Sitting under a looming grandfather clock in her living room in Battersea, south-west London, 61-year-old Jean Hayes would appear to make ideal inspector material. A teacher all her life, she has worked in seven London primary schools, where, she says, she's "seen both ends of the spectrum".
But she's not an inspector, at least not any more. "I have decided, with regret, to quit working as a team inspector in primary schools," she wrote earlier this month to the contractors she had worked for since early 1998. She sent a copy of the letter to The TES.
Disillusioned with Ofsted, Jean Hayes wants educationists to stop blaming inspectors for the system they are trying to implement. Inspecting is not easy money for spurious criticisms, she says, but gruelling work for which the training is inadequate, the pay poor.
It all started in 1993, after stress-related migraines forced her to take early retirement from her job as head of a primary school in Richmond, south-west London. She spent some time recovering before starting voluntary work. "Then I thought, this is silly," she says. "I must put my educational knowledge to use. By that time, inspection had settled down. Several heads had been trained and a friend who was doing it said 'why don't you?'" She was in training for most of 1997, using a distance learning course from Cambridge Education Associates. At pound;900, it was expensive, but she was looking forward to finishing it. "I felt I could contribute my knowledge, and from what I heard you earned a decent amount."
She passed the exam, and became a team inspector. The next hurdle was to market herself to the contractors who tender to Ofsted to carry out inspections. So Jean Hayes wrote "scores" of letters and got her first inspection early in 1998.
Mentored by the registered inspector, who was the team leader, she says the first inspection was daunting. "You're not up to speed, so you're constantly checking you're not doing something wrong. But there's great strength in the team."
Unlike some heads and class teachers, Mrs Hayes has little but praise for the registered inspectors and fellow team inspectors she has worked with over the past two years. She talks about the "lovely Reggies" (RGIs, or Registered Government Inspectors) as if they were favourite brothers. "I can think of glowing characters who've taken the time to establish a real rapport with the headteacher, to create a real professional dialogue. Perhaps I've been lucky, but in my experience they've been very aware of strengths and weaknesses in schools, and able to gather it all up at the end."
She enjoyed inspecting, she says. "I had a sense of duty and a sense of privilege at being allowed into the classroom. I had a heavy duty to get it right, to reflect accurately. But what gives you a buzz is being able to see the whole of the picture in someone else's school. Team members bring various strengths, and lay inspectors bring a different perspective."
Initially, she still identified strongly with teachers. She told her RGI mentor on her first inspection: "I have to tell you, I don't think I will be able to fail a school." He responded:"Believe me, when you see children getting a rough deal, you will have no hesitation." And he was right. Of the 17 inspections she was involved in, two schools failed and have been put in special measures. "It's a careful process and nobody likes doing it," she says. "You're worried about it, but you can't shrink from it."
Although often professionally rewarding, Ofsted inspections have not been the earner they are reputed to be, at least for Mrs Hayes. In late 1998, the Government moved from a four-year inspection cycle for primary schools to a six-year one. Work for inspectors dried up and payment for their services - left to fluctuate on the free market - fell to pound;800-pound;900 per inspection. She does not buy Ofsted's line, which is to blame contractors for swallowing up the profits. "I have every sympathy with contractors. Ofsted says they're holding on to the money but I don't believe it; they have a lot of overheads."
Mrs Hayes has an air of feet-on-the-ground straightforwardness that probably served her well in primary schools. Although aware that "we are regarded as the enemy" by schools, she says her inspecting method, as with her teaching, has always been to work from the positive. At home, surrounded by family photographs and greetings cards on the mantelpiece, with a husband delivering tea and digestive biscuits, it is easier to imagine Jean Hayes reassuring overwrought teachers, rather than intimidating them. At one school, a four-year-old asked her: "Whose granny are you?" "It's a people-oriented job," she says. "It helps that you've worked with children, parents, colleagues and in stressful situations, that you've managed your own stressed staff and put people at their ease."
She says she and other inspectors have been horrified by the recent linking of teacher suicides to school inspections. She also does not recognise south London headteacher Mike Kent's account of the inspection process, published in TES Friday on May 26. He had been optimistic about his school's second Ofsted inspection, but found the inspectors so ill-informed and tactless that he filed a complaint with the agency responsible. "One can imagine that experienced teachers get themselves into a state, because they're so conscientious," Mrs Hayes says. "But sometimes, when you're poking into absolutely everything, you find absolute gems. Unless you're thorough, you can't know."
She is methodical and careful in her manner of speaking, and gives the impression that she's talking to a journalist against her better judgment. But she has been pushed over the inspection edge by changes to the process in the past few months. So just over two years after her first inspection, she is considering a return to supply teaching.
Ofsted radically altered parts of the Inspection Framework handbook, what Mrs Hayes calls "our Bible", to come into effect this year. But the new version was delayed, and contractors - some of whom had only draft copies of the new guidelines - finally had to run hit-or-miss training days during the Christmas holidays. "They were feeling their way, unsure of various interpretations of wording," she says. "That is Ofsted's fault. The changes weren't piloted or phased in. Ofsted left us to work out how to make the system work, because we are former teachers who are resourceful and have had to implement all sorts since 1988."
When, in January this year, inspectors tried to use the new, specially-designed computer program to input their work, it didn't work (it does now). In what she calls the "IT fiasco", Mrs Hayes lost important material on the laptop she had bought to comply with Ofsted's requirements - which have since been relaxed, so rules and reports can still be handwritten.
The new-style inspections take longer - requirements to cover more areas and for pre- and post-inspection meetings have "turned a four-day ordeal into a five-day one," says Mrs Hayes. More pupils' books now have to be inspected, each teacher has to be inspected teaching literacy and numeracy (which is why inspectors may come in for only part of a lesson - the logistics for a small team are difficult) and the paperwork has reached mountainous proportions. So much so that Mrs Hayes took to carting it back to her motel room in a shopping trolley. "Inspectors are staying up late into the night, getting hardly any sleep, checking every little thing," she says. "There's too much to do in the time."
Financially, the extra workload of this year's inspections has turned a poor deal into a worse one. Although the rate from contractors has risen to about pound;1,000 an inspection, at least pound;200 goes on hotel accommodation (although many inspectors now look around for cheaper Bamp;Bs). Team inspectors pay contractors for the training they provide and must keep up-to-date with it if they want to get the work, which costs about pound;100. The remaining pound;700 covers 120 hours' work, estimates Jean Hayes. At less than pound;6 an hour, it's hardly a gravy train.
While her husband's poor health has contributed to Jean Hayes's decision to stop inspecting, she believes Ofsted is underfunding the changes in inspection practice and putting unreasonable burdens on inspectors. "I have to believe in what I'm doing. I wouldn't have gone into teaching if I didn't have a vocation," she says. "But I've had enough." And, as she wrote in her resignation letter, "I cannot do a thorough job in the time allocated. I wish colleagues well and thank all for their teamwork."