer. It would be in the spirit of the debate for me to say that we will talk about it.

The report concluded:

"Key issues for education authorities to consider, include:

• ways of supporting schools and teachers through staff development in - developing effective programmes - teaching and assessment in physical education - managing physical education; • the provision and deployment of visiting teachers of physical education; and

• ways of supporting schools in developing outward-looking programmes".

That is quite a bundle. It appears that not all is well in physical education, although, if one were to read the report from cover to cover, one could gain the impression that things are getting better and, as Fiona Hyslop and Adam Ingram pointed out, the inspection rate seems to be improving.

Brian Monteith spoke historically and was right to do so in order to point out that we had to catch up. The report makes his point for him: a great number of questions are left unanswered by the written report and the inspector's appearance before the committee. He was not there to report on, answer questions about or explain his own work; he was there to comment on other people's work. I ask the minister to take the matter away and think about whether PE as a specialist area would benefit from the inspector having to be accountable to Parliament, perhaps through the Education Committee.

I invite members to support the motion heartily at decision time. It has been a pleasure to work with Brian Monteith. I am surprised that members have mentioned that he is a contentious person, because I have found him to be a pussycat.

Photo of George Reid George Reid None

For the reasons I gave earlier, I suspend the meeting until 11.40 am.

Photo of George Reid George Reid None

You are just in, Mr Swinburne.

Photo of John Swinburne John Swinburne SSCUP

It is more a point of information than a point of order. What would the procedure be if none of the Presiding Officers was able to fill the chair?

Photo of George Reid George Reid None

We do not even consider that eventuality, which has not arisen.

Meeting suspended.

On resuming—