Replay is too much to face

1st August 1997 at 01:00
Jenny Houssart says inspection is an unfair sport

Last autumn the manager of Chesterfield Football Club suggested that this could be the season his team made it to Wembley. At the same time, those of us working in education contemplated our new season with varying degrees of optimism.

In the college where I work the season was to include another inspection for the maths and English components of our initial teacher training, stretching over most of the academic year. We had no idea at the time that our inspection was to have as dramatic and frustrating an end as Chesterfield's bid for the cup.

Phase one was soon underway. We digested the instructions from the Office for Standards in Education, looked yet again at our own documentation and prepared for the first visit. It was cancelled less than a week before it was due to take place.

Everything was ready, we'd even booked a table at a restaurant for staff to toast the end of phase one. We went anyway and after a few glasses of wine almost convinced ourselves there would be no inspection. The next day it was declared on again for the following term.

Phase two actually happened. It consisted of trawls of documentation, discussion with staff, students and schools and observation of college sessions. Like all inspections, it generated lots of work and not a little stress. We were relieved to find that the inspectors seemed reasonable, but dismayed that we got virtually no feedback.

Another series of visits after Easter followed a similar pattern. One inspector watched me teach for 10 hours, another for six. One of them had a tendency to smile and the other to yawn, but there were no other clues as to how things were going.

When I wasn't preparing for the inspection I found time to follow the fortunes of Chesterfield, now doing surprisingly well in the cup. As they prepared to face Middlesbrough, they seemed to represent the fight of the unknown and unremarkable against the mighty. I was feeling distinctly unremarkable by now and rumours about the political purpose of the inspection and the fate of other institutions seemed to add to the challenge posed by OFSTED's power.

Chesterfield, sadly, did not make it to Wembley, though they came unbelievably close. In the same way, we came tantalisingly close to the end of our inspection. The students were on their final school experience by now and the last phase consisted of the inspectors seeing a sample of students teach.

On the Monday of the final week the inspection was called off because two inspectors were ill. Our initial reaction was one of disbelief. It turned to anger when it was suggested that the inspection would be seen as void and the whole process should start again next year.

When we have recovered we will still hold a celebration, though in retrospect booking a table for the second time was tempting fate. We end the season like Chesterfield, not officially a success but feeling that everyone did all they could and that perhaps we scored a moral victory.

Middlesbrough, in spite of knocking Chesterfield out, had an unhappy end to the season. Their performance was even more lamentable considering the cost of putting the team together. OFSTED teams don't come cheap either, the cost of our aborted inspection must have been enormous and it's hard to see how its repetition could be justified.

We were surprised that the inspectors pulled out due to injury, an option which as far as I understand is not open to those on the receiving end. It is time to establish fair rules for the inspection game. Dare I suggest it is even time to question why we are playing anyway?

Jenny Houssart is a lecturer in mathematics education at Nene College of Higher Education, Northampton. the views expressed are her own.

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