Another Voice: Precious days ruined by OFSTED 'spectres'

16th October 1998 at 01:00
If nothing else, we know that this Government stands for raising standards in education. Ministers tell us all the time. Standards has become the Government's mantra....or should I say man-trap. For it seems to me that our children are becoming entrapped in a system that is assessed, tested and inspected until every drop of life-blood is in danger of being squeezed out of it .

How else can I explain away my daughter's first few weeks at school? My precious bundle, bubbly and bright, brimming with unbridled enthusiasm, skipped into school on her first day to be met by staff who were solicitous, but traumatised.

As the week went on things got worse. The headteacher's face grew ashen, he wasn't sure he could go on. Lucy's reception teacher, who has also taught my two sons, and whom I know to be warm and funny and hugely capable, was going home at the end of the day in tears. There are three teachers, including the head, at St Benedict's RC primary, Ampleforth, a small school in rural North Yorkshire. They were feeling, they said, like rabbits caught in the headlights.

This had nothing to do with the children or their ability to do their job. They are good teachers, experienced professionals. They weren't suffering from a particularly bad bout of beginning-of-the-school-year collywobbles. No, they were being inspected.

For four days, four inspectors from the Office for Standards in Education rifled through the school. The children had their own description - they were "the spectres", strange beings that lurked in corners.

On day three Shan Gallagher, the head, said staff were being put through the ringer. They felt so vulnerable. The report meant everything, yet it was far beyond their control. He was close to walking out The inspectors assured parents, teachers and governors that they would take into account that this was the first week of the school year, but in practice they wanted to see every curriculum subject being taught across the age range. So reception children, who would normally have spent the first week at least being gently introduced to their environment - after all just going into a cloakroom and finding the toilets is more than many four-year-olds can handle at first - were launched straight into a concentrated timetable.Lucy came home as silent as a ghost for the whole of that week.

So why were these hard-working, talented and committed teachers put through the mill - for the second time in two years? St Ben's is a school where children care for each other and know that good behaviour is expected, where there is a lot of love and laughter, where children are enthusiastic about reading - even boys - and learning, and playing and make-believe and worship. It serves its community well. Two years ago they were inspected and came out with a good report. They have a good report this time as well. Ofsted needn't have bothered.

So why again, so soon? A personal appeal from the chairman of governors to Chris Woodhead, the Chief Inspector of Schools, had no effect. Why? Ofsted argues that the school was chosen merely as part of a cross-section for the Government's new round of six-yearly inspections. But surely it could have been avoided? Such inflexibility smacks of the worst kind of machismo. and this community has paid a price. Our children are being taught by staff who face the rest of the term already exhausted and emotionally wrung-out.

What has that got to do with raising standards? Could Ofsted not have made do with some lighter form of check-up? The Government might argue that it has put in place a more positive framework, but I have yet to meet school staff who find it anything but a bureaucratic nightmare as well as a gut-wrenching and largely negative experience.

My daughter's first days will not come back and I resent any system which renders her teacher less humorous, relaxed, warm and enthusiastic - effective, in short - than she might otherwise be. But when in the same week as the "spectres" descended you have junior ministers like Charles Clarke pronouncing that results from compulsory baseline assessment - which the beleaguered teacher also had to start putting in place - might be used to assign children to different sets, then I really begin to fear for my children's educational future.

Teachers will feel pressured to teach to these assessment objectives, just as they feel pressured to perform under inspection. Research shows that it is better for small children to have a diet of rich imaginative play and to enjoy stories in a relaxed environment than to concentrate on mechanical know-how at this age. As Panorama showed this month the present formalities of early-years schooling in Britain could put some children off learning for life.

Many teachers would sympathise with this critique, as they do at St Ben's,yet they, like the children, are cornered in a system that is becoming increasingly prescriptive. Inspected, assessed, boxed. Education by tick-list. Poor Lucy.

Elaine Williams is a freelance journalist

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