Inspecting the inspector

9th April 2004 at 01:00
I know I shall never be forgiven for it, but my guilty secret has been bottled up too long and I just have to get it off my chest. In any case, these days I'd have to make a full disclosure on any new job application.

Once, not so long ago, you see. I was an inspector. Oh, it started in a small way, a few criticisms here and there, the odd lofty judgement on lesser classroom mortals; I can take it or leave it, I thought. It is more a hobby than a habit, I told myself and my family. I can stop anytime I want. But I couldn't.

The temptation to grade my colleagues and to lecture them on their strengths and weaknesses was irresistible. Soon, I was applying for jobs as an inspector and before long I was out on full-blown inspections, committed to a life of condemnation and condescension.

Of course, it took its toll in the end. One morning I looked in the mirror and caught a sudden sight of what I had really become. It was not pretty.

Whilst some features are satisfactory, and occasionally good, I noted, there are many areas which are below national benchmarks for compassion. In some parts of my face, humanity was completely absent.

I went outside to share all this with my wife. But of course, she had left me months earlier, shortly after reading the first draft of my report on her dress sense and cooking, in both of which there were many more weaknesses than strengths and which I had summarised as inadequate. I remember the line I was most proud of: "whilst attendance at mealtimes was generally satisfactory and latecomers to the table suitably challenged, there was a complete lack of differentiation in the fare offered to each member of the group and no attempt to determine whether ingestion was taking place in a way which would lead to their nutritional needs being met."

You see, I simply hate plain omelette and felt obliged to tell her.

But my image in the mirror worried me. It was time to leave the profession I loved and move on. In an attempt at expiation I decided to join the real world of education. Not all at once, of course, but gradually through posts with the FE funding council and eventually back into a college.

But the inspectors know where I live and they don't like to lose one of their own. As a result of a merger, in the past 18 months I have lived through 10 "visits" from Ofsted: seven re-inspection visits, and three special investigations. Each re-inspection visit needs six inspectors for two days, a feedback session, a report, a revised action plan and a summary of progress since the last re-inspection.

Overall, in the past seven years, leadership and management in the college has gone from "satisfactory" upwards to "good", down, post merger, to "inadequate" and now back up again to "at least satisfactory" with a special note in the form of an "additional strength", which states some parts of it are very good indeed! At last I know how my wife felt.

They came so regularly because the college we merged with had a poor inspection result. And now, 18 months later, at last they have gone. After all those re-inspections we have been pronounced fit for human consumption again.

Have we improved? Of course. Before they came we almost never produced action plans. Under their guidance we produced 35 curriculum area action plans and can now knock one up on almost any subject in five minutes.

Almost all of us have learned how to sit through the unbelievably stylised end-of-visit feedbacks without laughing or crying with frustrated rage.

Senior staff can all now speak fluent Ofsted and our own internal audit reports now sound just as pompous as the real thing.

Most of all, though, I have learned that no matter how we improve things, every year national benchmarks get further out of reach and their inaccessibility means that leadership and management here may never again be graded "good", regardless of the college's success in every other respect.

This is a hugely motivating late career boost to my personal morale, of course, and doubtless no more than I deserve after my earlier confession.

The worst thing is, I can't think of a single thing I've learned from inspectors, except how to prepare for and survive inspections. All other changes have been prompted by colleagues, here, in other colleges, in LSDA and even the LSC. Ofsted's impact on real improvement activity has been nil.

Still, we've got rid of them at last. Except we haven't. Its three years since the last full inspection of this college, so we are due again soon.

And after this little blast, it may be sooner than I think.

Graham Jones is principal of Sutton Coldfield college

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