'The phone rang just before lunchtime... It was Ofsted...'

From the moment the phone rings until the second Ofsted leaves the building, schools are far removed from 'carrying on as normal'

Ofsted inspection_editorial

The phone call came in just before lunch: Ofsted will be with you tomorrow morning; coming, ready or not.  

20 minutes later we were all assembled in the staffroom. 

“Everybody keep calm,” was the message. “Don’t do anything different – let’s just show them how great we are.” 

It’s easier said than done. There is nothing calm about a school the afternoon before Ofsted arrive, however much you’ve been expecting it. The 3.15pm bell came like a starting pistol and for hours, the building teemed with staff tweaking displays and dashing between classroom and printer in a manner that was missing only a fast-forward button and the Benny Hill soundtrack.

Between meetings, the SLT wandered from class to class exuding a level of exaggerated relaxation that made you realise just how furious the paddling beneath the surface was. 

And you couldn’t blame them. The stakes were incredibly high. Last time, a less than favourable visit had seen parents vote with their feet sending pupil numbers – and money – plummeting. Failure was not an option. 

I rang my mum and Mr Brighouse and asked them to keep the kids alive till Thursday, then got to work. 

Several hours and 11 cups of tea later, I decided it was probably time to go home. That's when I discovered I couldn’t remember how to open my classroom door. 

The head confirmed school would be open from 5 the next morning, and so it began: a “normal” day’s teaching, doing what we always do (albeit with replenished stationery supplies, less than four hours’ sleep and something like a year’s supply of adrenaline coursing through your veins). 

I am, like most teachers, instinctively wary of Ofsted inspectors. Apart from the obvious fact that they have the power to destroy us all, I’ve seen enough in the past to make me seriously question their ability to judge: the former design and technology secondary teacher who told our early years specialist she was teaching phonics all wrong, the inspector who fell asleep in assembly, the team who ignored the 90 per cent staff turnover and reports of bullying because the data was unaffected. 

Reportedly, things are changing. The rhetoric coming from the top has definitely seen an injection of common sense but sensible sentiments from on high don’t prevent schools from being at the mercy of the individual allocated to them.  

So it was encouraging to find that, on first appearance, these Inspectors seemed to be on message. They began by reminding us they didn’t expect to see any particular style of teaching or marking and didn’t require planning in any specific format (which was lucky as mine consisted of two printed off whiteboard slides and three scribbled questions).

I was observed twice and invited in for feedback. We talked about Shakespeare, subject knowledge and questioning techniques. The inspector didn’t mention grades but instead said several sensible things about children and learning (which left me briefly wondering if we should stand on the desk and sing The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow…but the moment passed). 

Then it was all over. Ofsted had left the building. The china tea set was packed away, teachers slept again and life in school went on as normal. Nothing had changed but possibly everything had changed. We were Schrödinger’s Ofsted report: suspended in the lap of the gods.  

Jo Brighouse is a pseudonym for a teacher in the Midlands. She tweets @jo_brighouse

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