I have in my hand a brown envelope," said the headmaster, brandishing the item with some of the apologetic authority of Neville Chamberlain on his return from Munich. The staff meeting came to abrupt attention. "The envelope," he continued, "is franked in red with the familiar acronym, OFSTED."
There followed a simultaneous sigh, substantial enough to launch a hot-air balloon. Since its inception, the OFSTED inspectorate has cultivated a reputation as a crack SAS regiment, ready and waiting to parachute on to litter-strewn playgrounds or leaky school rooftops. Their mission: to enforce curricular control and flush out the dissident and militant forces at work in our state schools.
The news of their imminent arrival served to compound what was already expected to be the most depressing staff meeting many of us would experience. It transpired that the inspection would take place in an institution about to be hit by unprecedented cuts.
The headmaster spelled out the figures but became a little more reticent when confronted with the main question on everyone's mind. "How many teaching jobs would go?" Like a fly-half in the face of a 15-stone prop-forward, he passed the slippery question to the deputy in charge of staffing. "Fourteen", came the reply. Clearly, none of us (not even the maths department) had fully assimilated the implications.
After scanning the staff in a speculative assessment of how far down "death row" I might be placed, the broader effect dawned on me. Larger classes; a smaller choice of subjects; even fewer books and resources and probably more administration. I began to envy those closest to the firing squad. I had made many attempts to escape the school but I always found myself being retrieved by the perimeter guard dogs. None the less, this particular camp was preferable to most and, over 12 years, I had developed a department of which I was fiercely proud.
Now, though, the rules of combat had changed; the opposition had starved us of supplies, and with the paras about to arrive, we were into survival strategy. It was time to make a run for the wire.
I write this confession (for it has been a matter of conscience) from my pleasant room in a public school, 20 or so miles from where I was previously stationed. I havenot had a room to call my own before. Least of all one with a word processor. I have small classes and lots of books. I still find it hard to let pupils take the texts away with them. Old habits die hard. I see my previous colleagues from time to time and try not to wax too lyrical about how wonderful life is on this side of the fence. They tell me the OFSTED strike force is now behind schedule and probably won't arrive until the next academic year.
The Government eventually allowed our local council to lift the rate cap slightly, so the school shed "only" nine teachers, mainly through early retirement. My job was "absorbed" by a colleague. Morale seems to have recovered a little and the stoical staff are adapting to yet more demands.
I'm glad things are better than expected. My eldest son is due to begin at the school next year and I said I'd never strive for my children to attend a public school. Mind you, I once said I'd never teach in one.
Martin Dimery lives in Somerset