Surprise surmise? No thanks

24th April 2009 at 01:00

So, should Ofsted carry out no-notice inspections? In my view, this lumbering quango shouldn't be carrying out inspections, period. In the light of what happened in Haringey, any organisation that can judge that borough's social services to be "good" should be hiding its head in shame. Instead, the inspectorate's leaders bluster about "not being shown all the evidence" and the organisation blunders on like a huge boulder rolling over its own moss.

I have been a headteacher so long I've had much experience of Ofsted. I've met a few inspectors I've had a lot of time for. But only a few. I've also been inspected by a farmer's wife who knew as much about inner-city schools as I do about milking a cow; a woman who had held a minor administrative post in a college; several secondary trained ex-teachers who had never taught primary children; an inspector whom I later discovered had been "moved on" from an education authority because she had a habit of intimidating newly qualified teachers; and several old police officers.

Several days' training had apparently made them into educational experts. I'm not totally convinced that several days' training would turn me into a competent thief catcher.

But then, an organisation as huge as Ofsted needs a lot of inspectors so you're bound to get chaff among the wheat. Also, many teachers are frightened of Ofsted inspectors. Instead of arguing with their loonier comments, they suffer in silence and simply sigh with relief when it's over.

And loony comments do arise. I remember an inspector who advised my nursery teacher to cut down on the play-based stuff and "get some facts into 'em". During another Ofsted inspection, my modern foreign languages co-ordinator was told that the children should spend more time writing Spanish, not speaking it. Fortunately, my teachers on both occasions were feisty enough to put the inspectors straight.

Nevertheless, I don't see Ofsted disappearing overnight, and I can't see anybody gaining from an instant inspection, despite Christine Gilbert maintaining this is the best way forward.

I can just imagine the scenario ... The inspectors knock on your door at 8am. It's the middle of winter, and two of your best teachers have succumbed to flu. The supply agencies have no teachers left. Mr and Mrs Evans are coming to see you this morning about Cynthia being bullied. Again. The auditor is due in, and they'll need your room, and your computer. The staffroom fridge has leaked all over the floor during the night. You need to interrogate Charlie and his mates urgently to find out who set the fire alarm off yesterday. The cook has just announced that no vegetables have arrived. Typical day, really.

What are the inspectors going to do? Sit in the staffroom reading The TES until you've got time to get everything on an even keel again? Or will they apologise for bothering you, accept that you're snowed under, look at a couple of classes and then agree to write their report based mainly on your self-evaluation form?

No, the current method of giving schools a few days' notice makes the best of a bad system. A school naturally wants to show itself at its best, whether it's being examined by a prospective parent or an Ofsted team. Four days doesn't give you time to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear, but it's a breathing space to make sure everything is as good as you can make it.

I think we should keep it that way. While we're looking for a better way of inspecting schools, that is.

Mike Kent is headteacher of Comber Grove Primary in Camberwell, south London. Email:

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