Stop the car, you failed your test

26th April 1996 at 01:00
As a teacher of modern languages in Merseyside secondary schools, I have experienced two OFSTED inspections. I am left feeling that the entire process is in need of some clarification.

The two inspectors I came across couldn't have approached their task more differently. The first inspector, who had recently taught in the area, observed my two most difficult groups (as Sod's Law would have it) and then gave me great encouragement and praise in an informal feedback session. Our conversation was relaxed and similar to two teachers chatting in the staff room. The feel-good factor was pretty high.

The second inspection took place at the end of a six-month maternity cover where I was acting head of department. This inspector, who had last taught in a London grammar school 15 years ago decided to camp out at the back of my classroom for six one-hour lessons (the senior inspector had told us to expect three or four half-hour visits). This inspector's manner was so reminiscent of a driving test examiner that I half expected a ruler to be whacked on my desk to see if I could simulate an emergency change of activity.

During the feedback session, nits were picked like "I notice you don't have any posters depicting French as a multi-cultural language" and "Your reading books are incredibly outdated", even though I'd set up a lunch-time reading club which many pupils were attending and enjoying. The fact that the pupils had showed good linguistic ability, behaved well, and even liked some parts of the lessons were apparently unworthy of comment. I suffered acute POD post-OFSTED deflation.

While the inspectors were inconsistent in their approach, the OFSTED preparation had been identical in both schools. From the moment that the dreaded envelope arrived, Operation OFSTED went into overdrive, involving an enormous communal concentration of efforts a bit like the build-up to the school play but multiplied 100 times.

Staff were bombarded with new policies, meetings dragged on endlessly and the head began to experience POT (pre-OFSTED tension).

When Operation OFSTED did eventually storm both schools, there was a marked improvement in the behaviour and attitudes of some of the more disaffected pupils. Both schools received good reports but the feeling that the show had been carefully choreographed did question the merits of the inspection and whether it had been of any lasting value.

But it is not only the value of the inspection itself which is debatable, there is also the role of the qualified inspector who offers a pre-inspection service.

During the build-up to my second inspection, the school paid for each department to have a one or two-day consultation. My pre-inspection lasted one day and although the inspector did give me encouragement and some useful ideas, I couldn't help notice the pound signs in his eyes. What I did receive was a purely subjective view of how a department ought to be run and, interestingly enough, no criticism concerning the points which were later picked up during the inspection proper.

All this has left me sceptical of pre, during and post-OFSTED inspections and has undoubtably had some influence in my decision to have a break from teaching.

Resources would be better aimed at more teachers and smaller classes rather than spending incredible amounts of time, energy and photocopying budgets on a process which is highly subjective and uncertain to improve the standards in schools.

Roy Mitchell is a modern languages teacher in Liverpool TES2 april 26 1996

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