Look at me, please

22nd February 2008 at 00:00
Your lessons are planned, the paperwork's in order and your classroom looks fantastic. You're ready, so where are the inspectors? Mark Piesing reports on the disappointment of not being seen

There is only one thing worse than being inspected - and that's not being inspected, it would seem. For most teachers the mere mention of Ofsted provokes blind panic and has even led to suicide. But there are teachers who crave recognition through inspection.

When inspectors failed to observe a Year 2 supply teacher working in a tough primary school in the North West, she was furious: "I had put in so much work and I wanted it to be acknowledged. Some of the teachers were observed twice. One poor newly qualified teacher was observed three times. Everyone had been seen - except me. And we had been told by the inspectors that everyone would be observed."

The supply teacher, who asked not to be named, was covering for a teacher who had been signed off with depression after feeling victimised in the previous Ofsted report, a report that had sent the school into special measures.

"Before the inspection was announced I had put in long days reorganising the classroom," says the 39-year-old. "I also worked hard at putting planning and assessment files together for the classes I was covering.

"I felt it was odd that everyone had been observed and not me. It felt like they didn't think my class was worth the effort, that I was of no value because I was only a supply teacher. I wanted to know that I was doing OK."

Inspectors only observed one of her lessons after she complained to the headteacher.

Jane Alexander, a geography teacher now working at Chenderit School near Banbury, knows how that supply teacher felt. Inspectors called at Greenshaw High School in Sutton during her fourth year of teaching. The announcement that they were coming with just two days' notice created an exciting but anxious buzz around the 1,500-pupil secondary.

But Jane, 27, says that it was never clear which individual teachers would be observed, although they were told of specific departments that the inspectors were interested in.

"This meant that we all had to make sure our lesson plans were available and up to standard, that books were up to date. All of which should be happening anyway so I didn't really mind making the extra effort," says Jane.

In contrast to the stressful build up, inspection day went smoothly, although Jane says: "We weren't told whether we were going to be observed so my stomach flipped every time my classroom door went that day."

Once the inspection was over it quickly became apparent to Jane that only a small proportion of teachers had been observed. She wasn't and it didn't feel good. "It sounds funny to complain about that, but you do feel like you'd like them to see you. Not being observed makes you realise that, although you feel like a member of a team, you are only a small part of a large machine."

Last November the pressure was on Gavin Craddock, just two weeks after becoming ICT subject leader at a high achieving faith school near Stoke on Trent.

His headteacher had identified technology as an outstanding department and Gavin, 27, fully expected Ofsted to try to check out these judgements. So in the days leading up to inspection, Gavin, who was in his fifth year of teaching, spent his time making sure the department in general and everyone else was all right, almost forgetting his own lessons.

He says: "I eventually went to bed at about 12.30am the night before, confident that I'd be fine, and the department would be fine."

Inspection day dawned and teachers were told by inspectors that most of them would not actually be observed. At the end of the day Gavin hung around in case anyone wanted to speak to him. No one did.

"My initial feeling was disappointment," he says. "I'd spent ages getting the lessons ready and making sure everyone else was prepared, and the inspectors never even saw two minutes of an ICT lesson - one of the supposedly outstanding departments with GCSE results to prove it.

"I started to worry that the inspectors might have thought ICT wasn't important enough, that the head may have dissuaded them from talking to me because of my inexperience."

Later that evening Gavin's mood changed when he realised that without an observation or an interview the inspectors had to back up the head's judgement on the school's self-evaluation form. "Disappointment turned to happiness," he says. "I was just pleased that it was all over."

His feelings are shared by lots of teachers on The TES website, www.tes.co.uksectionstaffroom. "Feels fantastic not to be observed," writes one teacher. Another one adds: "The more one can avoid the clipboard-carriers the better. Just file the plans and materials for next time."

But there is a downside, according to a senior member of a leadership team of a large comprehensive in the Midlands. "In the end those teachers who avoid being observed or interviewed don't feel that they own any successful report their school gets. Its conclusions feel arbitrary and pointless to those not observed.

"After all, how would the inspectors know whether positives were really positives, failures really failures when they've seen so little of a school?"

Ofsted: The regime

In September 2005 Ofsted radically changed the way it carried out inspections to make them faster and more regular. It also put more responsibility on schools to evaluate their own performance.

Instead of being inspected once every six years, with months of notice to prepare, schools are now checked every three years with just days of notice of the impending visit.

A self-evaluation form completed by the headteacher is central to the new process. Inspectors want to see if the evaluation is correct, rather than judging schools from scratch.

While inspectors still dip into classes to get a flavour of what is happening, fewer full lessons are observed. The top 30 per cent of schools now get "super light touch" visits, with one inspector in school for just one or two days, reducing lesson observations even more.

David Marley

Why we don't look at everyone: Ofsted

It is not necessary to see every teacher teach to assess how well a school is doing.

Since September 2005, standard inspections have been shorter, conducted by fewer inspectors, and start with the school's self-evaluation. The highest-performing 30 per cent of schools can receive an even shorter inspection, involving one inspector for a day so it would be impossible to see all teachers teach.

Inspectors will always sample some lessons and check whether they agree with the school's assessments. They form a rounded view of how well the school is doing by also taking account of the accuracy of its self-evaluation, the first-hand evidence of the inspection and performance in recent tests and examinations.

They may seek out good practice, but again will only sample it. They will be following particular inspection "trails", which result from an initial analysis of data about the school. Schools are alerted to the trails through a pre-inspection briefing.

No firm decisions have been made about the shape of future school inspection. The chief inspector's announcement earlier this month indicated some areas under consideration. These include longer intervals between inspections for good and outstanding schools. A consultation paper will be published in April.

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