On the positive side, the job can be a stepping stone to becoming a head
Think about someone leaving a school in tears and who springs to mind? A child? Certainly. A teacher or other member of staff? Occasionally. But an Ofsted inspector? That's not an image that fits. Yet Jane Wotherspoon freely admits that she wept as she left one primary. It was in special measures, receiving a lot of help but was not changing fast enough.
"I came away in tears of frustration and anger at how poor it was for the children," she says. "I think most of us have felt like that at one point or another.
"They (the pupils) deserved better. Their behaviour was awful, but it was in response to poor teaching that wasn't engaging them or challenging them.
The school was getting lots of support from its education authority but it took a long time before it began to have any impact."
That particular school has since turned itself around, but Jane, who has checked up on at least 400 schools in the last 10 years, first as a contracted regional inspector for Ofsted and then as one of 250 Her Majesty's Inspectors (HMI), says: "I find it hard sometimes not to be moved by what I see. When a school is poor, it is always the pupils who suffer.
The children must be uppermost in our minds. We are speaking on their behalf."
The deputy head of a large primary school with 18 years' teaching experience when Ofsted started in 1993, Jane was seconded to become an inspector and never went back to the classroom.
Most would-be HMI apply for the job, which pays between pound;47,630 and pound;58,970 a year, in response to adverts in The TES in early January.
Those selected after a rigorous recruitment process work alongside an experienced inspector for the first year, leading inspections in their own right after one term of shadowing their mentor.
Since September last year, HMI have led 80 per cent of standard (technically known as Section 5) inspections of secondary schools and 20 per cent of those in primary schools. Previously, almost all standard inspections were handled by contracted inspectors. They still also conduct specialist inspections, mostly looking at schools in special measures or those making a fresh start, and academies.
Sean Harford, a former science teacher and assistant head, now in his third year as an HMI, was contemplating applying for a deputy headship when The TES advert caught his eye. "I have learnt an enormous amount," he says. "It is a privilege to see inside so many different schools and to discover how they do things. Even in schools in difficulties, you see teachers and managers who are exceptional at their jobs.
"Above all, I have learnt that really really good heads are relentless in their pursuit of improving standards - not just in exams but in all things in the life of the school. If you are going to be a school leader you have got to have the ability to see the big picture, but also to go into the detail, pursuing all those things that raise standards. Persistence and resilience are absolutely essential."
As experienced teachers, HMI are fully aware of the impact they have on schools, both when they visit and when they unearth problems. "You have to try to be sensitive to people's anxieties," says Jane Wotherspoon, "but at the same time you have a role to play and a job to do.
"No school should be under the illusion that when we put a school into special measures, we do it lightly," adds Sean Harford. "We understand what that process means for the school and the hard work it is going to take to make things better. In our minds, it is tempered by the thought that the youngsters are the important people here and we have to make the situation better for them. I have never come across anyone in education who hasn't got the best interests of the youngsters at heart. It is just that some people lose their way."
Conversely, Sean believes the best aspect of the job is lifting the special measures label. "When you go along term after term, seeing them growing and getting better, and they get to the point where they are giving the youngsters a decent education, it is a fantastic feeling to be able to say: 'You have done a good job and you can come out of special measures.'
"They're delighted and we're delighted. About 60 per cent of schools that have been in special measures come out as good schools when re-inspected."
He points out that a successful school is also more likely to be a happy one.
"I remember one school where the behaviour was just dreadful," he says.
"The youngsters were rough with each other in the playground and, in the corridors, they used bad language, they would get up and wander round the classrooms and throw paper at each other. They had no regard for each other or their teachers or their learning.
"A new head got across the message to the children that they should value education and each other and the school changed dramatically. It was a much much happier place by the time it came out of special measures."
Although since September, when the inspection service was divided into three regions, most HMI no longer have to travel nationally, the job still requires quite a bit of travel and working days may last from 7am till 11pm.
So why do it? For Jane Wotherspoon, it is an extension of the reason she went into teaching. "Although in my school I was making a difference in one place, the inspection role enables me to make a difference much more widely," she says. "I am driven by the desire to make a difference, which is what I think drives most teachers anyway."
Sean Harford believes the experience of inspecting schools is so valuable that it could benefit everyone in senior management. "I think this is the best training you could have for becoming a headteacher," he says. "I said to a colleague the other day it should be a compulsory part of headship training."