Ofsted is bad, but poor leadership is worse

20th March 2015 at 00:00
Inspection time is when staff need guidance and reassurance most, but panicked managers often compound the stress and uncertainty

Even in the best circumstances, it's extremely stressful when Ofsted comes knocking. The scrutiny - and the consequences of that scrutiny - can bring the most stalwart and resolute staff member to their knees.

Regardless of whether everything is as it should be, a visit from the inspectorate brings with it self-doubt, anxiety and the fear that an arbitrary judgement could harm your students and the college - a place you may care about deeply. Life under the microscope can make you despair.

But at least you know what to expect. Although Ofsted inspections cause a great deal of pressure, there's a certain consistency in the way they unfold. They're unpleasant, but it's a familiar unpleasantness. And if a college is managed well, the hope is that the inspection will result in a fair judgement of the excellent things that are going on within. There may be a few nods to playing the game in order to sway opinion, but there's also an underlying faith that the hard work, organisation and dedication of all staff - from senior management down - will be recognised and reflected in the report and the grade. The expectation is that the inspection team will bring with them an open mind, no agenda and a modicum of fairness.

Out of sight, out of mind

But if somewhere isn't running as it should be, matters are very different. In an effort to find the cracks they need to paper over, terrified senior management turn their own magnifying glass on the college - angled in such a way that it catches the light and turns everything beneath it to a blackened cinder.

Like a child who, to avoid getting into trouble with the angry parent climbing the stairs to inspect their bedroom, throws toys and clothes willy-nilly into cupboards and boxes, this smacks of desperation. Instead of genuinely being put in order, the detritus is hidden out of sight in bulging cupboards and underneath beds, ready to go back to exactly how it was once the room is given a once-over. It's all about the surface. And it is hugely hypocritical.

This process can start with rumours of an Ofsted visit (those who may not have the wherewithal to get their house in order are often extremely wily in discovering such information). Then things that are never normally mentioned - or monitored or cared about - become of the utmost importance with little or no warning.

Often these areas that apparently need our attention so pressingly are identified by outside consultants who specialise in what Ofsted will be on the lookout for, rather than the college management team themselves. Knowing what is going on in their own establishment is seemingly beyond their capacity.

The focus is not on what will drive improvement or what could be done to try to solve some of the obvious problems the college is facing. Instead the focus is on (and only on) what the inspectorate will be concerned about, and is so narrow that it will serve only as a temporary reprieve to some of the more systemic issues.

In the firing line

The brunt of the pressure, of course, is felt by front-line staff. Shot-in-the-dark decrees based on shot-in-the-dark-hunches pepper teachers and lecturers with extra work that may or may not have any bearing on anything at all. There is little or no pattern and absolutely everything is reactive - at this stage there is little or no time for anything else. Questions are asked and accusations are made about practice in areas where staff have previously begged for support from above only to be ignored. Management are seen pacing corridors; staff have to stifle their surprise at the sight.

Praise is distributed equally randomly. Departments renowned for being ineffectual are held up as examples of good teaching and learning for something as basic as having the correct posters in their classrooms - much to the chagrin of others who have consistently been doing well, albeit out of the spotlight. Much of it is difficult, some of it is nigh-on unbearable and this often results in tears and breakdowns.

Although an Ofsted visit is perhaps not the way most of us would like to spend a couple of days, it is made infinitely less tolerable if a leadership team is on the back foot. Chaos reigns at a time when staff and students need to be shielded from anxiety instead of having it poured on them from above. For as bad as a visit from the inspectors is, a management team trying to hide things from them is much, much worse.

Trevor Milton is a pseudonym. He is an FE teacher in the North of England

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