Leave the clipboards to Ofsted

21st September 2007 at 01:00
It's funny. You've been a headteacher for years, and you think you've got it sorted. Everything that could possibly happen in your school has already happened. You're sailing along now, thoroughly enjoying your job, confident that nothing will crop up to ruin the view because you've seen it all before.

Then something takes you by surprise. Like that little phrase "monitoring of teaching" that we hear so often these days.

Let me explain. Last year, my school appointed a new deputy head. This was a major event, since the previous deputy had been with me for a long time and our thoughts about primary education were identical. We knew each other so well that we'd become a seamless management team, and the staff felt settled and comfortable. Since we're a bit of a maverick school, refusing to doff our caps to the endless, ludicrous demands on schools made by government officials, appointing a new deputy was a task the school approached with caution. But once the appointment had been made, I spent many hours with my newcomer, talking about our approaches to primary education, which usually don't follow the crowd.

Then, in her first staff meeting, she innocently mentioned that she was looking forward to visiting all the classrooms and getting to know everybody while she was helping me to "monitor teaching and learning". The staff visibly stiffened, and I saw the puzzled expression on my new deputy's face. I could have kicked myself because it was something I hadn't discussed with her before the meeting. I swiftly moved to the next agenda item...

Back in my room, she quizzed me about the staff reaction. After all, formal monitoring of teaching and learning had been the norm in her last school, and it was standard practice in all schools now. Wasn't it?

"Well, maybe," I said. "But I don't do it."

"Then how do you know whether the teaching and learning in the school is any good?"

It was a fair question. During an Ofsted inspection, the lead inspector had asked me the same thing, and I'd explained. I appoint teachers with exceptional care. Staff have often been on teaching practice at my school and are therefore a known quantity. I pop into classrooms regularly, always unannounced, often on some minor pretext or other, but take the opportunity to have a look at the work going on and chat to the children about it. Throughout the week, I'll see many children who come to show me their work, or read to me, or discuss what they're doing. And since I still teach, I interact with children right across the school.

It seems to me, therefore, that I'm very aware of what's going on in my school. But what I refuse to do is sit in the corner of a classroom with a clipboard, ticking boxes on the teacher's performance in an "Ofsted-approved" manner. What for? To produce automatons with identical approaches to everything? It's patronising, invasive and unnecessary. And who says Ofsted has got it right anyway?

Naturally, the lead inspector didn't agree with me, and one of the recommendations was that I should get into the classrooms and assess formally. So for half a term I did just that. I became an inspector rather than a resource, and I learned nothing about my teachers and classrooms that I didn't know already. Then I went back to doing what I knew worked best. There is, I think, something sadly lacking in many schools today. It's called "trusting the teachers".

* Mike Kent is head of Comber Grove Primary in Camberwell, south London

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