Steak dinner lessons? My class feasted in style waiting for Estyn to knock on door, says Dawn Jones
At the end of the summer term, the brown envelope arrived. My school was to be only the second in Wales to go through Estyn's new inspection regime when it kicked in this September.
On the evidence collected during our last inspection five years ago, it was declared a "standard" inspection - meaning not all subject areas were to be observed in detail. My department, religious studies, was not a "named" subject, though five others were. Just in case the rest of us felt left out we were told not to worry, all teachers would be observed in the classroom at least once. Great.
Over the summer holidays, in a blind panic, I rewrote the departmental scheme of work. There was nothing wrong with the old one, except rumour had it that key skills, Curriculum Cymreig, self-assessment and "child speak" levels of attainment were the new buzzwords. Time for an overhaul.
I suspect I was not the only member of staff to have their holiday disrupted. Despite reassurances from Estyn, no one wants to leave a gap in their preparation, and no doubt countless trees will continue to be sacrificed to produce paperwork that no one even looks at during the inspection process. Yes, we teachers really are our own worst enemies.
I booked the screen, projector and laptop for all available lessons during inspection week. My classes suffered death by PowerPoint. I learnt the individual education plan of every special educational needs pupil in my classes off by heart. I could recite the school mission statement at the drop of a hat. The head advised us that we should aim to offer "steak dinner lessons, not baked beans on toast".
With one week to go, the lead inspector came into school to meet the governors. As teacher governor I expected to sit in the shadows and observe. Wrong. I was put on the spot.
"Can you name the key skills?" Having just rewritten them into the scheme of work, you bet I could.
One of the last preparations was for heads of house to select 50 pupils to meet the inspectors. The chosen few then had their books delivered to the school library for the inspectors to pick over. One colleague was still marking a book as he walked down to deliver it.
On the first morning of the inspection I drove into school feeling sick, tense and shattered. I had rehearsed my lessons with my other half all weekend. There is nothing my husband does not know about Hindu worship, Muslim divorce laws or Martin Luther King. The most obvious difference between today and every other day was the cover list. Staff attendance was 100 per cent, and remained so until the end of the week.
When Estyn is in, your school no longer belongs to you. It has been taken over by be-suited men and women. Unfortunately, on the first day not one of them came near my classroom.
Rumours flew everywhere - they are only watching bottom sets, they are only watching heads of department with A-level groups. It was all rubbish.
On day two an inspector came into my class. My heart stopped and I prepared to launch into an all-singing, all-dancing lesson. He asked to borrow a chair and left. False alarm.
By 3.30pm on the third day, I had still not been observed. Steak dinner lessons? My classes must have felt like they had been put on the Atkins diet. I felt like I had been put on death row.
Other colleagues looked more relaxed as their observations passed without disaster. Even my pupils were asking me if I had "been done yet".
By lunchtime on the fourth day I was at breaking point, yet most of the inspection team had delivered their feedback to the "named" departments, and left.
I think the new regime stinks. If RE had been a named subject I would have been observed two or three times by day four. In fact, the inspection would probably have been over for me in the first couple of days.
As it was I was still waiting. I made my feelings plain to senior management, who were most sympathetic. Within an hour a member of the inspection team was in my room and ready to observe me teach. At last.
And now it is all over. The school passed with flying colours - the kids are great, the staff is great. So tell us something we did not already know. I have worked out that if I retire at 60 I will only have to go through another five inspections. That is something to look forward to then.
Dawn Jones is head of RE at Prestatyn high school, Gwynedd