Scottish Review     21/5/13

The continuing cover-up over school inspections

Richard Burton

Kenneth Roy raises the important question of the need to defend the rights of investigative journalism (9 May). He is right to highlight the sad case of headteacher Irene Hogg who died at her own hand shortly after her school's inspection in 2008, distraught at the feedback she received of her own personal professional qualities.

The fatal accident inquiry concluded that Miss Hogg's death was 'inextricably linked' to her school's inspection just a few days before. Yet the sheriff considered that enough evidence had been given for him to present as formal finding that 'Irene Hogg proved herself to be an outstanding headteacher'. Kenneth Roy wondered 'whether there have been any changes in the manner of these inspections since the Hogg case. Are they less oppressive? Do they cause teachers less stress?'

Ms Hyslop was education cabinet secretary at the time of the tragedy and subsequent fatal accident inquiry. She did not convene an inquiry into school inspections, where those still alive could comment on the process, for instance as convened by the Leveson Inquiry, and recently by the BBC following cases highlighting abuse and bullying. Amendment of procedures was shortly after steered by HMIE, tantamount to News International convening the Leveson Inquiry.

What of the inspection complaints process? What became of those who complained of school inspections? A Freedom of Information request of HMIE of 18 January 2010, the month of publication of the fatal accident inquiry report, asked for 'figures on the number of complaints over the past five years (2005-2010), how many of these were related to inspections of schools and the proportion of such complaints which were upheld; and in the case of complaints which were upheld, did this lead to any changes in the practice of inspections?'

The answer given on 15 February 2010 was: 'The information that HMIE holds on formal complaints is not analysed to record whether a complaint was upheld or not and as such I am unable to provide you with the detailed information you have requested'. It went on to add: 'HMIE as a whole takes a keen interest in any lessons that can be learned from the nature of complaints as part of our commitment to continuous improvement'. How can it do that without keeping proper records?

For this reason a complaint was placed on 30 June 2011 to HMIE that they did not operate a due inspection process because they did not keep records of complaint outcomes. HMIE (by then Education Scotland) denied this, refusing to uphold the complaint. When this reply was brought to the attention of the school inspection business manager as part of the complaint, she denied its content. The FOI reply was subsequently removed from the website.

A complaint of a school inspection placed on 2 August 2008 took 17 months to go through the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman only to be deleted on 7 December 2009 without an investigation report (SPSO case 200800985). This was on the exact day the fatal accident inquiry into the death of Irene Hogg convened. Moreover, just before, on 1 December 2009 at an internal meeting including both the case investigator and the ombudsman in person, the investigator minuted: 'I felt that there was a claim of injustice arising at the core of the complaint in relation to HMIE not following due process…' That was only revealed by the FOI.

The Mail on Sunday on 12 May 2013 carried a report of a Scottish headteacher who has not worked for three years, suspended in August 2010 solely on the basis of inspection commentary, not at any time subject to disciplinary procedures, yet still on full pay. Her case went to formal complaint of the school inspectorate and then on to the ombudsman (SPSO case 201101603).

It was complained of by both the headteacher and other members of the school community. She had not even been present at her one-teacher school during its inspection in 2010, being off work sick for some time previous. Yet the inspection report made personalised criticism in her absence, and this triggered the complaints. Why was the inspection not postponed? Again the case was dismissed by the ombudsman, Jim Martin, without an investigation report. This time he stated to the complainant: 'My view is that the substance of complaints about HMIE/Education Scotland inspection reports is not within my office's jurisdiction...' (23 March 2012)

The complaints system of school inspection was then reviewed shortly after, placing the ombudsman service as the only independent recourse in the procedure. The ombudsman commented in the annual report of 2012 that he had been consulted in drafting it.

Might all this not be a hint that something is amiss in our 'dark, secretive little country', as Kenneth Roy puts it? Could it not be that we need more open penetrative inquiry, not less? There does need to be a code of conduct of the press to prevent harassment and reporting without evidence (as has occurred in the present context). But there already is. What is needed is some means of adjudication and redress covering all press titles. But there is a far more profound need of heightened penetrative inquiry of public agencies and individuals in public positions seeking to place their deeds beyond public purview.

The Scottish Government might better address these procedural failings. A fatal accident inquiry should not be the sole external remedy for airing complaints of improper conduct or unfair and unevidenced commentary of a public body. Such failings of natural justice are lamentably widespread in the Scottish public sector and are the concern of Accountability Scotland, on whose behalf I write.

Richard Burton is secretary of Accountability Scotland