Poor timing mars Ofsted's change of tune

6th December 2002 at 00:00
A piece of advice. At the end of any new teaching job interview, don't forget to ask the all-important question: "By the way, when is your next Ofsted due?" I have just survived my second in nine months and am barely sane.

Everybody agrees how much Ofsted has changed for the better. No deficit model, but a genuine desire to find out about a school's strengths. Inspectors enter into a dialogue and want to be helpful. In the first round, they certainly kept their distance. When I asked if they'd come far, one member of the team pompously replied: "That information is of no consequence to this inspection." I was only trying to be friendly. Now they come wreathed in smiles, chatty, friendly and ready to be your best friends. But look closely; they still have sharp teeth. They have eyes that are all-seeing and the questioning power of the SS.

But it is better, and they do seem to have found their sense of humour. This is so vital in primary inspection that it should be part of their training. In the middle of a special assembly for National Poetry Day, where staff and children were sharing their favourite poems, I turned to the lead inspector and asked if he had anything to share. Bless him, he bravely stood and recited something about a flea and a fly. The children loved it. As he sat down he turned to his colleague and, with a twinkle in his eye, asked: "How do you spell special measures?"

One little boy kept pestering an inspector, continually asking: "What are you doing?" The exasperated man finally told him to go away as he was busy watching them play and writing it all down. With a backward glance and a sneer, the boy said, in a very loud aside: "My dad's got a proper job."

Another child was painting one half of a piece of paper and folding it. The inspector was looking for awe and wonder. Inquiring how the boy felt when he opened the paper and found he'd made a butterfly, the inspector got the perfect reply. "I thought, f*** me, I didn't know that would happen."

Ofsted has been helpful in both my inspections and has highlighted any areas of development in a sensitive and professional manner. Most of us know our schools well, so these will come as no surprise. But having had the first inspection at a school where I'd been head for five years, and the second when I'd been head for five weeks, I believe more thought must be given to timing. Everybody should be singing from the same hymn sheet. In my February inspection, we sang loud and clear and confidently. In my second, some were singing from the old hymn sheet, some from the new , but most from both. Discord and cacophony.

I felt sorry for the inspection team. It must have been a nightmare putting the final report together. I also felt sorry for my staff, stuck in this time of change and trying desperately to keep up with the tune. I felt sorry for the previous head, who had done all the paperwork and was not there to discuss the issues raised. And I felt sorry for me. Comfort eating has meant I've put on half a stone - although everybody said it was a great time to have an Ofsted, as nothing would be my fault.

I know Ofsted inspectors have a tight schedule and are still behind with the second cycle. But leaving a new head alone for at least two terms shouldn't upset the balance too much. It would be more helpful to the school and the staff - and, ultimately, the children. If I remember rightly, that's what this whole process is about.

The issues in the final report were great and small. It betrays a toilet fixation and a dislike of teaching assistants wearing tabards. We need to stretch our more able children and look at our time management. We shall write our action plan and buy a new hymn sheet. The best thing is that everybody has supported each other and the team is strong. We'll soon be singing with gusto.

Sue Walker is headteacher of an infants' school in Kent

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