Inspection is on critical list

5th March 2004 at 00:00
"You utterly useless piece of yak dung. You bungling, clueless, incompetent fool. You absolutely pathetic, hopelessly inept apology for a human being.

"You ..."

Oops! Sorry about that, but I have just been standing in front of a mirror practising once more my latest techniques of self-evaluation or, as I intend to call it in future, "autocritology", a new science I have just copyrighted (patent, jargonisation and accompanying bullshit pending).

Under the new Office for Standards in Education inspection regime, self-evaluation is supposed to play an important part. Sounds sensible, until you realise that, like everything to do with accountability nowadays, it is not quite what it seems.

Filling in self-evaluation details for an Ofsted visit requires every word to be weighed with the utmost care. You could be writing a suicide note, as some schools have already found out to their cost.

It is the oldest trick in the book. Imagine that someone asks you to inspect a chocolate biscuit factory. You arrive knowing nothing about either biscuit manufacturing or the factory and immediately ask the foreman, Mr Canary, to sing. Seeing you as his new soulmate, he plays right into your hands.

"Oh yes, manager's a drunk, never enough spigots, wrapping paper machine sometimes jams, well known round here."

That first evening you start to pen your final report. It is money for old rope. Just follow the first rule of autocritology: reproduce exactly what they told you and they will think you are a genius. The dimmest lay inspector could write it, even the one who normally has a bag put over his head, so that he thinks it is night time and goes to sleep.

"The Acme Chocolate Biscuit Company suffers from a number of serious weaknesses. Failures in leadership and management are largely due to excessive consumption of alcoholic beverages. Lack of a regular supply of spigots inhibits production, as does the tendency of the wrapping paper machine to jam. We conclude that performance is below the national average.

"Er, can I have the money in used tenners, please?"

Whatever cosmetic alterations are made, however the surface features change, Ofsted will remain a punitive weapon until the prevailing political climate improves. This is a pity because self-evaluation, or self-confrontation as it is sometimes called in the literature, is a serious business.

Shredding yourself in an honest way, even with supportive external help to improve, can be gruelling and demoralising. Doing so with good intent and then getting your efforts as a custard pie, full in the face, is devastating, because it is so unexpected.

Headteachers are now beginning to fight back and swap intelligence about self-evaluation. Those that were brutally frank and paid the price are advising others not to be so daft. It is a pity that people cannot be completely open, but you should trust no one. Even decent registered inspectors can be socialised into deception.

As the science of autocritology develops, I must found a professional institute for smart heads and teachers. Only top practitioners will be enrolled as a member of the Autocritological Society of Censorious Hokeypokey, and therefore eligible to put the letters MASOCH after their name.

This new professional body will exist to develop and propagate sophisticated models of delusion. The top-drawer deluders who make it through our tough selection procedures will practise MASOCH-ism and will be known as MASOCH-ists.

This is entirely appropriate, since the patron saint of inspection is the Marquis de Sade. A handbook of best practice is being assembled. Current gold medallist is Elspeth Scattergood of Swineshire primary, who had the Ofsted team in tears, having lipsticked fake whiplash marks on the backs of herself and the staff to demonstrate that they were so self-critical they regularly flagellated themselves.

Given a choice in the punitive climate that exists today, what would you write about yourself? It is a nice exam question. Choose one of the following:

* being situated in an area with a high crime rate, poor housing and social problems means we have significant difficulties with truancy and behaviour;

* the school runs smoothly without any major difficulties. Occasional problems are dealt with promptly and effectively.

You will be done over either way. Choosing the first option lays you open to accusations of acquiescence, blaming others for failings without addressing problems directly.

The second option may appear complacent, so another rule of Autocritology is: invent a minor, but soluble problem, just to show how self-critical and on-the-ball you are. Stress that you are getting on top of the car parking issue.

In this bizarre world, where Ofsted arbitrarily decided one day that the familiar term "satisfactory" would no longer mean satisfactory, is it surprising that nobody now dares to trust it?

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