An Inspector called.

I have been part of school inspection five times, four by OFSTED. The corrosive and toxic nature of these events is recent. It doesn’t have to be like this. It wasn’t.

The first inspection was by a team of 2 or 3 of Her Majesty’s Inspectors. It was the five yearly review graded pass or fail but also intended to be (and was) a consultative and developmental activity. The inspection lasted 1/2 a term, the inspectors ‘burrowing’ into all aspects of the school. They studied the school in its natural state they observed lessons, meetings and held dialogue with managers all in a ‘charged’ but friendly and relatively relaxed manner. I was observed once, most of us were. There were no grades. The outcome of individual lessons were not reported to the Head but the aggregate evaluation of teaching was. The feedback was helpful and last month (twenty years later) I used part of the feedback once more when teaching the same topic. We passed.

The second inspection followed the establishment of OFSTED. I had been appointed to a role in middle management to get a department ready for it (we had lots of notice). In large part that involved sorting out the documents and policies, ensuring that they reflected practise. Weeks before the “Inspection” a lorry-load (literally) of documents was sent for scrutiny. For the ‘Big Week’ about a dozen inspectors spent four days observing. They were led by an HMI and all but one, the Lay Inspector were subject specialists. I was observed. There were no grades but significant outcomes of individual teachers’ observations would be shared with the Head. The feedback was bland and useless but the report which dissected the school department by department and layer by layer surprised me by being accurate. Overall, we were Satisfactory.

The third inspection also had notice but a lot less. This time documents were less important and fewer inspectors (about six) spent less time in lessons. I was observed twice. The feedback was good. I was graded with a “good” and a “satisfactory”, this would be reported to the Head. The department’s inspector was excellent; an ex-HoD and Adviser she was insightful spotting a key issue: why we had excellent attainment and progress at KS3 but lower than average of both at KS4 with the same pupils and teachers. Her hypothesis was that the quality of lessons was different. She shared evidence for this (no names), suggested reasons and even potential solutions. Again, the overall report was perspicacious. We were Satisfactory again.

The fourth inspection showed that the rot had set in at OFSTED. Mr. Woodhead was Chief Inspector and the process had been revised. It was metamorphosing into the mutated corpse we see stalking schools today. The school had spent a year working on “What OFSTED Want” and we were back to documents. Documents to show the data, it’s tracking and our intervention. Documents to show our self-evaluation. Documents to show that SLT had a policy for everything and everything in their policy. The avalanche of observation was just beginning to trickle with criteria copied and pasted from the handbook. The Lead Inspector was a disaster the others made no impression. We were observed over 3 days. I was “satisfactory” that of course, was reported to the Head. The most memorable moment for me was an incompetent interview by the Lead Inspector with the heads of department: leading, closed questions, no probing, no reframing; definitely a 4! The report was superficial, inaccurate and useless. We were still Satisfactory.

The fifth inspection, now framed by Mr.Wilshaw, was fairly innocuous. Very cheap and short with four inspectors in total and no notice. I produced a lesson very much against the grain of our schools now rabid pursuit of “What OFSTED Want”. The inspector judged it 2 and gave one good comment in feedback. In the end the previous years frantic perpetual inspections called “Learning Walks”,”Drop Ins” or “Snapshots”‘ the work scrutiny, the SEF, the insistence of the schools’ model of a ‘Good’ lesson (yes, you know; the 20 min thing and the 80:20 teacher talk: ‘independent learning’ thing) all of this was futile; the results weren’t good enough. If only we had been concentrating on…..,

So what’s the point? Read back. The timeline shows how we moved from formative accountability to arbitrary summative judgements that were cheap and designed to push the Chief Inspector’s model of management, currently Command and Control with overseers to turn the screw. It doesn’t have to be like this. It wasn’t.

Postscript: (for clarity) At a point in this narrative I had reverted to being a full time classroom teacher without additional management responsibilities. I am now.

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