A pain without gain

8th January 1999 at 00:00
Are OFSTED inspections really as awful as they say? Sara Robinson, a new teacher, felt it was the last thing she needed

Whisper OFSTED in certain circles and you will invariably be greeted with "What's that then?" (by friends and relatives not involved with schools) to "Ohmygod" (from teachers who recall personal experience) to "Pah, that bunch of predators? Did you see Dispatches?" (from anarchists or a teacher who is past caring).

During the build-up to my school's recent week-long visit from the Office for Standards in Education, it was interesting to note how friends outside teaching became impatient with my inability to rationalise, compartmentalise and prioritise as the week crept nearer while friends in teaching became closer. Despite all the mounting pressures, trips to the local hostelry became increasingly frequent as we shared conspiratorial tactics, general hysteria and lots of beer. We were linked against the enemy, united by our overall feeling of being hard done by.

My mother (who is in teaching) developed a terrible migraine, rumoured by her colleagues to be in sympathy for my stress, having recently been through an inspection herself.

Members of staff were seen sporting power suits, trying to convince other staff and students that cords were suddenly no longer their style. One particularly tragic case of desperation to impress was witnessed at 10pm on the eve of inspection, as a teacher began her dramatic wall-displays. Despite that late hour, they managed to be both interactive and demonstrative of the progression made between the beginning and end of the various key stages.

And for what? As the registered inspector had predicted to a collection of staff, the week proved to be less arduous than the preparation.

Having survived the first grey suit and clipboard appearing on the Monday, I felt slightly exhilarated. But with the chaos of a normal school day placing its usual demands on me, I soon became oblivious to the OFSTED team. In fact, at the risk of sounding blasphemous, I even enjoyed elements of their presence - the chance to receive some recognition and perspective, the children rising magnificently to the occasion, the sense of commitment and community among the staff.

I received feedback from a stereotypically colourless inspector. Having only watched me for 20 minutes himself, the comments he made in the staff cloakroom were mainly based on observations made by his colleague. Boxes, numbers and precise use of OFSTED jargon reduced my communication skills, subject knowledge, relationships with my classes and a myriad other factors which contribute to my teaching ability to a few succinct sentences and a dry flicker of a smile.

The "numbers", statistics allocated to each teacher for each lesson seen, were the stars of the show. Computerised crosses in a selection of boxes proved to be the final answer to our nightmares. The culmination to weeks of preparation, stress and exhaustion was, for the majority of teachers, a "goodsatisfactory".

"What the hell does that mean?" my colleagues yelled. "Am I really 'good' and if I am, why, after 20 years, am I not 'very good'? And if I am 'satisfactory', how far am I from 'unsatisfactory'?" A month later, staff can still be heard mulling over these imponderables.

I am a realist. I believe that schools should be accountable and that some form of inspection is needed. I do not claim to have any answers. But this form of assessment, barely formative, fragile in validity and hopelessly one-dimensional is not (to use the lingo) "value for money". It will not help me become a better teacher.

It tells a good headteacher what he or she already knows. It is also a stressful experience which most teachers simply do not need in an already demanding profession. In our school, it has worsened morale among good teachers and encouraged a voracious appetite for doing the lottery.

Maybe OFSTED and OFLOT are actually in cahoots and it is all a deep conspiracy to wear the teaching profession down and see the National Lottery's profits increase.

Sara Robinson is an NQT in Surrey

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