Time for a shock to the system

19th February 2010 at 00:00

I don't often agree with Chris Woodhead, but his comment in last week's TES that there's no point in having a school inspection system that prefers data analysis to classroom observation is absolutely right. Frankly, a fight back by headteachers against this data-driven inspection agenda and the questionable quality of many inspectors is well overdue.

Ofsted head Christine Gilbert maintains that most of her inspection teams "get it right", but I talk to many teachers and school leaders and that's not the impression I get.

For a start, anything other than a thoroughly professional approach should be immediately challenged. Schools aren't obliged to tolerate rudeness, aggression or incompetence. Complaining formally after a questionable inspection is essential, but Ofsted cleverly makes this an arduous process. Read Franz Kafka's The Trial and you'll understand how the system operates. Few have the stamina to survive the ordeal, so it's best to tackle things head-on first, in the heat of the moment. How, for example, would you deal with these recent situations, which teachers at other schools have described to me?

"The lead inspector, who'd never been in education, thumped her hand repeatedly on the desk as she demanded data. I couldn't get a word in. It was completely unnerving."

This head went on to make a formal complaint but the inspector simply denied intimidation. The adjudicator said that since he wasn't there, he didn't know who was telling the truth. In this situation, I think the head should have stopped the interview, ensured a witness was present, and demanded the discussion was tape recorded. I would have called in the inspection contractor, too - and I wouldn't have accepted a lead inspector who had no experience of teaching or leading a school.

"I discovered that one of my inspectors was a failed headteacher and the CVs of two other inspectors were hopelessly out of date, although I didn't find out until after the event."

Moral: always check the CVs of inspectors with extreme care and, when they arrive, check the facts with them. It's your entitlement. Failed school leaders sometimes pop up as School Improvement Partners and aren't uncommon in Ofsted. After all, an army of inspectors is needed and quite a few of them will be escapees from the coalface of reality. It's much easier to inspect than actually do the job.

"The lead inspector, when she arrived, said, 'If you fail to produce just one of the documents we require, I shall fail your school.'"

I'd have failed her instead. To approach an inspection like that is outrageous - and very frightening for the headteacher. Obviously a miserable lady who gets a lot of pleasure from intimidating others. The inspection should have been stopped, and the contractor summoned.

"We are a nursery school. When the inspectors arrived, only one inspector had any experience of this age group."

Undoubtedly the contractor was short of suitable people and sent anybody it thought it could get away with. Another argument for checking CVs carefully well before the inspectors arrive.

"It was autumn, we are a countryside school, and the inspectors told us that the scattering of leaves in the playground was a safeguarding issue."

How ridiculous. Frankly, I'd have told them not to be so silly, and refused to allow it in the report.

And on it goes, tale after tale, often causing competent school leaders to give up or leave the profession. Which is why it is so essential to challenge, robustly, Ofsted's perceived "wisdom".

I know a school whose chair of governors is a barrister, and he closely questioned every debatable decision the inspectors made, putting the boot well and truly on the other foot. We don't all have chairs like that, but we should certainly give as good as we get.

Mike Kent is headteacher at Comber Grove Primary School in Camberwell, south London. Email: mikejkent@aol.com.

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