Panic on parade

8th September 1995 at 01:00
The effort to get the school shipshape for the inspectors can exact a heavy toll on teachers' personal lives, as Bob Jeffrey and Peter Woods discovered OFSTED inspectors are urged by their terms of reference to consider only what they see in a school or what can otherwise be demonstrated by tangible evidence. Their report assumes that the reality of a school's development has been inspected, but in fact a number of realities have been under construction.

The OFSTED inspection was seen by teachers of the two primary schools in our research as similar to a barrack-room inspection where "they look everywhere, even under your armpits". Teachers wondered what to do with their personal effects, tipping out their cupboards, which for some contained years of collected paraphernalia.

"I could understand if it was the Queen coming but I thought this inspection was supposed to be about the quality of our teaching and learning".

Teachers felt under pressure to pull everything out and wipe it down. Filmstrips were re-arranged neatly in cabinet drawers, pictures in wooden frames appeared on drab Victorian staircases, the netball results were double mounted, painting areas were scrubbed and teachers were observed taking home large boxes of slightly worn books to "keep them out of the way". A parent governor - himself a headteacher who was being "Ofsteded" the following term - was discovered on the Sunday morning prior to the Monday inspection in the small school tidying up the stock cupboard.

Many hours were spent on the classroom and corridor displays with, in some cases, each letter for the titles being cut out from templates and uniform borders pinned to all boards. In one school, the term's curriculum programmes were typed up by the school secretary for each year group. In the other, one teacher paid the secretary from her own pocket to type up some long stories the children had written for the classroom display.

The inspection had a marked effect upon family life. During the week of the inspection, households were rearranged, with, for example, ex-husbands supervising the children, or a husband altering his work routines to deal with the children. A new baby was hardly seen by one teacher. Meals for the family were prepared prior to the week. Staff came into the schools at the weekend prior to the inspection. In one school, 30 per cent of the teachers brought their family in to help them. One husband, an education authority assistant director, perching on a ladder, stuck pictures onto a high wall with Blu-Tac; another, a businessman, sawed wood for a science lesson and another cut out pictures. Daughters coloured in displays.

Teachers became anxious to keep up with the latest idea. Lesson plans had to be written up in curriculum subject areas to conform to the inspection demands, which was contrary to the way in which both schools worked. Teachers were asked to write out in detail their aims, intended outcomes and lesson evaluations. One teacher summed up their views: "We have a lot to prepare in practical terms for our work and this is a lot of extra work. It's a nightmare doing it for each lesson. We've started to produce these detailed weekly plans since we heard about ofsted. First the head gave ticks and thank you's and a comment. Now we have to see her every week and add a bit here and there and at the end of the week I thought 'who is this for?' There must be few jobs like this where you have to prove what you're doing." Every teacher in one school was given a coloured ring-binder by the head which contained all the school policies. They then added their typed out programmes of study and lesson plans.

A common feeling was that a teacher's worth was being reduced to the observation of a few lessons or to paper. "All my teaching experience and skills have been reduced to these seven pieces of paper." They all had to produce this evidence - "I keep thinking I'm in a police drama" - for the inspection and when these plans were ignored by the inspectors, many teachers said with some vehemence: "They never even looked at my file." Details of the amount of time spent on each subject each week were prepared for the inspectors, but they bore little resemblance to reality in either school. Usually, teachers either integrated subjects, or spent more time one term or one particular week on a subject and did not break their week into minutes on a subject.

In their teaching, teachers took fewer risks during the inspection and kept the children busy. There were more class lessons and less movement around the classroom. Teachers were advised by one head to put their "best lessons on early in the week". Some did not give the more "bread and butter" lessons like spelling and handwriting and produced "showy English lessons that I would have done during the term, but there would not have been so many of them together". Topics were timed to develop their most interesting phases. In one class, for example, the importation of incubating chicken's eggs was held back to coincide with inspection week. Teachers also avoided their weaker subjects and subjects which might get out of hand, "I didn't do any drama".

The irony was that many were not at their best during the inspection. Many teachers were extremely tired, some were ill, others on Valium and other drugs by the beginning of the inspection. Also, their performance was affected by having inspectors in the room. "I'm still nervous of them coming in. I know my voice will go a bit wobbly."

For one normally enthusiastic, jolly and calm teacher of four years' experience, preparing for her assembly, which would be held during the inspection week became the worst moment of her teaching career. "It is hell," she said. She became ill, worked every night in school till past seven o'clock, and ended up very miserable on the Sunday night prior to the inspection. Being judged on performance - for there were few chances to chat to the inspectors about the reasons for using particular strategies - was unsettling.

Both these schools received good overall reports. However, if based on a false image, this could have unfortunate consequences."One of the heads felt that I was a pariah because the other heads who I usually get on with were fed up with having our report quoted at them". Schools may also have created impossible targets for themselves in the future for, as one remarked, "I couldn't work at that pitch for long". Some teachers were feeling somewhat bemused about their own identity and values: "It's surreal - I don't really know who I am any more." Their sense of professionalism had been undermined. The form of OFSTED inspections legitimate the idea that a teacher's worth can be inspected by people who may have little knowledge of primary schools, can be trained in a week, don't look at teachers' folders, and may know little of a teacher's intentions.

Teachers may commit themselves less to their work than they have in the past in order to avoid such harm to their own selves. The intensity of an OFSTED inspection may also have a debilitating effect on schools that were, up until the notification of the inspection, developing quite well.

Teachers did find that the OFSTED inspectors themselves were professional and human. If OFSTED wants to find a more accurate picture of a school, and contribute to its improvement, these teachers feel that the inspections should have shorter lead-in periods, and inspectors should work longer in the school in more depth and involve the teachers in a dialogue.

* Bob Jeffrey is a project officer and Peter Woods a professor of education at the Open University.

They are researching the effects of OFSTED inspections on primary teachers.

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