I think it's right that schools should be kept on their toes, and giving three days' notice of an inspection seems sensible

17th February 2006 at 00:00
We knew it was coming. We hadn't had an Ofsted for five years, and were bound to be among the first of the new two-day inspections.

I wasn't too concerned; I have an exceptional staff, the children work well, and there's always lots going on. I think it's right that schools should be kept on their toes, and giving just three days' notice of an inspection seems sensible. I also support the new self-evaluation form (SEF), which seems an effective way of gathering information to assess strengths and weaknesses. We started on our SEF early - six months before it was required - and the brainstorming staff meetings were surprisingly valuable. By September last year we had a strong document, and we knew that if our SEF matched what the inspectors saw, the inspection would be straightforward.

Nevertheless, I still had serious misgivings. Schools need to be inspected, but up to now the expensive, bureaucratic Ofsted empire has done far more harm than good, sometimes putting people with questionable inspecting abilities into schools and creating anger and resentment.

I have experience of this. Our first inspection was extremely successful, although only one of the seven inspectors had any primary experience. But we felt we were treated unfairly in the second, and we simply didn't recognise our school in the final report. Rather than sit back and accept it, we complained. It took us two years, we dealt with 17 Ofsted officials along the way, and we still felt hard done by at the end of it all. Our week of misery destroyed any faith I might have had in Ofsted being a fair and productive method of inspecting schools.

And so to our latest inspection. The call came in November, and for a moment I wondered if we were about to re-enter the abyss. I'd attended an intensive one-day course on the new format and been so bored I'd left after two hours. I'd also looked at a colleague's massive training tome (cost pound;250) that claimed to guarantee success. I couldn't lift it, let alone raise the enthusiasm to read it. And I'd heard rumours that lead inspectors grilled headteachers for an hour on the pre-inspection phone call, picking through their SEFs. There was no way I was agreeing to that.

But any concerns I had began to evaporate within a few minutes of the phone call. The lead inspector didn't want to talk for an hour, she simply wanted to agree a few practical details about the two days. She already had a good knowledge of the school, gleaned from our website, and it was obvious she'd read our SEF. Immediately after the call, she emailed a list of the things she'd want to look at, which was valuable because we could gauge the direction of her thinking and gather evidence accordingly. We'd also been allocated an HMI, to "inspect the inspectors".

The weather must have helped - two gloriously bright autumn days - but the children were wonderful, the staff confident, the atmosphere intense but always friendly and positive. And at the end of it, we were delighted to hear we were a good school with outstanding features. So, has my opinion of Ofsted changed? Not really. Yes, it was very different from last time, but mainly due to the lead inspector's enthusiasm for primary education, her people skills, and her affection for children. The inspection of schools shouldn't require the massive machinery of Ofsted. Highly skilled local inspectors, each responsible for a small number of schools, could do it just as well. And the vast amount of money saved could be ploughed back where it belongs. Educating children.

See 'Ofsted expects', page 15. Mike Kent is head of Comber Grove primary, London borough of Southwark. Email: mikejkent@aol.com

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