'I've never had an Ofsted inspection. But there's one coming and I can feel the fear of being judged flickering through the school'

I'm yet to experience an Ofsted inspection, but I'm already aware of the fear, distress and suspense that the watchdog creates, writes one international teacher who's arrived from Finland to teach in England

Mona Paalanen

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Do you know how some things just hang in the air? You can feel them coming, building up that suspense. You have the feeling it’s going to influence your life quite a lot, but you’re not quite sure if it’s for better or for worse.

That’s how I think many teachers feel about Ofsted. Ofsted, that government entity of inspectors that sets the standards for teaching, inspects the schools in England and rates them on a scale from (1) "outstanding" to (4) "inadequate". In Finland, inspections have not existed since 1990. Here, they still haunt teachers’ lives. And maybe they should, because who wouldn’t want to be "outstanding"?

Lack of school inspections – and, incidentally, teachers’ professional freedom and trust towards them – are always mentioned as the cornerstones of the Finnish educational system. Ask any expert on the matter. While I agree with and value the Finnish system, I do not necessarily think school inspections are bad. Then again, who am I to say? I’ve never experienced one.

While I’m still waiting for the call or the unannounced visit alongside my colleagues – especially because our school is in the Ofsted inspection window – I feel I’ve already been exposed to the suspense Ofsted creates. Somehow, as soon as you're immersed in the “I’m a teacher in England” mentality, the fear or distress or hope involved in an Ofsted inspection lives at the back of your mind.

Before one truly embraces that mentality, it might be hard to understand. You might wonder, mostly to yourself because you don’t want to offend, whether it really matters. Who are they to judge? How are they going to determine, in a one-day visit, whether or not my teaching or the school’s safeguarding is outstanding?

But then you start noticing things.

How the banners outside schools claim their excellence with “Outstanding by Ofsted”. How Ofsted reports are mentioned on the government website as a means to choose the school you want to place your child in. How you hear stories of families moving to a town 20 miles away “because of the excellent schools".

The word of Ofsted

You truly know you’ve been contaminated when you travel to a small village in Devon during your well-deserved half-term break and spot a local primary school. Instead of looking around the courtyard and sensing how the school is, or even just trusting that it is an excellent school, your first instinct is to walk over to the school’s noticeboard and take a look at their Ofsted score. 

And that’s when you realise that you have started to judge a school by one single word: the word of Ofsted. You have opened yourself up to the distrust of that school. And I suppose that’s OK – that’s what everyone does. And that’s what schools want you to do. Or is it really?

Oh, the tales of Ofsted are manifold. Back in Finland, you would occasionally hear the comment, “Do they still have inspectors there? Well, we don’t need them.” Here, on the other hand, the remarks are more intriguing. Their unannounced visits when they give you a call from the parking lot: “We’ll walk in in five minutes.” The uncertainty of whether they stay for one day or two. The dread that they have set their mind on something even before they set foot in the school. The fear that they are only there to pinpoint mistakes and failure or spot mistakes on working walls or point out an American spelling of the word “colour”. Oh, I’ve heard them all – because I’ve asked.

Most of them were probably exaggerated and largely hearsay, but the most alarming one really stuck with me: the inspectors are people who long ago lost contact with what a one-off day in a primary school in the 21st century is like – and, more importantly, what every single day cannot be like. While this is a valid concern and something one does wonder, I’m really hoping it is just a rumour.

A matter of pride

I also hope, from the bottom of my heart, that when the inspectors waltz into our school they can see past the shock, the nervousness and the fear of being judged that flickers through it, and get to see the great work that every single teacher is doing every single day in our excellent school.

Because I can imagine that the feeling at Central Primary after the next review would be very much like the one Ofsted’s chief inspector, Amanda Spielman, shared in her speech in March 2017:

“By pure chance, I was in the school just as they received their 'outstanding' judgement, and I saw first-hand the pride that all the staff felt in seeing their achievements for young people recognised. That experience brought home to me just how much our findings matter to those we inspect and how we must never lose sight of that when we make our judgements.”

As noted by Spielman herself, there really is an importance in being "outstanding". Now the only question left to ask is: should there really be? 

Mona Paalanen is a Finnish primary school teacher teaching in Watford. She blogs here and tweets as @MissPaalanen

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