Wake up and find the bad dream's for real

19th April 1996 at 01:00
Gerald Haigh talks to teachers about the acute anxiety they suffer as they prepare for inspection. Are their fears groundless? Between 1959, when I went to college, and 1989 when I left my headship, I was never once observed in the classroom by Her Majesty's Inspectorate. For 30 years, you might say, I got away with it.

The Office for Standards in Education, of course, was expressly set up to end all that. The real world is full of people whose biggest concern at work is that they may be found wanting. If teachers whinge at conferences, or in the letters pages of The TES just because life has caught up with them, why on earth should anyone take notice? A leader in The Times just before Easter caught this mood exactly. "Ofsted is unpopular because it tells some uncomfortable truths . . . People who work in the private sector, who complain much less, lead far more precarious lives: they are liable to be made redundant even if their performance is good."

Should the hand-wringing be taken seriously then? One group of people who think so consists of the partners of teachers who have been inspected, several of whom have written about their concerns to The TES. They are often horrified by the personal price which is paid when people for whom school is, in the words of one partner, a "life's work and dedication", face the prospect of minute examination by strangers.

Frank (not his real name) writing under the tongue-in-cheek heading "Husbands against OFSTED", put it thus: "Within my own profession we were accustomed to external inspection and scrutiny. I couldn't understand what all the fuss was about in the teaching profession. Now I know!" He describes a litany of anxious preparations that ate into family life and peace of mind - long meetings, the writing of policies, the neat re-writing of notices, the appearance outside the school of a rubbish skip and inside the school of colour coded reference systems. "What did you have for Christmas? We had OFSTED. However much my partner tried to ensure that we enjoyed the holiday, it was always there. A haunted look would appear in her eyes as she remembered some policy that needed to be reworded or even invented."

When I told Charles Barker, whose wife Jane is head of a secondary school science department, about "Husbands against OFSTED", he wanted to put his name down to join. Jane's school, Ernesford Grange in Coventry, was inspected early last term, and in the run up, Charles felt that "I just wanted to banish the 'O' word. We talked about nothing else at home. And when we went out to visit friends up would come that word again."

Their young daughter Katie, quite unsolicited, came up with her own abiding memory. Squatting down before the fire, and moving her hands expressively she said, "Mum would always be sitting here, with books all around her like this."

Charles was particularly bothered by the fact that Jane missed a parents' evening at Katie's own school. "I thought that was a bit unfair really. I went on my own and blow me down the teachers were all asking me how Jane was coping with OFSTED."

The workload puzzled Charles, because he knew perfectly well that Jane was a conscientious and effective department head who already worked a lot at home. "I can't see where all the extra work comes from."

So where does it come from? There is some OFSTED-specific paperwork, and most teachers will want to be sure that their policies look presentable. But is not at least some of the anxious preparation self-inflicted? When, for example, you read in Frank's account that "Wax polish and dusters were taken in to give their [the inspectors'] furniture a glossy finish", you begin to feel that panic is overtaking common sense.

Various reasons are given for this compulsion to have everything just right. Roy Ticehurst, head of Heyworth Primary in Haywards Heath, West Sussex, where staff worked extra hard for many months leading up to their inspection, believes that "Teachers want the best for their children and therefore they want to pull out all the stops and show the school in its best light."

In the background, though, is surely another driving force - that teachers, rightly or wrongly, see OFSTED as the executive arm of a teacher-bashing regime. Jane Barker talked of "the horror stories you've heard - the suspicion of the process - the idea that they're out to get you." Every teacher says something like this: "The rumours didn't help"; "We'd heard what could happen."

The publicity given to failing schools adds fuel to this feeling, and there is some evidence that a bad report can be both unexpected and devastating.

Another concerned partner writing to The TES, described how her husband "called me at school in a voice that was strained and unfamiliar. OFSTED had failed his school and he was going home." She met him at the station where "I thought he had had a stroke or a heart attack. He could hardly speak and I had to piece together what had happened."

There followed a long period of "pain, humiliation and despair". And this in a school which had had an encouraging pre-inspection visit from the local authority. Other heads hear of these happenings, and fear that however confident they may feel, there is always a chance that it will all go terribly wrong, because this is an unfamiliar game, with different rules. Roy Ticehurst explained the apprehension like this: "The media and politicians are constantly criticising the profession to such an extent that it has eroded teachers' own confidence in what they are doing. We did not believe in ourselves, and I think that is terribly sad."

Some idea of just how deeply this insecurity goes was revealed by Jane Barker's initial reluctance to accept her own department inspector's friendliness at face value. "She couldn't have been more pleasant. She went out of her way to to put us at our ease, but we thought she was trying to put us off our guard. We kept asking ourselves 'what's the hidden agenda?'" There is an argument, of course, that if there are poor teachers - and nobody seriously suggests they do not exist - then a bit of apprehension can do them nothing but good. The trouble with this, say those who have been through the mill, is that it is not the idlers but the conscientious teachers who worry and run themselves ragged in search of perfection. As a recent contributor to The TES Talkback page (22 March) pointed out, "The ones who resign are the dedicated ones who have been torn apart by the process."

Time and again, in fact, teachers point out that the weak teachers simply, as one said, "allow the whole thing to wash over them". (There is some anecdotal evidence, too, that failing teachers are sometimes deliberately shielded by department heads worried about the general level of the final report.) Stress counsellors and psychologists also know that the people most likely to feel threatened by surveillance are not the ones the system is out to catch. Psychologist Stephen Palmer of the Centre for Stress Management, an international centre of consultancy on stress, said that "If I see people who are burnt out, nine times out of ten they are perfectionists - people who hold rigidly to the view that they must do a good job at all times regardless of resources."

And Claire Huffington, senior consultant at the Tavistock Consultancy Service, felt that: "The kind of people who want to be teachers are preoccupied with what they know and what they don't know - wanting to be clever and not stupid. So if inspectors come in with the message that they are rooting out failure, then teachers are bound to be resentful."

Arguably, the length of time often given for preparation - an unfortunate by-product of the tendering system - does not help. Roy Ticehurst had to wait a full year, so long that even this confident professional, a head for 22 years, could protect neither himself nor his staff from undue pressure. "Two staff were under the doctor with stress-related illness after about three months. Neither of them told anybody till afterwards because they didn't want to put pressure on others. We all thought we were supporting each other but in fact nobody wants to let it be known they're not coping."

He now very much regrets that he allowed his staff to carry such burdens - and that he himself dropped many of his own interests. "I had a senior position in the National Association of Head Teachers and I was a keen badminton player, and I gave it all up. That was quite wrong."

His family life suffered. "I woke up most nights thinking about things, and I needed help to make me sleep better. My wife tells me I was irritable and not the pleasant husband I have been for 25 years. She put up with a lot before she told me, but we have a strong marriage and now we can look back and laugh. "

In the end, again, the actual inspection went well. The report was excellent, and the team "bent over backwards to be positive and point the way forward for us."

In a sense, laying blame either on over-sensitive teachers or on hard-nosed inspection is not the point. What is clear is that no inspection system can bring about improvement if it does not have the confidence of those being inspected. Teacher conference organisers this year were inundated with motions critical of OFSTED - particularly of the plan to grade named teachers - and it seems obvious that OFSTED has to do a better job of convincing the profession that its purpose is fundamentally positive.

That there is the possibility of progress in this is shown by the experience of the many heads and teachers who find that the experience is not so bad after all and who now think that, in the words of Roy Ticehurst, "We went over the top when it wasn't necessary. We needn't have worried about the window dressing." Many inspectors, clearly, are sensitive to the feelings their presence evokes. One registered inspector I know expressly asks his team to "remember that this is the first time these teachers have been inspected. Think how you would have felt." Another, determined to avoid the kind of Friday afternoon bombshell described by the wife of the head whose school failed, makes a point of signalling to the head as early as possible - usually on Tuesday morning - how the inspection, in general terms, is going. Then on Wednesday afternoon comes a much more detailed talk, indicating both good and bad points to be followed up over the final days.

At the same time, there are enough horror stories around to make it clear that OFSTED needs to look at the way some inspectors work. The wife of the "failed" head described the reaction of her husband's doctor. "He found it beyond belief that someone of the status of a head teacher could be left in that state by something which is meant to improve standards."

And a recently appointed village school head was convinced that her inspection team took advantage of her inexperience - by for example "Asking my chair of governors to leave the room when they gave verbal feedback". (Stiffening the supportive resolve of governors as their schools face inspection is a fruitful area for development. Consultants at The Grubb Institute are working on this with governors in some London boroughs.) Every teacher to whom I spoke accepts the principle of monitoring. What they yearn for, though, is dialogue with the inspector. Significantly, the heads who feel most positive about inspection have been seen by teams which have informally exceeded the basic brief by offering some pointers for improvement. "Our team were very good at that, " said one head, "and went beyond the requirements in doing it."

In fact, inspectors expressly should not give advice - the principle that inspection and development are separate is enshrined in OFSTED's brief. Registered inspectors tell of chairmen of governors who make appointments to seek more advice, and individual teachers who approach them for help. Both are disappointed to be told they cannot have it - though some inspectors confess that they will at the end of the week take off the OFSTED hat and "have professional discussion with" (carefully distinguished from "give advice to") the head.

In the absence from the system of this dialogue, the danger is that even if teachers learn not to fear OFSTED inspection, then they are unlikely to see it as helpful. As it is, there are many teachers ready to echo Jane Barker's conclusion that "It was nice to have a pat on the head and we had a brilliant party afterwards - but the system is very flawed."

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