Outstanding but still irritated

6th February 2009 at 00:00

I have just had my fourth and final Ofsted visit. The lead inspector was knowledgeable, sensitive and humorous. We couldn't fault the manner in which the inspection was carried out. The children thoroughly enjoyed showing what they could do, and our report will be peppered with "outstanding". So why do I feel irritated?

Consider the scenario: I receive the dreaded telephone call and I tell the staff there will be a meeting straight after school. By playtime I can already see the strain on their faces.

I work with a truly inspiring group of teachers, but this is part of the problem. Any competent teacher, when told Ofsted is coming, will think only of the million things she imagines she hasn't done, and panic sets in. Ofsted has no idea about the stress levels it generates.

The school is open all weekend and we work until Sunday evening. Caught up in the fever, I even polish every item in our museum of 20th century artefacts, including a gas mask and a BBC Micro. By Monday, the school looks stunning.

All goes smoothly until an inspector wants to discuss our special educational needs children. She needs to see tracking indicating how many sub-levels various groups of children have progressed.

I explain that my special needs co-ordinator spends her time teaching these children, not tracking them, and that they all have highly individual needs. I suggest the inspector chooses six children and asks the special needs team all about them, but she has a problem with this because it means stepping outside the Ofsted tick box.

My Senco, upset at what she sees as a lack of trust, spends all night collating information into a detailed tracking record and returns the next day exultant. She hadn't realised just how far the children had progressed.

That shows the value of tracking, says the inspector. I point out that if my staff spent hours filling in bits of paper, they would have far less contact with pupils.

At lunchtime, an inspector says he has spent an hour in the foundation classes and been enchanted by them. (I know they are good: my co-ordinator has worked tirelessly at distilling the best of the early years framework and making the foundation stage work wonderfully.) It is a whisper away from outstanding, the inspector says. Then give her an outstanding, I say. He doesn't, though.

On the second day, an inspector arrives to inspect the inspectors, for quality control. A random sample of schools is chosen, he says.

He is a friendly, jolly man, but I feel like asking him who he is trying to kid. We all know he is here because of the two-year public battle we had with Ofsted over a previous inspection.

Fortunately, though, there is little to criticise about this one. Teachers grumble that the most exciting parts of their lessons were not seen, and there is a truly daft comment about foreign languages teaching: it is extremely good, the inspector says, but there should be more emphasis on writing Spanish, instead of speaking it. Nevertheless, we feel the lead inspector has tried hard to understand our uniqueness. We will never fit the Ofsted model, but he appreciates that everything works exceptionally well.

Then, when he has left, a tiny incident puts everything into perspective. A boy admitted from another school - and the most challenging child I have ever encountered - meets his teacher from last year in the corridor. Bit by bit, the time she had devoted to him during the year had changed him dramatically. Now, he smiles, hugs her tightly and then runs out to play. She is visibly touched by his gesture.

Ofsted will never understand these moments. They don't involve sub-levels or tick boxes.

- Mike Kent is headteacher of Comber Grove Primary in Camberwell, south London


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