The morning phone call comes earlier than expected: it’s just gone 7am.
“Hi, buddy, are you free to work today? Only we need the very best for this one – that’s why I called you.”
“Great choice,” I reply. I’m not buying this transparent flattery for a second. I know what’s coming: a day of hell at one of the schools every other supply teacher turns down. At least I can probably squeeze the agency for a bit more money.
But I’m wrong. The school he offers me is a good one. So what’s the catch?
“It’s their second day of a two-day Ofsted visit. So you’ll need to bring your A-game.”
It’s a while since I’ve been through an Ofsted inspection, and I can’t say I’ve missed them. Over the years, they’ve changed quite a bit.
When I first started teaching, Ofsted inspections would be announced several months in advance, rather than the two days’ notice that schools now receive. This was a truly terrible system.
On hearing an inspection was approaching, a school would descend into a panic-driven state of mania, with entire schemes of work being rewritten, whole wings of the school getting redecorated, and elaborate plans hatched to ensure that, when the inspectors arrived, certain students (and staff) deemed to be any kind of liability would not be present to be inspected. And the actual inspection would be a week long. The whole thing was a total nightmare.
I went through six or seven Ofsted inspections during my career, and with each one, the accompanying levels of anxiety diminished. I put this down to growing confidence in my abilities as a teacher, and the gradual realisation that the inspections actually had no impact on me at all.
That said, there was always a sense of apprehension – however friendly a face those coming to judge you might wear, you still knew that you were being judged.
I’ve seen countless colleagues reduced to gibbering wrecks at the prospect of a looming Ofsted inspection. One teacher I knew simply walked out the day before the inspectors came and never returned to teaching.
This time, though, as I stroll up to the school gates, I’m rather looking forward to it all. This is mostly because, as a lowly supply teacher, there’s really no jeopardy for me; I’ll be surprised if anyone comes to observe me at all. It’s also a little bit because – and I’m not proud of this – I’m quite looking forward to seeing everyone else freak out.
The first sign that the school might be feeling the pressure came as I arrived and went to turn off my phone. There were four messages from my agency – the school had rung them several times to ask why I wasn’t there yet.
As I signed in at reception and got my timetable, I could feel the tension in the air. Everything was brisk and efficient, and everybody spoke to each other as though they really, really wanted their requests to be met right away without any fuss.
This hyper-efficiency continued throughout the day: the instructions for every lesson were laid out neatly in plastic folders in the classroom, textbooks were stacked in labelled piles on the desk, and in two lessons a deputy head “popped by” to check things were running smoothly.
True, sometimes as a supply teacher you see this level of organisation. Mostly you do not. In my experience, schools tend to exist in a state which is perpetually one notch below total chaos.
Not as bad as before
I spoke to a few of the students to ask about their experience of the inspection and got the usual responses: “Miss X is being really nice today”; “Mr Y is wearing a tie for the first time ever.”
One girl recounted how, when her teacher had sent a disruptive student to stand in the corner of the room (glad to see some of the traditional sanctions are still being used), it had been with the instruction that, if Ofsted walked in, he was to say he was just opening a window.
I didn’t see any inspectors first hand, but I did eavesdrop on the familiar staffroom conversations at break and lunch, about who’d been “done”, and which kids in their classes had been pumped for information.
Overall, the school seemed to be coping well, and it didn’t feel anything like as bad as I remembered it.
Maybe things have improved. Maybe Ofsted has got better at positioning itself as the supportive friend and less as the enemy within. Maybe teachers today are a tougher breed. Or maybe teachers are all now so used to random people turning up in their classrooms and passing judgement on them that one more visitor barely registers.
Whatever the change was, I was still extremely happy to be done with the whole miserable business.
The writer has recently taken up supply teaching after 20 years in a full-time teaching job