Sometimes, I'm incredibly naive. There was I, a fortnight ago, telling you how sensible the new Ofsted inspection format is. Well, now I'm not so sure. At the heart of the inspection is the new self-evaluation form, which schools are advised to prepare for September, when the new shorter inspections begin. Since the Government is aiming to inspect a huge number of schools in a very short space of time, I can't imagine any headteacher not giving the new procedure some thought before the summer holidays.
I have a paper version of the form, and at recent staff meetings we have brainstormed possible answers to the questions. It wasn't too hard, because there's always a lot happening at our school and, anyway, the boxes on the form aren't very big. At least, they aren't on the paper version, which brings me to last Friday... That's when I attended an intensive one-day course about sharpening up the school evaluation processes. Since the new inspections last only a couple of days, the self-evaluation forms will assume huge importance, because that's where the inspectors will get all their information about you and your school. They'll stick a pin at random in your document, and say, "Ah, it says all your teachers have attended courses in the last 18 months.
Please show us the folder where you've kept the records of all the disseminations..." And if you can't come up with the evidence, you're stuffed, because we all know headteachers aren't trusted any more. If you haven't got a fully documented record of absolutely everything you're doing, then sorry matey, we don't think you're doing it.
The trouble is, the real form isn't a paper document. It's an electronic one, with a raft of confusing instructions. And when you eventually reach the boxes, how much should you type into them? Well, how long is a piece of string? The boxes expand into infinity, and from the examples the HMI gave us to look at, some heads had obviously decided to pour out their life stories. Write too little, and the inspectors will think you're not doing anything; waffle at length and you'll give them a million things to home in on (and you'll have a million boxes of evidence to prepare).
By mid-afternoon, we'd shuffled through nearly 100 sides of A4. We'd looked at best practice, satisfactory practice and pretty dubious practice. We'd been through model answers with a fine-toothed comb, and we'd realised we were in for half a term's worth of form-filling weekends, carefully weighing every word we wrote.
Afterwards, I stayed to talk to the HMI. Surely, I said, there are simpler ways of assessing a primary school? After all, any parent can spend half an hour in a school and know whether she wants to send her child there. What does she look for? Simple. Are the classrooms busy and purposeful? Are the teachers enthusiastic and happy? Is children's work everywhere, and is it of a high standard? Is there a wide and interesting curriculum? Is the head always present? It's hardly rocket science, and never has been.
In many ways, I suspect nothing much has changed in the past 30 years.
Inspiring leaders will run exciting schools, just as they always have, while mediocre leaders will produce mediocre schools. And trying to turn heads into paper-churning, meeting-intensive business managers who have little contact with children is precisely the wrong way of going about things. Time will tell whether Ofsted is really changing, but after last week's talk, I'm not putting any money on it.
Mike Kent is head of Comber Grove primary, London borough of Southwark.