In February, a senior manager led a CPD meeting for the support staff. Initially, it looked like we were in for a serious couple of hours, but we were welcomed with a sunny smile and called by our first names in a pally way, even though we’d never been introduced before.
A guessing game ensued in order for us "to get to know each other better": on a Post-it note, we wrote two facts about ourselves that were true, one that was false. An assortment of personal treasures were discovered, followed by much oohing and aahing. It was a lot of fun.
But then, suddenly, a switch was flicked. The senior manager stepped forward, followed by a heavy sigh, and I felt myself trying to salvage the remnants of the game we had been playing. The three I’s – implementation, intent and impact – were written up on the board.
"Ofsted will coerce you in the classroom as they’re more interested in speaking to support staff than us," she said.
Ofsted’s interim visits: What the first reports say
We were coached for the next hour and a half on a series of questions that we might be asked by Ofsted. Each question was followed by a model answer, which we were told to recite to ourselves several times to get it "into our head". As we practised these answers, we were told to pause and take our time when speaking if we had trouble recalling the correct information.
The pressure of an Ofsted visit
I was worried that I’d get my script wrong. One colleague asked: "How am I going to learn all these answers?" The response was far from reassuring – we were told not to worry because there would be plenty more sessions like this one. We were primed to answer in parrot fashion, which I felt was mechanical and nothing to do with giving a clear, considered response.
This rehearsal wasn’t just confined to support staff. We were told to continually ask Ofsted-like questions to students: "What wider skills are you learning? How will your course help you in future life? How is English and maths embedded in your course?" Straightforward questions maybe, but for special needs students, many of whom have memory problems and poor retention, it was futile. I felt like a detective gathering evidence for the inevitable onslaught. The message to students was clear: answer correctly because we don’t want to fail the impending Ofsted inspection.
Dotted all around the college are motivational posters about how part of succeeding is failing. Oprah Winfrey’s "Failure is another stepping stone to greatness" and Nelson Mandela’s inspirational "Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again" stared back at me.
The reality of life at the college was quite different: we had a high turnover of staff; six lecturers on sick leave due to stress and burnout, while agency lecturers who taught core subjects were dismissed "due to budgetary requirements".
Consequently, classes doubled up and noise levels increased, which many high-need students were unable to deal with. I had only been at college for six months and my timetable had changed nine times – this was particularly unnerving for autistic students, who rely on a consistent structure to their day.
But what I disliked most was the facade that everything was going well: the pressure to present oneself positively to Ofsted – or let the team down. I wasn’t sure why I had to impress, why I had to put on a performance and carry around a carefully edited showreel. Anyone who has worked in an educational institution will know that it’s quite normal to have shortcomings.
What message were we giving to Ofsted? That it was fine for education cuts to continue because we were doing just great?
Impact of the coronavirus
And then, a month or so after that first training session, Covid reared its ugly head – and with it came the realisation that Ofsted was not coming any time soon.
Some six months later, I returned to a college with overgrown hogweed and a half-empty, ghostly feel to it. Within a couple of days, Covid seemed a long way in the past as scores of students enrolled and piled into classrooms. I couldn’t help but be dismayed about social distancing, given the increase in students and the decrease in staff.
Currently, I’m assured by my line manager that I’m in class "bubbles", so I’m fine. But I do wonder if this is yet another script that managers have been tutored on, and required to regurgitate to support staff.
I have the same number of different classes (six in all) as I’ve always had, and more if colleagues are absent and I need to cover. Any attempts to put forward concerns are shooed away.
The suggestion that "we’re in this together" is a little disingenuous whether we’re referring to an Ofsted inspection or Covid-19. This whole saga reminds me of the fantasy world of social media. We post quirky updates with smiley emojis when who knows what we’re really feeling inside. They're mostly fake or phoney: just like my college's Ofsted and Covid-19 response.
The writer is a teaching assistant in England