Grilled and spat out

30th May 1997 at 01:00
Tales of OFSTED inspections in England have strong teachers reduced to tears, but is it any better in Scotland? One primary head in a tough area of Edinburgh tells Seonag MacKinnon what it was really like when Her Majesty's Inspectors called

The reporting officer was smiling all the time but it seemed to be the smile of a wolf - predatory and patronising. There was little acknowledgement that we have the common purpose of doing our best for these kids. It was more 'we are on top, you're underneath and you'd better pull the cart in the direction we want.' A teacher called the inspector by his first name when she gave him coffee. He froze before our eyes and told us that this was not a social visit and he was to be called Her Majesty's Inspector Mr Blank. We felt threatened from the moment we knew we were to be inspected. I asked a head whose school had just been inspected how it had gone. She said: 'Don't ask me - I'm not even going to talk about it.' I phoned other heads and not one said anything that lifted my spirits.

The inspectors sent a questionaire to parents and interviewed the dinner ladies, lollipop man, secretary, auxiliaries and janitor. Although what they said turned out to be favourable, and although in the end the interviews were relaxed, these are ordinary people and the formal timetable of interviews made them worried out of their skulls.

The morale of teachers is generally low. The inspectors have an important job to do raising standards, but it doesn't help when you sense very quickly that they are looking for something to be wrong. I know I speak for many heads when I say I was made to feel I had done little of value. I felt I had to fight for recognition for work I consider to be worthwhile. They appeared to have their own agenda which was subject-based. They didn't appear to look at the whole person.

The 3Rs are important, they are the framework for everything else. But we are going into the 21st century and we should be doing more than producing clones who can count and read. The children should develop into individuals who can think for themselves. Here we teach the children to care for each other - not just hold doors open. The children do many things of an aesthetic nature for which the school was not given credit.

In the end, I suppose we did get far more credit than I thought we would and standards did need raising in areas such as maths and language. Teachers can be complacent and it annoys me when a teacher feels as if her kids are all hopeless cases. Staff could lash themselves into a frenzy of hard work but still have low expectations of the children.

The inspection can make particular departments in a school take a much deeper, wider, more modern approach. That's good for the children and taps the wonderful potential in some staff. Attempts by the head at persuasion might not work, so the hardline attitude of the inspectors can be what is needed.

But they singled out one particular teacher for having too low expectations of the children, and I didn't feel that was helpful. I knew it already.

I felt the inspectors were also unrealistic in expecting me to include the staff more in financial discussions by having formal staff meetings to discuss the jotters and type of pencils we buy. I'd never get my job done if I had meetings for such matters.

The inspectors just did not take into account what it is like working in this kind of deprived area. I am not blaming them for not knowing - but I do criticise them for claiming they know.

A huge amount of my time is taken up with social problems. A mother will turn up crying because her windows have been smashed by another family and her daughter battered on the way home from school. I give her tea, let her cry, ring the police and the housing department to try for a transfer - again.

Many of the children come from single parent homes, umpteen guys around, no books, and they get battered, or spoiled. They are deprived emotionally, culturally and physically. When they come to us, many can't use a toilet properly, wash their hands, blow their nose, or use a knife and fork.

Often the parents are illiterate and they come to me when they have to fill in forms or apply for clothing vouchers for the kids. I am in constant contact with social workers, I have to go to case conferences and children's panel meetings, and deal with all the resulting paperwork.

When I tried to get across to the inspectors how much of my time is taken up with social problems, their reply was that I should prioritise my time more - as if I could tell someone to stop crying in my office because I have a 5-14 report to prepare for Friday.

Their suggestion of more praise for people is a reasonably good idea, although I feel uncomfortable with the jolly hockey sticks back-slapping this seems to infer.

My advice to other headteachers would be to ensure they have written policies - and proof that they are carried out. Heads also need more information on what is expected of them by HMI. A recent HMI course in Edinburgh for headteachers was excellent in this respect.

The inspectors' visits left us like washed-out rags and with distrust in the staffroom, because we were all asked about each other. We are further away than we ever were from the effective team they want us to be. I always thought we had a particularly happy staffroom before. I wonder now whether I was wrong.

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