A love and hate affair

11th February 2000 at 00:00
Being an Ofsted inspector is tougher than it looks, writes Sarah Stubbs.

I'm not male or middle-aged, and neither are most of the people I work with. And I don't wear a dowdy suit. Yet this is the typical image of an Ofsted inspector - which goes hand in hand with the conviction that we couldn't teach to save our lives. It's time you heard about inspection from an inspector. Here are 10 things about the job that I love and 10 things I hate.

I like:

* Witnessing good teaching. Some stuff really motivates children and results in deep learning. There are many brilliant teachers about and it's a delight and honour to see them in action.

* Telling teachers their lessons are good. As teachers, we're not very good at using praise to reinforce the behaviour we want in colleagues. Many people, though they dread the run-up, actually enjoy being inspected because they get some objective feedback on their teaching, and recognition that they're doing a good job.

* Being with children. They are the reason I went into education and they continue to fascinate me. I love talking to them, hearing what they say about their school (they're often very astute) and reading what they write.

* Getting a broad picture of the education system. Visiting a large number and wide range of schools is a rich experience that gives me an objectivity I couldn't have when I worked in one school. The schools I've inspected vary enormously in size, geography, socio-economic profile, ethnicity and success rates.

* Meeting committed people. I've seen lots of teachers, governors, classroom assistants, school-keepers, secretaries and parents who go the extra mile to help the children in their school. The inspectors I work with are also highly committed to doing the best for children.

* Being a detective. Gathering evidence, developing hunches and getting to the root of issues.

* Making a difference. I aim to give a clear picture of why children's achievements and progress are as they are. This helps schools improve things for their pupils.

* Working intensively in a close-knit team with a common purpose. The inspectors I've worked with are knowledgeable and many of them are good fun. It's good to bounce ideas off people.

* Continuing my professional development. Inspecting is challenging and rewarding. I learn something from seeing how different local authorities, schools, teachers and inspectors work. The more I know about teaching and learning, the more interesting and complex they appear.

* Being told I'm quite nicehuman - considering I'm an inspector.

I hate:

* Seeing weak teaching. It's disturbing when children get a raw deal. It's depressing sitting through badly taught lessons and having to hide feelings of despair, anger and frustration.

* Giving feedback on unsatisfactory lessons. It can be painful. It s bearable when teachers listen, good when they understand what they need to do to improve, but dire when they blame someone else.

* The demands of the job. It involves pre-inspection preparation, long days in school and working evenings, and writing the report takes ages. The job requires a huge amount of reading, thinking and writing at speed - pens run out of ink and paracetamol boxes are emptied. It's so intensive that everything else gets put on hold. At the same time, systems and frameworks keep changing. More and more is expected of inspectors (and everyone else in education).

* Other people's attitudes. Inspectors are feared and treated with suspicion by those they are inspecting, and pilloried by colleagues in other fields of education for having "sold out". Equally irritating is being made to feel responsible for the system's weaknesses.

* The stress. This is particularly bad when a school is not doing well. Inspectors are affected by staff stress levels. The pressure to make accurate judgments and be accountable is intense.

* Bad pay. When inspections started, the work was well paid, but the fees have dropped and dropped, averaging about pound;13 an hour for me before tax and all the other expenses of self-employment. I also have to fund my own training, pay for hotels and so on - and there's no sick pay. And it's galling when people assume we're well-paid. There is also a lengthy delay between doing the work and receiving the cheque, which can cause serious cash-flow problems.

* Working conditions. Few schools have the flexibility of accommodation to give Ofsted teams a room with desk space for each inspector. Some teams have to base themselves on PE benches in the hall, and in unheated caravans in the winter. I have had dizzy spells when surrounded by cleaning fluids in the schoolkeeper's store room.

* Being away from home. I don't like sleeping in a strange bed, overdosing on biscuits and coffee, and only talking to my family on the phone. When I return I have to neglect my children as I battle with writing the report, transmuted into half-woman, half-desk.

* Having to write in Ofsted style. I long to write descriptively using adjectives like "wonderful", "super" and "great" instead of "very good", but I am constrained by word limits and having to conform to a prescriptive style.

* Being unable to avoid classifying everything on the Ofsted seven-point scale. The weather is a seven (freezing cold and raining), my bank balance a six (well below the national average), the state of my desk is five (untidy), my New Year's resolutions are four (meeting national expectations), the car's ability to start is a three (good), that Mars Bar is a two (yummy) but with elements of seven (very bad for me), and the Ofsted monitor's grade is a one (excellent).

Sarah Stubbs writes under a pseudonym

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