'A boy falls asleep in my class. Deep down I despair'
A dedicated teacher killed herself after becoming depressed by criticism of her performance during an Ofsted inspection. Just how stressful are school inspections? Teachers in two very different schools open up their diaries
Thursday 11 May 2000
Founded for farmers' sons in 1865, Cranleigh School is now a 500-pupil co-educational independent boarding school in Surrey. It's an imposing building, set high on its own hill, and few visitors forget their first sight of it. The author is an English teacher at the school.
7.15pm: All 65 teachers gather to meet the inspectors for an ice-breaking buffet. There are 15 of them - all head teachers, former heads and senior staff from independent schools. The team is an Ofsted-accredited one from HMC - the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference, the professional body for leading independent schools. Everyone is in best suits and on best behaviour. We started our preparations for this inspection months ago and staff stress has been rising since. Tonight there's a perceptible easing of tension.
10.15am: forty-five sixth-formers gather in a large classroom to hear this week's English lecture. The english department inspector is Jeremy Nichols, distinguished head of Stowe. What will he make of the lecture system, which is a special feature of A-level teaching? Most students seem more attentive than ever, with a visiting headteacher in the back-row. One benefit of inspection is immediately underlined, proving that improvements obvious to an outsider can be easily overlooked from within. The system itself is given credit as an example of team teaching - but why, asks our illustrious inspector, has no time been left for questions?
With perverse timing, the fire alarm sounds right in the middle of break. Teachers and inspectors alike spill out on to the quad in front of the staff room, as students hasten to assembly points. Ten minutes later all are accounted for.
The cause of the fire alarm going off is burnt toast; but the emergency system has worked, and it's been a chance to see the school's back-up fire-brigade in action.
Inevitably, the next period runs late, with students loud and lively after such unscheduled excitement. With 360 boarders, pastoral care is a prime inspection concern. In the evening, a full programme of visits to girls' and boys' boarding-houses begins.
Cubitt House, recently extended to provide top-grade study facilities, is home to 60 boys. Inside there is the unmistakable "buzz" common to boarding-houses: the sense of energy and excitement when young people gather together.
Tiwadola Cardoso, 16, and Tony Hart, 15, both about to take GCSEs, share a study. It's new, comfortable, houses a computer, has desk space, beds, plus many CDs and posters. Neither Tiwa nor Tony are saints - but both praise the friendliness of their house and the benefits boarding can bring. "Boarding encourages you to mix - it almost forces you to get on," says Tiwa. On my way out, I pass on their positive attitude to housemaster, Andrew Griffiths. He hopes the inspector will notice.
There's an unusual sight at the start of the school day: 20 students struggling with blue supermarket-style boxes, full of their files, on their way to meet the inspectors. They're the sample chosen to discuss a full year's written work with the team. Although they are not being inspected, one or two are nervous.
Jeremy Nichols sits in on Year 9 drama: a practical workshop in the Nineties-built Vivian Cox Theatre, supervised by director of drama, Mandy McIlwaine, or "Miss Mac", as she is known.
Few staff dare to cross swords with Mandy, let alone students, so all goes well. "We forgot he was there after a while," said one girl.
Cranleigh went co-educational last year, so a key concern is how well girls are integrated. Sarah Greenwood, the maths teacher and deputy house mistress, is on duty, awaiting the inspector. South, the main girls' boarding-house, has been converted from the Connaught Block - a classic twenties building. Ever since girls started, rumours have abounded of the unbridled luxury of its accommodation.
Sarah believes co-education has been a big success: "There's so much on offer for girls here." Anna Lewis and Ashleigh Howes, both 13 and in their first year, report few problems with integration.
Both students came to Cranleigh for a change from all-girls schools, and are enjoying learning to live with boys. "It's like a college more than a school. We all get on well," says Anna. Though each deny the persistent rumours of en suite saunas.
In the evening, there is an opportunity for parents to express their opinions to the inspection team. No teachers present.
By now we are used to seeing the team around the school. This week is a busy one - with GCSE course work and A-level mocks to be set and marked. No time to relax. Disaster strikes in my last inspected lesson. It's a warm day, the end of a double period, lunch is beckoning; so, with 10 minutes to go, despite best efforts to keep him interested, one of the lads gives up the struggle and falls asleep. Horrified that Hardy should have this effect in front of an inspector, I try to make a joke of it. Deep down, I despair.
The inspection's over. There's a sigh of relief in the staff-room: a feeling of something accomplished. But there's more than a hint of anti-climax, too. It sounds strange, but this inspection has given us teachers a sense of unity, purpose and common cause. Now it's back to humdrum reality. All we have to worry about is the verdict.
And the inspector's verdict was: Glowing. The school was described as a good, caring community with high academic standards
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