Help! The inspector's yawning

30th January 2009 at 00:00

Those of us who have been around for ever tend to treat school inspectors with healthy cynicism. People who love teaching won't want to stray too far from children. They certainly won't want to spend their lives sitting in classroom corners with clipboards on their knees making teachers' lives a misery and filling out meaningless bits of paper.

I have met plenty of inspectors I haven't had much time for, and I have had endless tussles with them.

Take the lady from one of my Ofsted inspections who yawned her way through every lesson she watched. Annoyed, I complained to her agency. "Ah," they said. "She's not actually yawning. She has a medical problem which requires her to open her mouth wide and take in occasional gulps of air."

But let me take you back to the early 1980s, when I had just been appointed as head here. The school was difficult, but we were making progress. Our stumbling block was an inspector drafted in from Oxfordshire because that county was considered the epitome of everything worthwhile in Plowden-influenced education.

Unfortunately, what worked in the leafy shires didn't work in socially deprived Camberwell. The inspector didn't agree. Although we had filled our halls and corridors with vibrant work displays, he was unimpressed. We should be aiming for Heal's, not Woolworths. Our school should be adorned with pot plants, drapes and subtle colours. Work should be displayed on sheets of corrugated card, and held by - of all things - dress-making pins.

Frankly, we couldn't afford any of this. Undeterred, he marched into school with rolls of corrugated card over his shoulders, flooring children and parents when he made a 90-degree turn, and proceeded to add foliage, drapes and corrugated card to the nearest teacher's classroom. Since the room was prone to the wind whipping through it if you left a door open, within two days the pins had fallen out, the card had ripped and taken off like Dorothy's house in Kansas, and parents had nicked the plants.

Nevertheless, every time an inspector has visited, there has been some amusement amid the angst. Inspector Eric, for example, who had no humour at all. None. Not a stitch. My teachers said it was like having your lessons monitored by the Grim Reaper. But one day we caused him to come to life rather unexpectedly, while he was attending Class 8's assembly.

They were dramatising The Carnival of the Animals in a circus setting, and the animals strode around the circus ring. Then, in came the lion tamer (actually the mature and rather attractive class teacher, complete with black fishnet stockings, boots and a whip). I felt the seat next to mine rattle in appreciation, and Inspector Eric grinned broadly. "Excellent assembly, Mike," he said afterwards. "Never seen The Carnival of the Animals done quite like that before."

And then there was Inspector Andrew. Until becoming a primary school inspector, he had been organising a secondary school geography department. He didn't mind inspecting my juniors, but he wasn't keen on spending time in infant classrooms, and the thought of the nursery, where the children might pull his tie or, worse, throw up on him, filled him with horror. I got him in there, though.

The half-hour didn't pass without incident. Inspector Andrew was bearded, with long hair and a rather serene countenance. Four-year-old Sadie watched him carefully as he entered the room. Making a sudden assumption, she ran outside, found her teacher, and tugged on her skirt urgently. "Miss Sheppard," she said, "you'd better come quick. We've got Jesus in there!"

Mike Kent is headteacher of Comber Grove Primary in Camberwell, south London. email:

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