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Inspection day - with help from Carol Smillie

IT WAS the week before inspection, and if we weren't going to get a grade 1 for key skills, we certainly were aiming for one for presentation.

Notice boards were covered with green and yellow paper and brand new tables and chairs were dotted around the college. Carpet fitters and window cleaners swarmed all over the building. Massive skips arrived which were soon full of old desks, filing cabinets and stained bits of carpet.

The vice-principal was seen touring the college with the caretaker, discussing exactly the right temperature to set the boilers for inspection week. Only the arrival of the entire crew from Changing Rooms could possibly have done more to enhance the look of the college. Our God was the Office for Standards in Education, but our muse was Carol Smillie.

The teachers spent hours carefully re-arranging the desks in their classrooms to create that special "conducive to learning" feel.

Along one corridor could be seen the whole history of late-20th-century education: there was the "horseshoe", the circle, the round-table, anything except the dreaded "straight lines facing the white board".

But it wasn't only the buildings which had had a make-over. The management team arrived at work on the first day of inspection week looking as if they had spent the entire weekend in front of the mirror.

At 8am on that first fateful Monday, management and heads of department gathered in the canteen and were offered cold bacon rolls and warm coffee.

But nobody was hungry. Some had already been at work since 6am making last-minute adjustments to course files and going over tretention and achievement data. Nobody spoke. There were no stirring words from the principal, no "we'll fight them on the beaches". Just the tick of the canteen clock.

At 8.27 precisely, everyone rose and made their way across the car park towards the inspection base room. Two late-arriving inspectors were spotted just ahead. In a scene reminiscent of The Great Escape, the entire management team and 10 curriculum managers hid behind a delivery van until the inspectors had passed out of sight.

For many, the week of inspection was surreally calm. There were no emails, no memos, no new initiatives and no meetings: just whispered rumours in the corridors, and of course the ever-present threat of an observation.

It would happen like this. You would just have started, persuaded that no one was coming, when the door would creak open and there they'd be, clutching a pile of black folders.

If you were lucky you'd get a brief acknowledgement but, more than likely, they'd simply sit down, open one of their black folders and start writing, barely looking up even when you put on the multi-coloured interactive OHP acetate you'd been up until 3am preparing. Then, just as you were getting to the bit you'd be sure would win them over, they'd be gone.

Uncannily, your greatest allies in inspection week are your students.

They've done it all before, and they know exactly how to play it. Your entire class is present at 9am on a Monday morning. They answer questions, nod sagely and proffer opinions. They say things like: "We always appreciate his informative handouts. We love this class. It's our favourite."

And then there's the feedback. First, the observer feeds back to the observee, who then goes to feedback on the feedback to the staff mentor, who feeds back to the management, who finally feed back to the teachers.

Even the inspectors are inspected by an inspector who then feeds back to the chief inspector.

Then, suddenly, on the Friday morning, it's all over. You wait nervously for the verdict, and months of planning, sleepless nights, endless meetings, tension and tears are reduced to a simple grade out of 5. And in the end, the difference between a 2 (good) and a 3 (satisfactory) comes down to nothing more than a faulty OHP, a statistic from a class three years ago or the way you arrange your tables.

And this is the way inspection ends. Not with a bang, but a whimper.

The author, who works at an FE college, writes under a pseudonym

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