Who inspects the inspectors?

26th May 2000 at 01:00
Mike Kent was optimistic about his school's Ofsted inspection. But ill-informed, tactless inspectors prompted him to file a complaint.

The rules for Ofsted inspectors are written in stone: they must inspire confidence in their work, make a valuable contribution to the school's improvement and treat all those they meet with sensitivity, while doing everything they can to minimise stress.

We had good reason to be optimistic about our second Ofsted. Comber Grove is in a deprived part of London, but we had received a positive first inspection and the staff had commented on the professionalism of the inspection team. Everyone had been visited at least once on the first day, an effort had been made to minimise stress among staff, and genuine interest had been shown in the children's work and achievements.

After that first inspection, we'd attended to the few key issues and the school had moved forward. The children were happy and settled, we had policies on everything, and the atmosphere was one of enthusiasm and confidence. Our key stage 2 Sats results took a dive last year, but there were genuine reasons for that.

The initial day of the second inspection with the registered inspector had gone well and she'd been made welcome by everyone in the school. She was impressed on her tour of the building and commented positively on the colourful classrooms, stating that the school obviously had much to celebrate. We showed her our latest exciting project, an environmental park area in part of the junior playground. As she left the school she was asked how she had enjoyed the day. She said that our children were "wonderful". After the meeting with parents, she telephoned to say that they were supportive of the school's work and that last year's Sats would not be an issue. Again, we had every reason to look forward to the inspection itself.

The rain was torrential on the first day. We were obviously going to suffer wet plays and lunchtime. One of the six inspectors turned up 50 minutes late and said she'd been unwell all weekend and had travelled for hours to get to the school. There wasn't a great deal of sympathy; the teachers had all been in school since the crack of dawn, despite the appalling weather.

The manner of the lead inspector seemed to have changed, too. There was a stiff formality, apparent in our first assembly. Since every child in the juniors plays at least one instrument, we had prepared a short concert and the children were very excited about showing how well they played and sang. The inspector, however, seemed unmoved. How, I wondered, could you not be impressed by such a large group of children playing "The Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves" so beautifully?

After assembly, teachers and classes hurried off back to their rooms. I'd forgotten how quiet the school is during an Ofsted; for the teachers it's the culmination of weeks of careful preparation, and the children catch the air of urgency and worry. I strolled around the corridors, but everything seemed fine.

Then, during lunch, the lead inspector came into the hall and said she'd like us to meet in my room. I left my lunch untouched and hurried upstairs. "I'm afraid we've seen a great deal of unsatisfactory teaching," she said. "We're being generous, but from tomorrow we shall be very rigorous indeed."

I was stunned. I know my teachers well. The school is exceptionally stable, and there had been few staff changes since the last inspection. Then she talked about the dangers of the loose bricks on the "building site" in the playground, and it took me a moment to realise she meant our environmental park area. I explained that the bricks would be cemented into plant beds within a few days, but apparently this wouldn't do, because until then the children could "throw the bricks around". I said extra barriers would be erected, and I hurriedly left my room to finish my lunch, passing several teachers on the way who seemed irritated and unhappy, and who asked to talk to me as soon as possible.

The afternoon wore on and I saw no inspectors, but as soon as the children had left school, the lead inspector visited me again, saying that more unsatisfactory lessons had been seen and I might want to tell my staff to be very diligent with their lessons from Tuesday onwards. I pressed the issue, asking exactly what had been unsatisfactory. She quoted three lessons, all taught by experienced teachers, running the lessons down in a casually destructive manner. Although she'd only seen a 40-minute English lesson, she expressed doubts about the ability of that particular teacher (whose work has been used as a model by the local education authority) to be the literacy co-ordinator.

The inspectors left for the day and staff flocked to my office. One teacher complained that nobody had come near her all day and yet, at the pre-inspection meeting, a lot had been said about Sats years receiving more visits than other classes. Others complained that inspectors had only seen bits of lessons because they'd turned up late, or early, or not at all when they'd promised they would - or, in one case, for 15 minutes in the middle of a lesson, missing the beginning and end completely.

On entering the room labelled "Under fives", one inspector had asked how old the children were. Although clear documentation had been given about the layout of the building, a Year 1 class was confused with Reception, Year 2 work was confused with Year 1, and a Year 4 class was thought to be a Year 5. Teachers also felt the inspectors sat in unnecessarily conspicuous positions, and in one case actually at the teacher's desk, shuffling through everything on it, though a chair had been placed discreetly at the back of the room.

Feedback had been promised and not given, only one inspector had spoken to any children, and another seemed confused about the difference between groups of children with special needs and those with English as an additional language. The day ended moodily, with many teachers disgruntled, one in tears, and the weather forecast promising rain for the rest of the week.

We managed to grind through Tuesday, the staff looking more ashen by the hour, and then on Wednesday morning the lead inspector informed me that something would definitely have to be done about "the building site". The additional barriers wouldn't keep the children away, and she'd seen a child pick up a brick during the previous lunchtime.

This was new. The children were enthusiastic about the park area and, although the bricks had been there for a month, nobody had touched one. Her tone suggested the inspection might stop if the matter wasn't addressed, and I spoke quickly to the premises officer, who hired skips to remove all the bricks from the site. He was upset, since we'd need to buy another load in 10 days or have no plant beds.

The situation was to deteriorate further. One of the older teachers, an excellent practitioner with a difficult class, looked tired and upset. Her history lesson had been strongly criticised the previous day, though only part of it had been seen. Her PE lesson had been grudgingly labelled satisfactory, because she hadn't given any words of encouragement to the children, an accusation she strongly denied. After 35 years of successful teaching, she didn't relish having her lesson pulled to pieces by a lay inspector.

I could appreciate the way she felt; tact wasn't emerging as a speciality of this team. I was also astounded to hear that her maths lessons had been deemed unsatisfactory; she is a maths specialist, after all. Anxious and distressed, she asked if I could be a witness in any futureobserved lessons.

By mid-afternoon there were more rumblings of discontent and I called an emergency staff meeting after school. Revelations tumbled out: work for scrutiny in core subjects had been sent to the inspectors on Monday and much of it still hadn't been returned; teachers had been instructed to have work samples in foundation subjects available all day in their classrooms but virtually nothing had been looked at; some inspectors didn't know whether they were supposed to offer feedback; inspectors had yawned through parts of lessons; much school documentation hadn't been read properly; and the RE inspector had stated that the school didn't celebrate all the children's religions (though she retracted the comment when the co-ordinator gave her a list of the readily visible displays in classrooms).

Following the meeting, the older member of staff whose lessons had been criticised spent an hour crying in her classroom. (Nothing positive was said to her in the entire week, and by the Friday morning she had become so distressed she couldn't even make a coherent telephone call to say she wouldn't be coming in.) Two other teachers were in tears, and, for the first time in my career, I had no sleep at all that night, worrying about my staff. So much for the inspection process making "a valuable contribution to improvement".

Literacy hour and the maths strategy became issues of their own. The school has always placed great emphasis on reading and writing, fighting off the bandwagoners in the Eighties who said written work shouldn't be corrected, grammar needn't be taught and reading schemes were redundant. Having watched the literacy hour being thrust at us by those who'd mucked everything up in the first place, we had approached both that and the maths strategy with caution, developed comprehensive strategies of our own, and been assured that provided they had the same aims and standards as the official ones, it wouldn't be an issue.

In reality, teachers were constantly asked why they weren't doing the literacy hour, and a long-term supply teacher was cross-questioned on how our school compared with schools that were doing it. And why, I was asked, were teachers not doing maths every day? I explained that they did, but for the purposes of Ofsted week we'd been told to teach a wide curriculum since inspectors could only inspect what they saw. Obviously this hadn't been communicated to the team.

Interviews with subject co-ordinators and governors caused additional problems. Several inspectors turned up late for the interviews, or had to be hunted down, or hadn't known who they were supposed to be interviewing, or what for. Questions were often aggressively suspicious, and sometimes the answer received a response such as: "Well, I can't catch you out on that, then." A teacher commented, sadly, that this remark seemed to sum up our Ofsted: let's see if we can catch them out.

Towards the end of the week, the staff had raised so many issues I told the lead inspector I intended to complain about the conduct of the inspection. It was bitterly disappointing, as just a week earlier we'd been so optimistic.

And we weren't out of the woods yet, as our disappointing KS2 Sats results suddenly became an area to be probed. Fifteen children had moved away between Year 2 and Year 6 and had been replaced by 15 others who weren't so able - and I was now required to prove it. The children had gone to secondary schools and their records had been forwarded, but the admin officer diligently hunted through the admissions logbook that evening. Still this wasn't enough. Now I was required to prove they'd all changed within two years before the Sats, as anything outside that period couldn't be taken into account. Once again, we were able to come up with conclusive evidence.

But hadn't I said there were three statemented children, and a fairly large number high up on the special educational needs register? Well, could I prove that as well, please, and provide a list showing which child was where on the register? Small wonder that one of my curriculum co-ordinators had asked the same inspector, in the middle of a curriculum interview, why on earth she was so suspicious about everything.

Four days have never passed so slowly, and on the Thursday evening, after the staff had gone home depressed and tired, my deputy and I sat dejectedly in the staffroom, waiting for the verdict. When it finally came, at 7.45pm, it wasn't at all bad. The key issues weren't too worrying and we had lots of "goods" and "very goods", but then a comment- almost an aside - threw us. Under the current regulations, we were told, the inspectors had to decide whether we were a "coasting" school (a new Ofsted category, basically meaning that we were the same as last time), and there was the problem that our infant SATs had been going down for the past four years. We were astounded. It wasn't true, and after the meeting I hastily scoured my filing cabinets for LEA charts and information to prove it. Right until the last moment of this inspection, we felt as if we had been fighting a major battle just to prove our worth.

It's over, and we're resilient, but it will take time to recover. This is not what inspections should be about and certainly not the way they should be conducted. Of course we want to raise standards, but this simply isn't the way to do it, and, terrifyingly, three teacher suicides have this year been blamed on Ofsteds. Schools need to be inspected, but we need good local inspectors who move their schools forward because they visit them regularly and know them well. But, most of all, we need inspectors we can respect and trust.

Mike Kent is head of Comber Grove primary school in Camberwell, south London. The school has now made a formal complaint to the agency responsible for the inspection, detailing almost 100 points of concern. Comber Grove's governors are currently awaiting a response


Few schools complain about their inspections.

According to Ofsted statistics, less than 4 per cent of inspections made during the 1998-99 academic year resulted in a formal complaint being made, and only six cases were referred to Elaine Rassaby, the Ofsted complaints adjudicator.

You can complain to the team leader during the inspection and later to the inspection contractor y the stage ComberGrove is at. If you're still unhappy, you can then lodge a formal complaint with Ofsted. You should contact their helplines first (020 7421 6673 foradvice about interpretation of Ofsted framework; 020 7421 6680 to discuss concems about the inspectors' conduct) before making a formal written complaint to the registrar. If the Ofsted internal review procedures fail to resolve anything, it can be considered by the complaints adjudicator.

If a solution is still not found, the final step is to complain to the parliamentary ombudsman.

A booklet, Making Complaints to Oftted, is available from the Ofsted Publications Centre.

Tel: 020 7510 0180

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