Needles click as Regi meets Mme Defarge

17th January 2003 at 00:00
hen I saw the tall, cadaverous man with unhealthy-looking, greyish skin, sweeping down the school corridor towards me in his academic gown I had a presentiment that things would not go too well. I had been invited to direct a course the first day back after the Christmas holidays at a large comprehensive school entitled "Ofsted: the second time around."

It was the fact that the headteacher was in a gown that worried me. I could quite understand him wearing it for a speech day or when the pupils were in school but wondered why he still had his symbol of authority draped around him on an in-service course for teachers.

"Aaaahhh, Mr Phinn," he intoned, in the soft ecclesiastical-sounding voice of a funeral director. "You've arrived. The staff are waiting for you in the school hall."

We stopped at the entrance to the hall and he rested his hand on my arm. "If I may proffer a little advice, we don't want brainstorming, thought-showers, bullet-point presentations, paired discussions, group work and plenary sessions . And could you make your talk amusing and entertaining?"

"Make it amusing and entertaining?" I repeated.

"Yes, to emphasise the fun aspect of Ofsted."

Ofsted isn't fun," I told him, my heart sinking into my shoes. "Ofsted is the least funny thing in education. It is daunting, stressful, disruptive and..." He interrupted me. "Well, we don't want anything heavy or rigorous." I was greeted inside the door by a smiling deputy head. "It's so good of you to come," she said brightly. "We're all so much looking forward to your talk."

From the appearance of the assembled teachers, nothing could have been further from the truth. They looked about as interested as waxwork exhibits and sat in rows with folded arms and faces like death masks. I predicted that my talk would not be rapturously well-received.

I comforted myself, as I stared back at the sea of solemn faces, that the training my colleagues had directed had not always been successful. "You will find, Gervase," one chief adviser had once told me, "that there are some teachers who derive a perverse satisfaction by trying to wind up anyone who attempts to train them."

There's the very noisy one who arrives just after you've started your lecture, who bustles into the room, apologising profusely for being late, makes a real fuss finding a seat and finally decides on a chair at the very front right under your nose. He will then shuffle and yawn and grunt and sigh deeply during your presentation and make frequent comments behind his hand to the person sitting next to him.

Then there's the one with verbal diarrhoea who you can't shut up and rambles off the subject to everyone's annoyance. There's the one who, when you explain the exercise you wish them to tackle, informs everybody in a loud voice that he's done it before and it doesn't work. And of course, there's the one who has a mobile phone which goes off at regular intervals.

The headteacher introduced me, as what sounded like Grievous Chinn, registered inspector of schools. This was followed by a few mumbles, assorted sighs and a sea of icy stares. The head of PE opened a newspaper with a flourish and the person sitting next to him walked out.

On the front row was a woman sipping noisily from a large mug of tea. Her neighbour was knitting and looking at me as she might a former husband who had deserted her for another woman, leaving her to bring up 10 children.

I pressed on cheerfully, outlining what I intended doing during the morning session. The clacking of the knitting needles, the sipping of the tea and the rustling of the newspaper was soon accompanied with further sighs and tuttings.

"Education these days," I began enthusiastically, "is rather akin to the opening lines of a favourite novel of mine: 'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times'." I stared pointedly at Madame Defarge on the front row, but she clacked on regardless.

The course, needless to say, was not an unmitigated success. "We have an educational consultant tomorrow," the head informed me as he escorted me down the corridor to the exit. "She's leading a day on 'effective management and vibrant leadership'."

"That should be fun," I replied, thinking of the poor woman.

It was some weeks later that the head telephoned. The inspection of the school, he explained, had not been a pleasant experience; there was a whole list of issues to address. Would I consider, he asked, speaking to the staff on: "Ofsted: where do we go from here?". Nothing too heavy. Now that would really be a challenge, Ithought, smiling.

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