Ofsted's coming I quick, get our pupils back to school

18th May 2007 at 01:00
New-style inspections produce some odd and seemingly cold-hearted stories

ofsted's short-notice inspection policy was supposed to minimise disruption but it has resulted in some pupils being bussed home from a residential trip to be in school to impress inspectors, a headteacher postponing her mother's funeral and inspectors turning up to watch pupils sitting Sats.

These events came to light as the biggest heads' union, the National Association of Head Teachers, unanimously called for an urgent review of the new system, which its members agreed placed unacceptable pressure on school leaders.

At St Thomas Aquinas RC school in Birmingham, 50 pupils, selected for their good behaviour, had spent weeks looking forward to a popular annual trip to a Catholic retreat centre. But just three days before they were due to set off, Ofsted called to say it would be inspecting the school the next week.

Jim Foley, the headteacher, felt he had no option but to interrupt the four-day visit to Stratford-upon-Avon.

"It would have seriously distorted the teaching and learning the inspectors observed if 50 of the top Year 10 students hadn't been there," he said. "In these circumstances, some schools would have cancelled the trip completely."

Instead, he arranged for everyone to be bussed back at 10.30pm, after mass on the first day of the retreat. They were in school early the following morning, ready for the inspectors, before returning to Stratford that evening.

The inspection report, due to be published today, gives the school an overall rating of good with outstanding features. But some parents who paid pound;105 a head for the trip were unhappy. One contacted a local newspaper and others complained to Ofsted.

Another critic is Sheila Penny, head of Ladybrook primary in Stockport, a school rated outstanding in all respects. The Friday morning that Mrs Penny's mother died after a long illness, Ofsted contacted the school to warn they would be coming the next week. Mrs Penny had already arranged the funeral for the following Thursday, the same day as the inspection. But Ofsted refused to postpone. So Mrs Penny postponed her mother's funeral.

Six months later she is still furious.

"What Ofsted did, in my opinion, was wrong," she said. "We were being inspected under the Every Child Matters regime - but adults should matter as well."

When inspectors turned up at Quethiock CofE primary in Cornwall this week, the school's 11-year-olds spent their mornings buried in Sats test papers.

Mark-Andrew Dearden, head of the 88-pupil school, said he was quite ready to receive one of the new-style inspections, but expressed concerns about its timing. "I just think it's off the wall," he said.

He had wanted to allow pupils quiet afternoons for independent study, he said, but he had been forced to draft in two part-time teachers so the inspectors could see teaching in action.

Ofsted defended its refusal to defer the three inspections. Of the St Thomas Aquinas pupils' early return, a spokeswoman said inspectors would have taken into account staff and pupils' absence on a pre-arranged trip and not expected it to be cancelled.

The Ladybrook inspectors, the spokeswoman said, had made it clear that the headteacher was not expected to be present for the inspection and they would "fully appreciate" the circumstances.

At Quethiock, inspectors would be sensitive to the circumstances, a spokesman said, but given that three-quarters of the pupils would not be sitting Sats, there was no reason to defer the inspection.

Ofsted research says the vast majority of schools are satisfied with the new inspections, but unions warned that added stress was being placed on headteachers.

Last week the NAHT voted for a review: "Heads feel like horses in a steeplechase, ready to be put down if they fall at any fence," said Simon Decker, a Medway head. "And now, they can only see the fence at the last minute."


Ofsted's new light-touch, short-notice school inspections have been overwhelmingly welcomed by teachers, a National Union of Teachers survey shows. Three out of four teachers and heads believed the new system was an improvement on week-long inspections, although heads felt they had to bear greater stress, writes Jonathan Milne.

If teachers had one gripe, it was, surprisingly, that some of them were disappointed at not having their best lessons observed. It would seem that they are proud of both their lessons and their pupils, and welcome any opportunity to show them off.

The new framework, introduced in 2005, has resulted in more frequent inspections, but a greater reliance on schools' self-evaluation data and only one or two days actually on site.

The NUT survey, conducted in the autumn, found that althought teachers'

descriptions of inspectors included "incompetent and extremely rude", they were more likely to say "kind and supportive".

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