The Call came towards the end of the week, on a day when I wasn’t in college. Ofsted was coming. I was furious to have missed the drama – the sky dense with black clouds, a sharp-beaked crow watching from a window ledge as lecturers paced in silent regret for what their lives could have been. That sort of thing…I mean, I don’t know. I wasn’t there.
The weekend passed. I assumed every college site was consumed by anxiety, vibrating with hordes of pale, dead-eyed staff, surviving on three hours’ sleep and a dangerous amount of Kenco. I had narrowly escaped the Full Visit at my three previous colleges but, having chatted with colleagues from around the country about their experiences, I had heard more horror stories than Stephen King at a new writers’ convention.
I got into work at 7am on Monday. I walked alone through the deserted campus as the birds chirped and the winter sun gave the lawn a pea-green glow. Where was the mayhem? Where was the stress? Then it clicked. This was the point at the beginning of the horror film when the happy family moves into that house at the end of the street. How are they to know that in a matter of hours they will be the victims of imaginatively horrific torture?
I clicked the lights on in the staffroom. No one was slumped over a keyboard. I made a cup of coffee and checked my emails. We’d all had a lovely message from our department head as well as the big boss, saying how proud they were of us and reminding us to keep on doing what we always do. I scoured the words for a threatening sub-plot but the cupboard was bare. Just calm, supportive encouragement.
By 8am, staff started to trickle in with the usual exchanges about their weekends. There was no talk of all-night adminathons or impending nervous breakdowns. Like me, they’d done what they always do: consulted their schemes of work, gathered resources and gone on their way.
The only difference was that they made sure they’d popped their teaching files (packed with relevant info on their groups and the progress of individuals) in their bags, in case any visitors wanted to have a peep.
This feeling of purposeful calm, reinforced by management, remained throughout the week. That’s all well and good, but why has the drama failed to manifest?
It’s because of a relentlessly high expectation, running parallel to a solid supportive structure, which supplies the means to meet that expectation.
It’s because of the general understanding that the inspection criteria do not constitute some nefarious spell, cast with the sole intention of catching us out.
The criteria are an outline of good practice that we should be aiming for every day, whether or not we have visitors with clipboards – we owe that experience to every student and it is them to whom we are responsible.
Sarah Simons works in FE colleges in the East Midlands @MrsSarahSimons