My two-year-old son came home from nursery recently with a proforma sheet of paper recording what he ate, how long he slept, how often his nappies were changed and everything that he did that day. We realised that this extra layer of bureaucracy could only mean one thing - the nursery was about to be inspected.
The nursery should have nothing to fear, but I imagine that writing a note of everything the kid did that day and giving it to the parents is deemed "a good idea" by Her Majesty's Inspectorate and so has to be complied with, even if it means taking the nurses away from the children for the time it takes to write a report on each one of them.
This is my first experience of an inspection from "the other side", as a customer rather than a provider, and it seems to me the whole rigmarole is little more than a cosmetic exercise. And, with the increase in parental choice, the results of these stage-managed visits are being treated more and more as PR for schools trying to get more customers through their doors.
Even a school like St Andrew's Secondary in Glasgow, which is deemed to be one of the best in Scotland, will doubtless have its critics. Any report is subjective, even HMIE ones.
Obviously, inspectors are only human and are likely to be swayed by the first impressions of a shiny, happy school and, in fact, would need the budget and surveillance equipment of MI5 if they wanted to discover everything about the workings of the strange organism that is a Scottish school. Even the most disgruntled teacher joins in the covering up of cracks in their department to get them through the inspection, rather than using the process to bring about change within the school.
The school where I work was inspected at the start of this year and, on the morning of the inspection, the floors were buffed to an incredible shine; normally open-necked colleagues were wearing school ties; and the walls had been freshly postered. We all received updates on which corridors the inspectors were travelling down at any given moment.
I was inspected, for only the second time in my career, for half an hour.
The kids did what they were supposed to do and I did what I was supposed to do, but how can an inspector actually know what is going on in a classroom in such a short time?
Despite my criticisms, I accept that schools need to have some form of inspection. But how to replace the current system? If inspections were dropped and schools were only rated on exam performance, they would become examination factories, churning out people who are good at exams but with no wider understanding of the world around them.
On the other hand, unannounced inspections would have schools on a constant state of red alert, which I am sure would not be conducive to teaching or learning.
Gordon Cairnsis a teacher