The first thing that struck me was how heavy it is... In document terms, it's clinically obese. And it's a big package.

19th March 2004 at 00:00
Dear David Bell. Thank you for sending me your annual report. It came just in time, because we'd been looking for something to stand the tea urn on.

The first thing that struck me was how heavy it is. In document terms, it's clinically obese. And it's a big packageI a chunky book, a thinner one, and a CD-Rom. I admit I've never read one of these reports before, but I had time on my hands while I was waiting for the washing to dry, so I thought I'd give this a go. And the closer I looked, the more alarmed I became.

First, the sheer cost of it. Almost every state school gets a copy. That's around 24,000, apparently. Quite a paper and postage bill. And what about the look of the package? I can hear the design firm's excited cries.

"Listen up everybody. We have the ultimate commission. We're designing the look of this year's HMCI report "

"Gosh Nigel, well done. We'll all be able to holiday in the Seychelles this year. What sort of cover are we going for?"

"It's not just a cover, Julian. This is a complete folder! With inserts and pockets and things "

I enjoyed your introduction, although as you're a fan of Every Child Matters I'm not sure how you equate that with the dead hand of Ofsted demanding dull uniformity from every school. Nevertheless, I could tell you'd written it, which presumably wasn't the case with pages seven to 120.

An army of civil servants must have compiled this, because if ever a document was guaranteed to shut the nation's eyelids, this is it.

So who does read it? I'd hazard a guess and say hardly anyone. I put it on our staffroom table, and after a week it was in exactly the same place. I phoned a few colleagues, and they all said they'd got it, but they were too busy to plough through it. Presumably, it's really for your political masters? And I bet they don't read it either.

It's probably a good thing that teachers don't bother with it. They might be unhappy to read about Ofsted's 6,220 inspectors, including 250 HMIs, while schools are having to make redundancies, pare down departments, or scrabble around for additional money to buy desperately needed equipment.

They would certainly be unhappy if they knew how much this pretty package cost to write, produce and distribute.

You say the vast majority of Ofsted inspections are "useful" to schools, but I've yet to meet a teacher who doesn't consider them an invasive, expensive nuisance, and your report tells us only 64 per cent of the inspected schools bothered to return the survey forms last year. And isn't it just a little odd that of the formal complaints made, not one has been fully upheld? No wonder schools think it isn't worth complaining.

Let me try to put it in perspective, especially as Ofsted is fond of that awful phrase "value for money". Last week, two professional trombonists visited my school and entertained the juniors for 45 minutes. As well as their own instruments, they played sackbuts, bass trombones, and a wide range of music. They demonstrated the scientific principles that make brass instruments work, and created playable instruments from funnels and lengths of garden hosepipe. The children were fascinated. Trouble is, we can't have many talks like that, because they cost pound;200 a time.

So, what's more "useful" to schools? Shovelling untold piles of money into Ofsted, or using it to broaden what schools can do for their children? I think I know what most teachers would say.

Mike Kent is head of Comber Grove primary, London borough of Southwark.


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