Part 2: They're here!

22nd April 2005 at 01:00
The envelope's arrived; the preparation's done. Now the inspectors are on the doorstep for a week of lesson observations. How do you cope? In the second of our three-part series, Michael Duffy visits Netherhall school and sixth-form college on the southern fringes of Cambridge. It serves an apparently affluent area, is popular locally and has been praised twice in the chief inspector's annual report. Surely it has little to fear from Ofsted? But as headteacher David Smart says, when you're told you're among the "best of the best", there's a sense that you're tempting fate.

There is no right way to prepare, go through and recover from an inspection. But in this Friday Forum, as with last year's on behaviour, there are common threads, ideas and solutions. Last week we looked at preparation for Ofsted and next week it's the aftermath.

Headteachers John Claydon and Val Woollven, chair of governors Alison Shepherd and Year 12 pupil Matthew Holehouse join the debate each week. You can too, by going to

Netherhall school and sixth-form college should have little to fear from Ofsted. On the southern fringe of Cambridge, it serves an ostensibly affluent area. There are 1,500 students on roll, 250 of them in a new purpose-built sixth-form centre. It is held in high regard. At its last inspection, in 1999, it was described as a very good school with no significant weaknesses; in January the Department for Education and Skills praised it as one of the schools twice highlighted in the chief inspector's annual reports for its progress and achievement. This term's full Ofsted visit should have been, as one of its teachers puts it, "if not a doddle, at least unthreatening".

But that isn't how the staff saw it. Between January 31 and February 4 the lead inspector and his team of (at its maximum) 17 formally observed all or part of almost 200 lessons. The summary of their findings, conveyed orally on the Friday evening, was very positive, but on the following Monday, when I visit, the staff are still exhausted. "They look as though they're recovering from a major operation," says the principal, David Smart.

English teacher Sophie Smiley is more graphic. "It's the anxiety, isn't it? You spend four years talking about it. Inevitably, there's apprehension, and even when your mind tells you that you've nothing to fear, your body lets you down. It's better than colonic irrigation."

The paradox is that careful preparation does not necessarily lessen the sense of apprehension, and may indeed increase it. The same was true of the previous inspection. "It's a lot to live up to," says David Smart, "particularly when the school context has changed. When people start telling you that you're among 'the best of the best', there is a sense that you are tempting fate." And if, like David Smart, you have been only a year in post (he came to Netherhall from a Cumbrian headship in January last year) there is an additional source of pressure. So when, last November, the school was notified of its inspection date, there was a general sense of relief. "'Bring them on,' we thought. Let it happen.'" He pauses. "But Christmas wasn't the same, not for anyone."

For the leadership team, there was the pre-inspection documentation to draft, and the all-important self-evaluation, notable here both for its detail and for its carefully objective, almost understated judgments: on the familiar seven-point scale, they rated themselves three for effectiveness, three for achievement, three for leadership and management, but an emphatic two for guidance and support and for teaching and learning.

For the staff as a whole, there was the evidence to collate and organise.

And then there was the waiting. "That was the bloody bit," says one teacher. "The week before. It was like Waiting for Godot." "More like Journey's End," says another. There was a sense among the staff that Ofsted's stress on evidence and data could misrepresent the school. "The pot boils hard here," says Helen Blyth, head of the separately sited lower school, and veteran of three Ofsteds. "We wanted them to know not just that children achieve well, but why they achieve well; why, in our context, our recipe matters. In the event it was very hard to get that across. You seem to spend all your time responding to their agenda."

So Helen spent a big chunk of her Christmas holiday analysing the 2001 census data to provide evidence of the significant socio-economic changes in the catchment area that Ofsted might otherwise miss. She feels that the team took this on board, accepting that the school context has changed since the previous inspection, but like the rest of the leadership team - and most of the staff -she still has reservations about the process. An apparently positive inspection has left many of the teachers at this clearly effective school feeling tired, disappointed and even resentful.

But they don't blame the lead inspector. "The Regi told us on his pre-inspection visit that he would never pass by a strength without noting it, and that he would always set weaknesses in their context. I think he was true to his word," says David Smart. "He kept in touch with me several times a day, and went out of his way to pass on praise for colleagues who had been rated good, very good or excellent in their lesson observations.

He was willing to engage with students, too. He let my A-level sociology class question him very sharply about the Ofsted regime; he took it all on the chin, and was complimentary about their performance."

Head of RE Moira Middleton was also impressed. "The inspector smiled a lot," she says. "He was very positive and nice; genuinely interested in our work, supportive, sensitive and unobtrusive. He made us feel he was on our side." REteacher Beth Hayward agrees. "He came into my first lesson. I was desperately nervous, and started it with some really terrible jokes. But he laughed at them, and put me more at ease."

Others had a different experience. "I waited for 26 lessons before my inspector appeared," says one. "It was like waiting to go in to bat at cricket: the longer you wait, the more you feel that you are going to be out first ball. Then he appeared. He was unlike any other classroom visitor. It's the total lack of any facial expression that's so unnerving; that and the sudden scribbling on the clipboard. And then they feed back to you in dreadful Ofsted-speak."

Ofsted-speak clearly rankles. "We were told that, under the revised framework, inspection would be less bureaucratic, less number-driven, less crudely mechanistic and judgmental," says David Smart. "I'd like to be able to say that held true for us, and there were some positives. But that wasn't the message the troops in the front line were picking up. Their feedback tended to start on a negative note. 'I can't rank that as a very good lesson,' they would say, and then go on to explain that it was merely 'good'. The message teachers tended to hear was, 'They're still out to get us'."

Nick Williams, the very experienced head of upper school (and, like Helen Blyth, a seasoned Ofsted campaigner), makes the same point. "I think staff found the experience punitive, stressful, almost hostile. Really good heads of department spoke of being 'interrogated'; one said that he felt at his interview that he was being 'battered on the ropes'. It's an extraordinary way to treat professionals, good teachers.

"Quite inconsequential things can count against you. One inspector commented conversationally to a teacher about good behaviour in the corridors. 'They're not always like this,' she joked. Instantly the clipboard was out and the questions were being fired at her."

One aspect of the inspection dismayed the whole leadership team: adverse comments on the condition and cleanliness of the lower school, a poor 1950s building 500 yards from the upper school site surrounded by muddy playing fields and asphalt. Because of this, the overall grade for management could only be (that word again) "good". Like many of their colleagues, they were made to feel that "good" was not good enough. Had the inspection been in June, when the weather is good, it might have been a different story.

But the feedback to David Smart and his deputies on the Friday afternoon was pretty well what the school had hoped for. Standards, progress, teaching and learning, leadership, care and guidance were all "very good"; pupil attitudes and behaviour good overall, and sometimes very good; the sports college (which gives the school its specialist status) made "an excellent contribution". By 6pm David was able to pass on the news to the patiently waiting staff. "It's official," he said. "We're a bloody good school."

So why that sense of reservation and resentment? It certainly isn't bloody-mindedness. On the Monday after inspection week everyone is being positive. The school played its cards well; the daily staff briefing (with an alternative agenda, had an Ofsted inspector chosen to attend it) was particularly appreciated. There is a sense of togetherness, of mutual support; "lots of chocolates in staff pigeon holes", as someone puts it.

The doubling-up of staff duties helped. And it's agreed that the students have been superb, even if they tended, at the beginning of the week, "to come into lessons backwards, with their eyes goggling".

But was it all worth it? Was it worth the cost: some pound;60,000 of public money that might have been spent on teaching? Was it worth the weeks of mounting strain? In the immediate aftermath, opinion is still divided.

Keith Day, who came to teaching from industry and is, by his own admission, an Ofsted virgin, sees advantages in it for his own department, business studies, but still thinks the process is "way over the top; there's nothing like this in the private sector". Sarah Wilders, head of maths, says it was "far too staged" and led, during the week itself, to some dreadfully formulaic teaching, but she concedes that in the long term it probably pays off. "It made us focus." Her colleague Liz Cooke, head of English, agrees.

"It made us realise what our strengths are. It's a sharing, reflective experience; you don't often get the chance of that."

Parent governor Sue Bowden-Pickstock strongly supports the principle of inspection, though even she found the experience of being grilled by the lay inspector "quite nerve-wracking". But she does wonder about the reality of what inspectors see. "It's fair and thoroughly professional, but there's something not quite right about it, all the same. Too much rolling out of red carpets, and too much pressure on teachers. They do a really good job here... most teachers do. Ofsted sometimes assumes that they operate in an ideal world; we all know that they don't."

Netherhall was inspected from Monday January 31 until Friday February 4.

Michael Duffy visited on Monday February 7

Matthew Holehouse is a Year 12 pupil at Harrogate grammar school

"We'll never admit it, but we pupils are fiercely loyal to our schools. No matter how much people complain about the facilities or the teachers or the food, you are always willing to stick up for it in public. It's almost a tribal thing, I suppose.

"It's the same with Ofsted. In the weeks before, we all joked about not turning up to lessons or abandoning uniform. When the inspection began, however, our loyalty kicked in. Our teachers had impressed on us a sense of the week being a team effort and, as such, we saw the inspectors as an intrusive and external body, rather than an opportunity to embarrass the staff.

"Our normally fairly relaxed lessons started off rather formally - straight postures, speaking only when spoken to, and so on. As they progressed, though, with us not wanting to let down the teacher or ourselves, they became livelier and more focused than usual. Many teachers comment on how pupils in lower years said they really enjoyed the lessons when the inspectors were in - even if they can't work out why..."

Alison Shepherd is chair of governors at a north-east London primary school

"Media stories of ruthless inspectors making dedicated teachers cry in front of their classes and of the profession being abandoned in the wake of the Ofsted invasion, led us to expect a cross between Robocop and Professor Clipboard when our lead inspector made his preliminary visit. Instead, we got a smiling Werther Toffee grandad whose 'informal' chats easily brushed away the self-protective veneer we had tried to cultivate.

"For us governors, the week went smoothly enough. As both chair and the literacy link governor, I had two meetings with Mr Werther, and neither turned out to be unpleasant experiences. There were no trick questions and no silences designed to trap me into saying the first thing that came into my head. But I was frustrated that I could only guess at what he'd seen earlier in the week that had informed his questions. Was I revealing a weakness that had so far remained hidden? Did my version of policy conflict with the head's?

"I kept out of school during the inspection, knowing that everyone had enough on their plate without me getting in the way. So I only received second-hand reports. But even Year 3 behaved, so it must have gone well."

John Claydon is head of Wyedean school, Chepstow

"A strange calm descends once the first morning of inspection dawns, with a genuine sense of positive anticipation of being able to show off what we do. No one wants to let themselves or the school down, though, so there's a strong whiff of adrenalin-induced tension.

"Traditionally, and definitely in our case, the worst of the judgments of lesson quality hits the school that first morning. I suppose it depends on the individual inspector, but our Regi wasn't having any tosh about intending to start with our judgments and seeing if they needed amending.

He set out to draw his own conclusions and then looked to see how far ours matched his.

"At least this was in the context of a friendly and trusting relationship, something it's crucial for the headteacher to work at both before and during the inspection.

"One of the biggest problems is the frustration of those staff who haven't been observed. They've prepared themselves for the big moment and it's an emotional let-down when it doesn't happen. When this persists into the second day the gamut of emotions, from relief to disappointment to mild annoyance, and then anger, is released."

Val Woollven is head of St Andrew's primary school, Plymouth

"All our computers were stolen before Ofsted last came so we weren't looking forward to our ICT observations. Technology moves so fast that even if we had had new computers in place, we would still have been learning how to use them. Now we've got interactive whiteboards and networks and instant internet access. And I can talk the language.

"Teachers who have worked hard to prepare lessons become agitated when inspectors fail to observe them. Perversely, they do not perform as well if they demand to be seen. My advice is to let the inspectors see what they want to see, within reason.

"During our last inspection a father came to school and asked to see his daughter. The lead inspector was in the office. Kylie's father was getting married down the road and he had time on his hands. So he thought he'd pop in. His parental rights were not clear from the files, but we knew there had been problems of a violent nature. I kept him talking while Mandy phoned Kylie's mum, who agreed to let her see her dad. We fetched her from her lesson and there was a happy reunion which was overseen by myself and the inspector. I was comforted by the fact that the inspector was a bulky sort of chap."

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