Sleeplessness? Irritability? Low self-esteem? You must have Ofsteditis;Mind and body

26th March 1999 at 00:00
Inspections can seriously damage your health, as many teachers know to their cost. In the first of a two-part series, Elaine Williams surveys the damage

Few teachers receive notice of an Office for Standards in Education inspection with equanimity. When the letter announcing O-Day arrives on the school's doormat it's not just the management system that goes on red alert. Staff begin to run on psychological overdrive.

In the months before the inspectors arrive, teachers often work long days and into the night, spending weekends and holidays in school preparing for every eventuality. Home life is put on hold. By the time the big day arrives, they are often emotionally stretched to breaking point.

Some rise to the occasion while others crumple under the pressure, regardless of how good they. Many feel it is not just their professional expertise that is under the spotlight but themselves as individuals.

Maureen Cobham, an early years teacher in a Yorkshire primary, remembers her exhaustion and feeling of total vulnerability by the time the inspectors came. "I got so low beforehand. I remember feeling 'I just can't go through with this'. When you feel like that, you are never going to give your best. The inspector said to me 'You must remember that when I criticise, I'm criticising your teaching, not you'. I was struck by the fact that he said 'when' and not 'if'. I replied: 'I'm sorry, I can't separate the two'."

OFSTED itself is frustrated at what it sees as a pathologically negative reaction from the profession to the inspection process, but Professor Cary Cooper, an organisational psychologist at UMIST (University of Manchester Inbstitute of Science and Technology), believes this constitutes a failure to understand the nature of teaching and teachers and the fact that they do not differentiate between themselves as people and their work. Because they put so much of themselves into the relationships they develop with children, their whole identity is tied up with their job. "Teaching is so personal," he says, "and teachers' work is part of their whole pattern of living, part of their style. So when OFSTED comes in, they feel it is they themselves who are on the line."

He also believes that teachers' inherent idealism is vulnerable to the OFSTED culture. Teachers, he says, come into the profession believing that their particular skills and ideas will develop children, that they have something special to give, and that they value this autonomy and control of the learning environment above all else. With OFSTED comes performance indicators and the culture of managerialism, making teachers feel that their profession is reduced to being like any other business.

According to the National Association of Head Teachers, increased ill-health among teachers who go through inspection is not uncommon, and the effects can lin-ger long afterwards. In a survey of 1,220 heads, 40 per cent said staff illness increased in the two to three months after inspection.

Mike Hardacre, headteacher of Coppice community high in Wolverhampton, runs a successful school in a socially deprived area. It has a Charter Mark, has won curriculum awards and was praised by OFTSED. Despite a good report, its staff were devastated by the process. Hardacre says: "Schools become characterised by staff vulnerability. During inspection week fear represses the teachers' ability to act and think - they lose their picture of self worth. They become irritable at home and can suffer from sleeplessness.

"Before inspection people feel screwed down, not able to relax. After inspection a huge sense of relief is followed by deflation." After the inspection and, according to Hardacre, as a direct result of it, he lost two heads of department, pensioned because of breakdown; a pastoral leader, pensioned for physical breakdown; a teacher who failed to return after pregnancy and two classroom teachers who resigned. With a second inspection now due, the head of English, "who is outstanding, second to none" is seeking to leave. Hardacre says: "She just can't face going through all that again."

That staff suffer from post-inspection stress is confirmed by every head you talk to. Lethargy, depression and an inability to prioritise are all hallmarks of the disorder. Many say it can take up to a year for their school to recover.

Wombwell High, a tough school situated in the middle of a large council estate near Barnsley, is another school that won a good inspection report. But staff never the less felt battered and bruised by the experience. During her 10-year headship Irene Dalton has pulled the school up from 12 per cent of pupils gaining five GCSE passes to 33 per cent last year. She believes inspection can cause an intense sense of loneliness. "I know this is a good school, but half way through the week I was thinking 'Oh God! They're going to say we've got serious weaknesses'. You become irrational."

Elaine Cook, head of expressive and performing arts, which came in for high praise from inspectors, says: "You get so geared up. You don't eat, you don't sleep. I have arthritis and it flared up terribly in the period beforehand. It's like going towards this iceberg that you know you're going to hit. I'm still exhausted and I avoid the staffroom because I just don't want to talk about any of it."

Another head of department in a northern secondary says the process brought out the worst in people. A formerly cohesive staff became brittle and fragmented: "We've always had a close department but it became every man or woman for themselves, wanting to put on their own show, hogging books, hogging equipment. People I had a lot of time for professionally and socially were suddenly out to obliterate others."

The Office for Standards for Inspection (OSTIN) is building up an archive from hundreds of letters sent by teachers, parents and governors describing the effects of inspection on teachers' health. One headteacher said it made her feel as if she had been "professionally raped".

In January OSTIN published an independent review of OFSTED's work, led by Professor Maurice Kogan of Brunel University's Department of Government and Professor Margaret Maden, director of Keele University's Centre for Successful Schools and funded by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust. Kogan wrote that the inspection system engendered "infantilism" among teachers, who became over-sensitive to both praise and criticism, unable to think or act for themselves.

However, teachers who receive positive feedback and high lesson grades can feel uplifted by the inspection. A senior teacher at Sherwood Junior in Warsop, Nottinghamshire, for example, said she enjoyed the experience and missed the team and the feedback when they had gone. She says: "It's good to have acclaim and its valuable when it comes from an outside source."

Maureen Cruickshank, headteacher of Beauchamp College in Leicester, named by OFSTED as one of its most improved schools, said teachers took the attitude they had something worth celebrating with inspectors. She says "They felt they had something really good to show. They were very upbeat. The adrenaline was flowing but we were in an upward spiral. It was wonderful to receive the affirmation."

Mick Brookes, headteacher of Sherwood, believes some confident teachers will rise to the occasion and put on a show when they might not be consistently good at other times. Others who are consistently good might falter through nervousness.

Like OFSTED chief inspector Chris Woodhead, Brookes is a keen climber and is quick to use climbing analogies. "It's like climbing a wall," he says. "If you are feeling good you can do it, you are prepared to make the moves. If you are fearful you will probably fall off. But in addition you have to be able to trust the person on the other end of the rope. If you are not sure that that person has the desire or the ability to save you, then you are likely to fall."

Brookes, who is running to be NAHT president and chairs its educational management committee, had become so focused on his school's inspection that his domestic life suffered badly. He says: "I felt the stakes were high for me, that I had further to fall. In the build-up I didn't want to know about anything else. I wouldn't say my marriage failed because of OFSTED, but it didn't help."

NEXTWEEK: The teacher who's immune to Ofsteditis. We reveal his secret

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