Holidays are coming and so are the inspectors. It sounds like a nightmare, but Sue Walker finds a festive glow can be a blessing.
It was the week before Christmas and all through the school everything was stirring, even the inspectors. Just when you are within days of the end of term the dreaded telephone call comes. I had always thought it was good to be "selected", but not by Ofsted. Not three days before the end of term. Not three days before the end of the Christmas term. Not in an infant school where excitement levels are beyond measuring.
I had been reassured by our School Improvement Partner that Ofsted would not visit in the last week of term. The staff thought I was making a rather sick joke, but no, put away the glitter they're on their way. Displays were not a problem; there were sparkling icicles, angels of every shape, colour and size, and masses of awe and wonder (and that was just the staff). I told the children that we had some special visitors coming and talked about them being polite.
The reception class teachers felt that it was a bit too much for four-year-olds to understand. They told their children that Santa's helpers would be visiting to check that they were on their best behaviour. The hidden threat was that bad behaviour might just lead to a reduction in Christmas presents. It worked, mainly because two inspectors did look rather elf-like.
Ofsted likes to talk to the children. The inspectors asked the school council about healthy eating and one child told them at some length about oranges being good for you. Unfortunately she then went into detail about how they gave her terrible diarrhoea. Well, they did ask.
Inspectors also like to eat with the children. This is never an auspicious occasion but eating with reception children is an experience never to be forgotten. The lucky inspector found himself next to a child who could wield a spoon and eat his meal in the right order. The unlucky inspector sat beside a fingers only child, which makes gravy quite tricky. It was also Christmas meal day. One of our dinner ladies asked if the inspector "wanted stuffing". I thought special measures, he said, "Yes, but slowly". I began to worry about the sanity of staff and inspectors.
Ofsted has a national agenda concerning attendance. We are 0.4 below the national average but young children starting school often catch everything that's going. We had a bout of chicken pox the previous year. Our figures are compared with primary schools when we believe they should be compared to key stage 1 schools. They would not let this area go. Which children? Which minority background? Details of illnesses? I thought back to oranges and diarrhoea. As I have no control over these illnesses I am at a loss as to how we can improve. Perhaps our gifted and talented children could come up with a cure for the common cold.
The Year 2 concert saved us. Even an Ofsted heart can be softened by the sight and sounds of small children shouting carols in an estuary accent: "Ark the 'erold angels sing". The office staff believed that the all singing and dancing Christmas toys on the reception desk also impressed them and helped improve our grades.
Then it was all over. In retrospect I think there could be worse times for an inspection. Tis the season to be jolly and jolly relieved is just how we felt. Be warned, don't crack open the Christmas sherry until the last day of term.
Sue Walker is head of Shears Green Infant School in Kent.