I've just received my copy of the new framework for inspection and it confirms my view that there really are some very cunning chaps working at the Department for Education and Employment. To replace the familiar ring binder, Ofsted have produced three booklets, each with an illustrated front cover showing little cameos of happy children and contented teachers. The message is unmistakable, inspection can be fun.
The only problem is that it all looks very unconvincing. My first thought was that this was because they had commissioned somebody from Ladybird Books to do the illustration. The picture on the primary booklet looks as if it was originally intended for a reading scheme - "Here is the teacher. Here are the class. This is the framework. The framework is fun". Looking like puppets from Thunderbirds, the children try hard to show what a good time they are having by striking the kind of poses that will give them bad arthritis in later life.
It was only when I looked more closely that I realised the truth. It isn't the artist that has the problem, but the school. All the indications are that this is a school with serious weaknesses. I'll eat my ring binder if this classroom hasn't been endlessly visited by HMI working in shifts round the clock since the school failed its inspection.
How can I tell? Firstly, they are all wearing fixed smiles. That, of course, is merely circumstantial evidence. More convincing is the scene being played out in the foreground. Three children are standing watching with awe while a fourth, who can clearly form all her letters with perfect accuracy, laboriously spells out a word beginning with the letters "Ma". What can it be? Is it "Mam"? Maybe, but would anybody be foolish enough to allow the use of non-standard English when an inspector might walk in at any moment? I think not. It is much more likely that this child is spelling out the word "Man". She is attempting to alert the teacher to the fact that an inspector has just entered the room.
So it is an inspection, but no ordinary one. The child's unkempt appearance, her long greasy hair, the haunted expression, the pallid skin, all suggest that things are far from well. This brief written note is a cry for help from a child so traumatised by having spent every minute of her brief time in school being inspected that she can no longer speak. Eventually, she will simply wander off to the book corner like Captain Oates and slip gently away, to become just one more Ofsted statistic. And look at the child standing by the shelves deciding whether to read Grimms' fairy tales, as authorised by the national curriculum. Why is she standing in this unnatural position? My guess is that she has been told to stand to attention at all times while the inspector is in the room and she is finding it difficult to combine this with reading.
Two of the children, though, have already tipped over the edge. One of them has the kind of manic staring favoured by Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs. He is riding a tricycle around staring fixedly at the ground as he decides whether to end it all by smashing into the boy in front of him or by driving off the edge of the picture. Near him is a boy with his hair bleached like Gazza and an expression that combines violence and despair in equal measures.
Sitting in the corner of the room, looking serene, is the teacher. How does she manage it? Amid all the clutter on the table in front of her, behind the pot full of marker pens, you can just make out one of those clear brown plastic bottles that dispensing chemists use for prescriptions. Unfortunately, it's empty. That's why her fist is clenched so tightly and the beads of perspiration are starting out on her forehead.