The heart of the matter

26th May 2000 at 01:00
Gerald Haigh analyses the personal impact of inspections on primary teachers

In the past two years the deaths of four primary school teachers - three of them suicides - have been linked to OFSTED's inspection process. It's not surprising, then, that classroom stress continues to be a dominant theme in staffroom discussion.

Lots of people are under health-threatening stress at work of course - no job can be immune from the particular mix of pressures that can drive a conscientious person to self-doubt, ill health or even suicide. It's just that teaching seems to be going through a particularly bad patch at the moment. The likely reasons have been rehearsed many times and OFSTED always comes up.

Significantly, when people in other jobs that are also open to inspection come up against OFSTED - perhaps through being married to a teacher - they are often surprised at the effect it has. This is so much the case that a few years ago The Times Educational Supplement ran a letter to the editor which half-seriously coined the slogan "Husbands against OFSTED".

"Within my own profession we were accustomed to external inspection and scrutiny," it said. "I couldn't understand what all the fuss was about in the teaching profession. Now I know."

That the deaths were of pri-mary teachers is surely no coincidence. It is also significant that two of those who committed suicide had not even received a bad report. Inspections do seem to weigh more heavily on primary schools, where teachers become closely involved with the all-round development of particular groups of young children for long periods of time. This kind of work is closly tied up with self-esteem, and to tell a primary teacher that she is an ineffective teacher is to tell her she is an inadequate person. When this comes after many years of hard work and commitment to a community's children, it is particularly hard to bear.

There are things that heads and governors can do. They should, for example, be prepared to protect and defend staff, and take the flak. They also need to emphasise to them that good preparation doesn't mean polishing the furniture, spending weekends on wall displays and producing beautifully bound copies of their curriculum policies.

Perhaps the biggest flaw in the process, however, is the lack of engagement between inspectors and teachers. Time and again teachers report that OFSTED teams (with some well-publicised exceptions) are polite and professional to the point that teachers long to talk to them, in detail, about possible ways forward.

At the moment, inspectors pack their briefcases and slip away into the night, leaving some rather deflated people behind. It is easy to see that if they were coming back on Monday, ready to talk and help, the weekend between might seem less bleak for the stunned staff at the school. But that is not part of the deal.

However, Professor David Hargreaves, the Government's new chief curriculum adviser, is on record as believing that underperforming schools should have eight weeks' continuing support from their inspection teams, so perhaps some fresh thinking on the route to school improvement is in the offing.

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