Grumbling is my weapon of choice

18th February 2011 at 00:00

Great news! The TES recently revealed that complaints over Ofsted have doubled in the last two years.

It has always astonished me that schools don't complain more often, but teachers aren't natural grumblers, preferring to get on with the job and do the best they can for the children in their charge. And these days, even doing that isn't easy. From nursery to sixth-form, teaching is an exceptionally difficult job, demanding hours of preparation and follow-up work outside school hours. But it is time that teachers give willingly because there are few jobs which provide such intense satisfaction.

Years ago, pre-Ofsted, schools would be inspected by local inspectors who had been successful headteachers or senior leaders. They were sometimes less than perfect, but at least they got to know their schools and their neighbourhoods extremely well. And schools didn't fear their arrival, since they came to support and assist, as well as consider the things that needed improving.

When I was appointed to headship, the local inspector was exceptionally helpful. He found additional money to support projects I wanted to introduce; he linked me with new headteachers in the area so that we could discuss our schools, their problems and how we were going to solve them; and he was always at the end of a telephone if I needed support. When he saw the school was progressing nicely, he simply left me to it and popped in every six months.

To me, Ofsted was always a crazy way of inspecting schools. Since thousands of schools were to be visited regularly, vast numbers of inspectors were needed, so they were bound to be of variable quality. Because they could only inspect, and not offer advice, they soon became merely a tool for criticism.

Since the inspection criteria were (and still are) constantly changing and exceptionally demanding, hard-working teachers all over the country dreaded the inspections. Many became ill with stress; a few even took their own lives. Precious few allowances were made for schools in challenging areas doing their best against incredible odds. Even now, far too many good teachers are left worn out and demoralised, and it often takes weeks for a school to resume normality. And, crucially, there isn't a shred of evidence to show that Ofsted has caused school standards to rise.

And yet, very few schools complain.

Ofsted head Christine Gilbert says that most schools are supportive of its inspections. I have no idea where this information comes from - presumably the small number of schools that still have the energy after an inspection to fill in the feedback form. But of all the things I write about, Ofsted always brings the largest postbag, and I have heard some truly horrendous tales. Arrogant, inexperienced inspectors who have not been in a classroom for centuries; inspectors who have never been in teaching at all; others who fail a lesson if it veers slightly off topic. And, of course, Ofsted teams who decide from a bunch of data whether or not a school is failing, and then come in determined to prove that what the data says is correct.

In fact, the reasons few schools complain about Ofsted are blindingly obvious. It is adept at sending long, rambling replies to complaints, it takes ages to do so, you never deal with just one person, and you spend a minimum of a year fighting your corner. The procedure is cleverly designed to deter.

But fighting is the only way we will ever make a real dent in this organisation. And I'm delighted to see that an increasing number of schools are prepared to take on the challenge.

Mike Kent is headteacher at Comber Grove Primary, Camberwell, south London. Email: mikejkent@aol.com.

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