Television review

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The Independent Culture
Mention Ofsted inspectors to teachers and they blanch visibly, like Transylvanian peasants who have just been asked to give directions to the Count's country home. Hardened professionals who can face down machete attacks from eight-year-olds, who can wipe adolescent spittle from their lapels with equanimity, tremble at the sound of that name. Whisper it in the staffroom and there is a susurration of protective blessings. Modern Times (BBC2) is the first series to realise that the territory of anxiety has acquired a new landmark and set out to survey it in "The Inspection", an account of a week's visit by the Ofsted-appointed inspectors to the John Ellis Community College in Leicester.

Lucy Sandys-Winsch's film faced one large narrative problem - a practically insurmountable one, I think. It portrayed a collision between outsiders and insiders and, as a result, continually invited the viewer to make a decision between two different accounts of the same thing - there was only one school under inspection, but there were two opposed versions of it offered up here: the dispassionate judgement of the inspectors and the passionate apologetics of the teachers. Ideally, you needed some space to stand between the contending parties, to decide for yourself whether lessons were excellent or merely "sound", in the Ofsted jargon. This was clearly going to be impossible - if a team of inspectors can't sum up a school in five days (as the more recalcitrant teachers insisted), what can a 50-minute documentary hope to achieve?

The answer, as "The Inspection" showed, was to concentrate instead on the clash of cultures, the encounter between the clipboard vision of quality control and the defensive aggression of the teaching profession, bracing itself for another governmental mugging. Not all those taking part could even be bothered with a tactical concealment of their suspicions. The Head of Sociology, Len Trevor, had a feisty set-to with the inspectors during his formal interview, calling them "you people", which seemed pretty firm evidence that he hadn't accepted their bland assurances about everyone essentially being on the same side. Another scene appeared to show him teaching a class in Advanced Political Cynicism.

Other teachers actually made you wonder whether the inspectors' powers shouldn't include corporal punishment. One looked up sullenly from her coffee and said "It hasn't worried me and I can't say as I've done much extra work. I do the job as best I can and if they're not happy with it then they can tell me how to do it better." Unfortunately she's wrong, as the government has drawn a sharp distinction between assessment and advice: if the schools want to know how to improve they have to pay for the information. In other words, the inspectors have the power to terrify staff rooms and then the power to demoralise them or relieve them of their fear. But they have very little positive power to tell schools how they might improve.

The curious circularity of the process was best represented by the case of Niki Chandler, the wonderfully committed Head of Modern Languages, and a woman almost incapacitated by terror at the prospect of inspection. She was partly a victim of her own high standards: after a lesson which the inspector had described as "very good indeed" she gave her own verdict: "I thought the lesson was a bit of a mish-mash really". When she was given her final approving assessment she burst into tears, so great was the relief that her pupils weren't to be written off as failures. This was a very touching scene until you'd had time to ponder the mechanics of it - Mrs Chandler was no further advanced than she had been before the inspection was announced. She had come through an ordeal, certainly, and not been found wanting - but is an acquittal of false charges really the best this new inquisition can offer?