It’s that time of year. Schools and teachers are working flat-out to get that nativity play, carol service or Christmas concert on stage on top of all that end-of-term admin. To cheer them up, there’s the staff Christmas party and secret Santa, not to mention whatever the consumable goodies that come from grateful pupils and their parents.
All of this, of course, is par for the course in December.
Except that, even now, there will be many colleagues, in both sectors, still dreading the phone call from Ofsted or – for private schools – the Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI). No one wants inspectors in at this stage of term.
The notion that no-notice inspections save schools worry and teachers sleepless nights is as ludicrous as hoping that Harry and Meghan‘s spring wedding in Windsor will be just a quiet family affair.
Having your school inspected is like that necessary visit to the dentist: you know it’s got to happen, and you’re pretty sure it’ll hurt, but sometimes you’d rather just get it over with. So colleagues who were sure that the phone-call would come this month, and then found it didn’t, will be torn between relief at having an easier run up to Christmas and frustration that they’ll come back in January still waiting for it.
Ofsted boss Amanda Spielman says they shouldn’t get in such a state about it. At the Girls’ School’s Association (GSA) conference last month, she blamed headteacher bloggers – like me, I guess, though I’m retired – for cranking up anxiety.
Disappointing. Over this last term, Ms Spielman has made some measured and sensible pronouncements. I wrote the other week supporting her advocacy of nursery rhymes in schools. She’s criticised formulaic so-called Ofsted-style lessons and schools using inappropriate exams or multiple entries to “game” results. I believe her to be sincere in seeking to develop an inspectorate that avoids tick-box approaches and instead identifies and celebrates good practice.
But it’s a pipe dream to imagine that inspection will ever be anything other than the huge ordeal it’s always been. The verdicts in both independent and state sectors are too high.
Don’t blame people like me for flagging up the problem. It’s not we who are cranking up the pressure. We have all known headteachers who have lost their jobs because of Ofsted – and it’s still happening.
Ms Spielman’s predecessor, Sir Michael Wilshaw, betrayed the inspectorate’s underlying nastiness when he savaged the Further Education sector last week. Did he bang the drum for FE? Or castigate a FE funding gap that makes maintained schools appear generously resourced by comparison? No, he chose instead to say FE colleges need to get off their backsides and do a bit of work.
The whole system of accountability via inspection has become irretrievably poisonous. It should be ended forthwith. And before some politician devises another, equally pernicious, accountability system on the back of a fag packet, the nation should first decide what accountability means in its education system.
Meanwhile, I shall keep writing about the damaging effects of inspection as I observe and hear about them with depressing regularity from my colleagues.
Oh, and good luck with the nativity play!
Dr Bernard Trafford is a writer, educationalist and musician. He is a former headteacher of the Royal Grammar School, Newcastle, and past chair of HMC. He is will take up the role of interim head of the Purcell School in Hertfordshire in January. He tweets @bernardtrafford
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