Call off the rottweilers

OFSTED should learn from the independent-school inspectors, who are just as professional but less terrifying, says Mark Harrison.

He should know - he's encountered both PLATFORM GRANGE Hill, that stalwart of children's television, had its usual new series at the beginning of the year and - possibly for the first time since the series started - this venerable institution was to be inspected.

Unsurprisingly, the effects of the impending inspection on staff were rather lurid. Staff panicked over lesson plans and school policies. The headmaster found himself waking up from nightmares involving Men in Black. In general, very little which didn't involve the inspection got done or thought about at Grange Hill for those weeks. This storyline will be familiar to those of us who have been in a school as it is inspected.

If such a thing exists, I have a rather unusual inspection CV: I have been inspected both by the Office for Standards in Education and its independent school counterpart in successive years.

I was inspected by OFSTED last year at the comprehensive where I was then teaching. This year I moved to an independent school which, by coincidence, was being inspected by the Headmasters Conference (Independent Schools Inspectorate) in January. I was a common-or-garden physics teacher in both schools, and both inspections were routine and - on paper at least - identical in spirit and intent, but the experiences were very different.

OFSTED inspectors, whether they like it or not, have one of the fiercest images in the profession. Nothing is more likely to make a state-school teacher sweat than the mention of that one acronym. Thoughts of "naming and shaming", of being ruthlessly condemned by a bunch of educational rottweilers in ill-fitting suits and the threat of losing one's career if you do not come up to scratch (in a handful of lessons) do not seem to put teachers at ease. The tragic case of the suicide of a teacher following an inspection undoubtedly shows the stress felt by some.

By contrast, HMC (recently renamed the Independent Schools Inspectorate) inspectors have a much more low-key and, dare I say it, professional reputation. They rarely, if ever, make the headlines.

If they are known for anything, it is for being a bit fluffy: perhaps a little too eager to judge fellow independent schools as anything other than jolly good eggs; some feel that they lack the rigour and thoroughness of an OFSTED team.

In my experience, neither reputation is accurate. The OFSTED inspection I underwent was preceded by a six-monthperiod of panic by most staff. But, come the dreaded week, my approach of not getting too wound-up by the process turned out to be well-founded.

At least as far as my personal experience went, the inspectors were as low-key and inconspicuous as could be expected in the circumstances. I was observed teaching just over an hour of lessons and de-briefed at the end of the week. I was asked a few fairly general questions about how I kept my records and my awareness of the progress of the children.

I wasn't grilled over the intricacies of school policy, nor was I put on the spot with unusual or probing questions, as some were expecting.

My independent-school inspection, about 15 months later, was astonishingly similar, but the overwhelming difference was in the attitude and stress levels of the staff. Up till about a week before the inspection, life progressed pretty much as normal. There were no nervous breakdowns in the offing, nor did staff have a hunted look in their eyes.

In the days before the inspection the atmosphere became more tense, but was still nothing like the fit-to-bust atmosphere of my former school at the same stage. Come the actual week, the process was practically indistinguishable from the OFSTED inspection - apart from the lack of a one-to-one debrief at the end, which was regrettable.

It seems, then, that the difference between OFSTED and independent-school inspections is not in their execution but in the way that they are built up in teachers' minds. Independent school inspections have a reputation for being inconspicuous and low-key, so few teachers get wound up at the prospect of being inspected and pupils receive a more uniform quality of education throughout the year.

In total contrast, OFSTED's reputation has been built up in a negative and unconstructive way, to the point where its only effect is to scare staff into blithering imbecility. It hardly needs pointing out that such a teacher is unlikely to be teaching at his or her best under such conditions. Pupils may receive the best week's education of their lives during an inspection, but this will be at the expense of their education in the months both before and after.

The chief inspector seems to revel in his "tough guy" image and the media are happy to perpetuate it. What does not seem to be appreciated is the destructive effect this has on staff and, therefore, on the pupils they teach.

The author teaches physics at Dauntsey's school in Wiltshire. He previously taught at Park View community school, Durham, from 1997 to 1999.

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