How Reggie made me cry

21st February 1997 at 00:00
Only death can make me cry. At five foot eleven and in the prime of life, I'm a big boy now and nothing else can move me to tears. A headteacher for 10 years, leading a popular school, it takes a lot to upset me. Then, last week, Reggie called.

This was to be my first OFSTED inspection, but in a heavily over-subscribed school with a vibrant ethos and good SATs scores, I was apprehensive but not fearful. The school had been changing and improving along agreed lines for several years so there seemed no reason to make abrupt, OFSTED-driven changes. The run-up to inspection was busy, but calm.

Initial signs were favourable. Reggie arrived, all plausibility and apple pie. We were soon at our ease, a condition which the parents' meeting did nothing to dispel. Our praises were sung and the odd malcontent was put firmly into the shade by this positive atmosphere.

The week started well and the first feedback was promising. Teaching and pupil's responses had all been satisfactory or good, but both attainment and progress were seen as satisfactory rather than good. Was this to be a sign of weakness?

Then on Wednesday morning came the first salvo. In Reggie's eyes we had committed an unforgivable sin. Despite the fact that we have a daily act of worship throughout the year which was judged to be of a high standard, four children missed Tuesday's worship in order to work on the computer with a Learning Support Assistant; Reggie nearly burst his top button. Unlike any other school in his inspectorial experience, we had broken the letter of the law. My card was marked.

This was but the start. Clearly we were being inspected by a man for whom precision, legality and systems were everything. He was what could be termed a systems leader while I was a people leader, yet while I respected his strengths, he had eyes only for my weaknesses in maintaining the correct systems.

If there was a nit to be seen, it was picked. Anything from a missing padlock to old-fashioned emergency exit signs - all was fair game. And when, on Thursday morning, he settled himself down for what was supposed to be a 15-minute briefing, waving a financial statement in my face, I guessed that Armageddon had arrived. I wasn't wrong.

Three figures on the statement were wrong. A simple secretarial error had gone unnoticed; but not by Reggie. I acknowledged the mistake immediately. His eyes narrowed and his breath shortened as he leaned further and further forward, ramming my inefficiency down my throat.

The bile and venom shook me rigid. Suddenly my whole professionalism became a dart board. Nothing escaped. Curricular leadership was but the focus of his ire, with continuity, the development plan, assessment, the role of the coordinator - you name it, he dissected it, chewed it and spat it out.

He used every ounce of his MA in Management Studies to ridicule my efficiency. Not just my efficiency, but my vision, my leadership and, in short, my right to hold the position that I did; all was listed under a neon sign labelled Doubt.

An hour and a quarter later he swept from my room, demanding to see me again at 12 o'clock (high noon?) with a rewritten financial statement.

In 25 years of teaching, I had never felt so low and so battered, an object of scorn and derision. "He was despised and rejected of man; a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief." As the tears began, I found it hard to believe that a career could be rubbished with such lack of compunction.

I didn't even get up when the RE inspector knocked and came in. She had in abundance what Reggie had cast aside in that hour or so of purgatory; it's called humanity. Dredging me up from the pits, she tried to reassure me, athough there wasn't much left to reassure. Fortunately her efforts didn't stop there.

Before lunch I found her and Reggie round by the bike sheds - of all places - deep in conversation, a conversation that ended abruptly when they saw me. After lunch there followed a "person to person chat" with our Reggie, but his reassurances carried little weight; the damage had already been done.

Friday morning's precis of the OFSTEDreport hid that damage beautifully. Comments like "the headteacher's leadership is effective in pastoral matters, less so in curricular matters" were about as direct as it got, but five of the seven key issues concerned curricular leadership, the area in which my professional standing had been so devasted the previous day.

Virtually everything else in the report was fine - good teaching and learning, good behaviour, excellent ethos and, with the exception of design technology, there were few aspects that needed improvement.

The relief, once it was all over, was immense. And the staff were brilliant. That evening we celebrated long and hard during a meal laid on by the governors. The ordeal was past.

So what had I learned from the week, apart, that is, from my inadequacies? Many things; the importance of a faith and good friends; the value of a strong staff; the fact that most inspectors are excellent (we had the one exception); the importance of getting the systems right, much more so even than the documentation and children's books, many of which went unread; and the thankfulness that I had survived a personal ordeal which I wouldn't wish upon my worst enemy.

The author is a primary headteacher in the Midlands. He takes up a new headship in September

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