Heartily sick of scrutiny

5th May 2006 at 01:00
A headteacher describes how he and the staff at one school were taken to the end of their professional tether by Ofsted inspectors

I was in the middle of a meeting when I received a phone call notifying me that the school would be inspected, and a time was agreed for the lead inspector to ring back.

At exactly the appointed hour, she phoned to discuss the inspection and reassured me that the new-style Ofsted inspections were challenging but less stressful than the old regime. She asked me to sort out a selection of routine documents for the team's arrival in two working days. The inspectors would be HMIs.

She outlined a set of meetings that she would like me to arrange, including with a core curriculum leader, special educational needs co-ordinator, the deputy head, a governor, a group of children and me, and we discussed domestic issues such as a room for them to work in.

She told me that the pre-inspection briefing would be with me on the day before the inspection and that she was looking forward to meeting me.

That afternoon, I reassured my staff that the inspector sounded very positive and friendly and that I had a good feeling about the process. In a strange sort of way, I felt relieved and relaxed that evening. The months of stress were over and now, at last, we could get stuck into the inspection and then get on with normal school life. I still marvel at my naivete.

The day before the inspection, my deputy and I read the pre-inspection briefing and noted the issues Ofsted had earmarked for scrutiny. We warned key members of staff that they should be ready to meet the inspectors and to have their data ready. The head of a neighbouring school, who is working with me as part of a leadership programme, called in, and we did a bit of brainstorming.

This was really helpful and I would advise other heads to accept all the support that is offered. However experienced or confident you are, pre-inspection uncertainty makes you feel vulnerable. I slept fairly well that night.

On inspection day, I got up a bit earlier than usual. My wife made sure I looked presentable. The inspectors were due at 8.30am. They arrived early.

I took them to their room to prepare. Although they were pleasant, I had a slight sense of unease. I am old enough to remember the time before they abolished hanging and it was like the tension that used to grip the country on the morning of an execution.

The inspectors came to the staffroom and introduced themselves, reassuring us that they were all normal human beings. They answered a few questions in a good-humoured manner, but I felt uneasy. It was reminiscent of the episode of Blackadder in which the protagonist meets his firing-squad leader, who reassures him that they aim to please.

During the first morning I did a joint classroom observation with one of the inspectors. We went to my office and discussed the lesson. During the rest of the morning, the inspectors visited classes but I did not have a chance to get any feedback from my colleagues.

At the end of the morning, one of the inspectors came to see me and said that she was concerned about progress in one key area. I expressed some surprise and said that the data showed clearly that the children mentioned were making excellent progress. It was agreed that a final judgement would be made when she had seen evidence to prove my point.

I went to the staffroom to see how they all were. The atmosphere was awful.

Two staff offered to resign and others were on the verge of tears. After lunch, other subject leaders met with an inspector. They were quite positive about their meeting. After yet more meetings, the inspectors eventually went to their room to review the day. It was agreed that the lead inspector would meet me later. My deputy stayed behind as well to see how things were going. We were feeling unhappy about the way the day had gone.

Before she went home, the lead inspector announced that the team disagreed with my judgements on the self-evaluation form and they would now be looking at each area to see if they could consider them as even satisfactory. I expressed surprise that the difference between us was so wide and that areas I had classified as good would not even be satisfactory. She said she was reserving judgement and would make up her mind when she had seen more evidence. She said that the concern raised earlier in the day had been resolved because staff had shown the inspectors proof of progress and they had modified their judgement. Unfortunately, the staff had already gone home distraught.

At 3am the next day, I woke up. There were a few seconds of blissful calm until the reality of the previous day started to flood back. After two hours staring at the ceiling in the gathering dawn, I got up and went to my computer to dig out the documents that I would need later that morning.

First of all, I checked my lottery ticket. I do not know what I would have done if I had scooped the jackpot but a demon inside me was telling me to go into school and tell them what to do with their Ofsted report.

But 5am is not a good time for decision-making. Fortunately, the need to pay my mortgage, discretion and consideration for my colleagues took over and, armed with the evidence, I arrived in school at about 6.50am to prepare for the fight-back.

The inspectors were due at about 8.30am but arrived at 7.45. During the morning they met teachers and observed more lessons. They finished the inspection at lunchtime and repaired to their room to write up the report.

Later that afternoon, we gathered to hear the feedback. The inspectors described each area, giving a brief verbal commentary followed by a grade.

Despite earlier grim predictions, the lead inspector classified most areas as satisfactory and a number as good.

On the following day, the healing process commenced. Resignations were shelved. I passed on the thanks of the inspector to the children and told them that she thought they were very well behaved and welcoming. I passed on her thanks to the staff for their friendly and welcoming manner. It got a hollow laugh.

The writer is a primary headteacher in England. Write to primary@tes.co.uk

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