From the silly to the ludicrous

13th August 2004 at 01:00
Ofsted's claim to popularity should be taken with a seasonal pinch of salt, writes a 'provider'

So, congratulations are in order for the Office for Standards in Education, as it awards itself a glowing end-of-term report (TES, August 6), accompanied no doubt by a hearty pat on the back and merit stickers all round. In a "feelgood" report strangely at odds with what we've come to expect from the inspectors, we're told that, far from creating a climate of fear and loathing, Ofsted is well thought of by 90 per cent of its customers (or "providers" as inspectors prefer to call us) and is doing a splendid job.

Being the cynical old teacher I am, I couldn't help but question the content and timing of this announcement. It is, after all, what's termed "the silly season" in the media world, when editors scour the land for something to fill up the spaces between the pictures. I suspect that, by putting out their report now, with the almost certainty it will get buried quietly alongside stories of hover fly invasions in Frinton and SAS sheep rolling over the cattle grids of Yorkshire, Ofsted might - just might - be acknowledging that the excitement will not be universally shared by the teaching profession. It's hard to imagine many cheers of "well done" and "bravo" resounding from the deckchairs or beach towels of recovering teachers this August.

We all know of colleagues - good people - who have been left physically and emotionally drained by the Ofsted experience; and for an organisation that regularly exhorts us to provide clear guidance to our students about how they can improve (aka "constructive criticism"), inspectors remain consistently tight-lipped when it comes to giving constructive advice themselves. Sometimes we're given the distinct impression that the fault somehow lies with us: we just can't grasp that a bit of ear-bashing, fear and possible demoralisation is (a) good for the soul and (b) raises standards. So it's hard for those of us at the receiving end to share their moment of glory.

At a meeting I attended recently, a trainee inspector said Ofsted's aim was to celebrate achievement. There was an embarrassed silence as we waited for the punchline, but sadly, there wasn't one. There was no questioning his intelligence and commitment, but you could have heard the proverbial pin drop. Why? For the simple reason that for many schools, receiving the news of an impending Ofsted resembles the scene from The Magnificent Seven where the beleaguered Mexican villagers await the arrival of Eli Wallach and his bandits.

Even before the ink is dry on the final report, and the last inspector's car trundles out of the school drive, many headteachers are left wondering:

"Where do we go from here?" or, worse still: "How do I restore the morale of my staff?" To be fair, Ofsted does use terms such as "significant apprehension" to describe, perhaps euphemistically, the feverish activity that precedes its visits. It hardly smacks of professional dialogue and consultation if that concern still hasn't been addressed.

Perhaps, after a suitably discreet period of self-congratulation, Ofsted should turn its attention to the business of a more inclusive inspection process. It may be the silly season, but getting the right balance in any school inspection system - one that combines the need to maintain standards with professional respect - is a serious matter. I'm sure David Bell would agree.

With an Ofsted pending at his school, the writer wishes to remain anonymous

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