Tale of the Rood

4th April 1997 at 01:00
It was a dark November morning as I drove into Holy Rood High School in Edinburgh. The morning mail, with its monotonous litany of inconsequential correspondence, was abruptly enlivened by an official-looking envelope bearing the insignia of the Scottish Office. We were about to be inspected.The letter from the chief inspector assured us there would be no half-measures. This would be an "extended" inspection.

Visions flooded in of hapless colleagues in the south collecting their P45s as a result of Ofsted raids, interspersed with complacent self-assurances that I could not be held accountable for the whole story, given that I had only been in post for two-and-a-half years.

As it turned out, the inspection focused closely on the role of the headteacher, with views and opinions collected from parents, staff and pupils. By the time the process was completed, I had personally spent dozens of hours in the company of Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Schools.

Producing the required school profile, with information on every department, including those not being inspected, was a considerable task, but worthwhile in that it left us with a complete audit of the school's life and activities, a valuable piece of school-based research.

Tens of thousands of words were written, redrafted, collated, photocopied and inserted in folders, ready for presentation on the appointed day. Topics included the roll of the school, which had happily increased by 200 over the past three years, its history, accommodation, curriculum, resources, and links with the community.

Did we hold back and assume an appropriate professional modesty? Not a bit! We told them exactly how good we were, something of a hostage to fortune when they were about to see for themselves.

With impeccable timing, my depute headteacher went off to be a headteacher as soon as the information had been gathered together. She had been in Holy Rood for 22 years, and knew both the purple patches and the frayed ends of the school better than any other single individual. Off she went with a spring in her step to pastures new, leaving the relatively rookie headteacher to his nemesis.

The invaders came over the hill in three waves. Phase One was two weeks before Christmas, and consisted of a close but supportive snapshot of management, pupil support and attainment. A core team, consisting of two inspectors and a headteacher from another school, interviewed guidance staff, senior managers and others. The presence of the visiting headteacher provided a welcome perceptiveness about the day-to-day realities of the headteacher's role.

On the first morning I was asked to do a presentation on the school for approximately 90 minutes. While this seemed a daunting task at the outset,the problem in the end was fitting everything I wanted to say into the time available. Of course, the bulb on the overhead projector blew in mid-flight, symbolising the precarious condition of our technology.

The infantry bore the brunt of Phase Two as a little army of self-propelled inspectors descended on particular subject areas over two weeks. Some were familiar figures from Higher Still and other educational bashes, while others were drafted in from afar, in case of any collusion with the natives. All carried out their roles efficiently and sensitively, and gave us a practical demonstration of how to approach quality assurance in a school.

Feedback was in all cases concise and constructive, and they were particularly skilled in dealing with the rocky bits. In the process, an open and positive relationship was established between the inspection team and school staff, a partnership which has undoubtedl y contributed to the effectiveness of the entire exercise.

Phase Three was back to whole-school level, with a particular focus on the school's development plan. "Just tying up a few loose ends," said our calm and solicitous reporting inspector as he churned out the list of unsuspecting interviewees. Those members of staff who had assembled prematurely in an Edinburgh eatery to celebrate the end of "their part of the inspection" discovered that for them the fat lady had not yet sung. There was to be just one more tantalisin g interview before the ordeal was over.

The die is cast. Holy Rood has been inspected. We await the report with anticipation and just a tinge of apprehension. Her Majesty wanted to know "how good is our school?". I hope that she got the message "pretty good, really".

Patrick Sweeney is headteacher of Holy Rood High School, Edinburgh

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