When Ofsted scents blood, it's staff in tough schools who are hounded

5th December 2008 at 00:00

He looks into my eyes, which are red-rimmed and hung with bags as bulging as a short selling share dealer's briefcase. Finally he clicks off his little torch and says: "Your symptoms are as unequivocal as school performance and assessment data, Mr Eddison. You've had no sleep in the past 72 hours, your blood-pressure is high enough to power a steam train and you have developed a nervous tic over your right eyelid.

"Headaches? Nausea? Irritable bowel? A feeling that you have been cast into a pit of utter despair from which there is no hope of redemption?" he asks. I answer in the affirmative. He sighs. "I'm afraid it's Ofsted syndrome."

We got the telephone call on Friday. There were unconfirmed reports that someone slipped off for a couple of hours' sleep between then and the inspection the following Wednesday. I can't confirm this because I was busy writing lesson plans, putting interactive displays up, re-marking books, gathering evidence, putting evidence into a different format, contemplating alternative careers, rewriting lesson plans, gathering more evidence, making whizzy resources and weeping quietly in the toilet.

If reading Kenny Frederick's column - "Whispers from the rumour mill won't grind us down", TES, November 14 - wasn't ringing enough alarm bells, a report by the think tank Civitas brought a clamour of campanological consternation. I'm not entirely sure what a think tank is, but it sounds big, destructive and bent on finding a war zone. "Come and have a go if you think the new short sharp inspection regime isn't hard enough and provides only a superficial snapshot of schools," it rumbled.

It's no coincidence that the results of inspections in primary schools almost always match the achievement data available to the inspection team. Or to put it another way, verdicts generally equate to how well a school has achieved in Sats. That's why even the very best primary schools serving disadvantaged areas rarely get better than satisfactory overall, and why some good ones fail.

Observing lesson fragments over two days is unlikely to yield a detailed picture of the quality of teaching and learning in any school. The question, however, is not should we return to more detailed lesson observations, but should lessons be observed at all? Perhaps watching teachers perform should be confined to the dustbin of cruel sports history, along with bear baiting, cock fighting and watching John Sergeant do the cha cha cha. Teaching and learning could then become the sole business of schools, with inspection teams confined to carrying out trial by data - which is essentially what happens anyway.

As real classroom practitioners know, teaching and learning is often a hit and miss business. You are only ever as good as your last lesson, and my last experience of Ofsted, a couple of years ago, was not good. The inspector thought the level of verbal and physical abuse - the screaming, shouting, swearing, kicking and punching - did not provide an acceptable learning environment. The children behaved pretty badly too.

Nowhere more than in the classroom does life resemble art. Performance art, to be precise. And when you teach in a school in challenging circumstances and everything depends upon someone's arbitrary judgment based on decontextualised criteria; and when the available data suggests all is not well because government targets have not been met; and when it goes without saying that the obvious reason for not meeting government targets must be poor teaching, then it is high stakes performance art indeed.

WC Fields once said: "Never work with children or animals." And he had a point - the career of a former colleague of mine was utterly ruined when she got a wasp in her plenary. But Fields said it because he knew that the only predictable thing about either species was their unpredictability. The idea that a teacher's performance in the classroom - an activity that involves 30 unpredictable children, happens largely unscripted and unrehearsed, and takes place over five hours a day, five days a week - can be quantified in 15 minutes by a retired public school headmaster with a penchant for dicky bows and floral waistcoats is ludicrous. The lesson observation as part of the Ofsted process is more Strictly Come Teaching than real teaching: a one-off, dangerously intense cameo performance in the full glare of possible professional humiliation.

Just as I'm getting into full rant, I have the indignation crushed out of me by the over-exuberant embrace of a beaming deputy head after a positive Ofsted report, which might have been enjoyable had he shaved during the previous four days. I bask briefly in the glow of being catapulted to teacher stardom before wondering what my next challenge might be ... Hey, maybe I could learn to tango.

Steve Eddison, Key stage 2 teacher, Sheffield.

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