Education: Trauma and tears when an inspector calls: As primary schools prepare for visits by government watchdogs, Fran Abrams talks to teachers who have found the experience painful

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The Independent Online
Four of Simon Marsh's former pupils play for Premier League football clubs. His current ones have won local football, swimming and athletics trophies several years running and were a hit at a recent dance festival.

But inspectors say that the physical education for seven- to 11-year-olds at his school is unsatisfactory.

The team that visited St Mary Magdalene Church of England primary school, where Mr Marsh is headteacher, only saw a limited amount of PE because games day was Friday and the inspection took place from Monday to Thursday. He does not feel its members could possibly have seen enough to judge fairly.

The experience of the school in Islington, north London, highlights the fears of schools due to take part in a national programme of primary inspections that begins in earnest this week. A quarter of secondaries were visited last year in a programme designed to cover all schools in four years.

Headteachers say the system worked reasonably well in secondary schools but that it could be unfair to primaries, which may be unable to show the inspectors a spread of lessons in each subject. Children doing topic-based work may not be doing history or geography in the week of the inspectors' visit, for example.

Ofsted (the Office for Standards in Education), the schools inspection service, is already in trouble because it has failed to find inspectors for up to 300 primaries which expected to be visited this autumn. But some people think those schools are the lucky ones.

Jeff Holman, assistant secretary for education at the National Association of Head Teachers, believes the subject-based approach of the inspections could cause problems in primary schools. 'Primary schools don't work in the same way as secondaries. They work across the curriculum in a number of areas and inspectors cannot necessarily expect to see learning labelled 'history' or 'geography' going on. If they then say this is unsatisfactory, teachers are going to ask what the evidence is for that,' he says.

Mr Marsh is still smarting from his experience in June 1993, when his school was used to train inspectors under the new framework. 'It was painful,' he says. 'They gave lots of valid criticisms but the format was singularly unpleasant. It is a secondary-school format which is being forced on primary schools.'

St Mary Magdalene did suffer from some teething troubles that other schools should not face. For instance, instead of receiving two terms' notice of inspection and waiting five weeks for the full report, it was given five weeks' notice and waited almost two terms for its report.

However, Mr Marsh felt compelled to complain about a number of remarks in the report that he felt were unfair. First there was the PE. Then there was the school's attendance record, which averaged 92 per cent, comfortably above the 90 per cent which is considered to be the minimum acceptable. The inspectors went through the school's records, found some days on which the level had been lower than 90 per cent, and commented that attendance was poor.

Mr Marsh was annoyed that reading standards were only considered 'satisfactory'. His pupils' reading scores were well above the national average, which he considered something of an achievement in an area that suffers from considerable social deprivation.

His complaints brought little response, but he still has a great deal of sympathy for the inspectors. He feels they were put in a difficult position by a system that was too rigid.

Mr Marsh is not the only headteacher who has been upset by the Ofsted experience. At one lower school in the South-east, given the full treatment last term by local advisers trained to do Ofsted work, the headteacher was so traumatised that she has thought about taking early retirement. 'When they went I couldn't stop crying for a week. I wrote notices everywhere saying 'We Are Great', but some of the staff still haven't picked themselves up properly,' said the headteacher, who does not want to be named.

She was particularly upset by comments that her pastoral leadership was not strong enough. The school is proud of the support it provides for staff and pupils alike, but during the inspection few had been to her for advice or help, or sent children for discipline, because they felt she was too busy with the inspectors. The remarks were withdrawn after protests from the school, but the blow to morale lived on.

The school was also compared unfavourably with national norms, when in fact it has many pupils from deprived backgrounds and could not be expected to meet such standards.

Despite her distress, this headteacher has drawn some renewed strength from the experience. But she hopes to warn others of the difficulties that may be ahead for them.

'Be stong,' she urges. 'Talk to people who have been through it. All of us must be ready to question and we must not continue to accept. We are notorious in education for getting on with things and making them work instead of questioning them.'

Ofsted is prepared to admit that some mistakes have been made in the early stages of its existence, but maintains that its framework is now flexible enough to deal with primary schools' individual circumstances. A number of pilot inspections were carried out in small primary schools last term.

However, a spokesman pointed out that its inspectors went into schools to ensure that they were complying with the national curriculum. Schools might feel they were doing well, but if they were breaking the law they would be criticised.

He accepted that the comments on attendance at St Mary Magdalene should have been put into context, and said that local conditions would in future be taken into account when commenting on reading standards. However, the comments on PE were fair because they were on indoor activities, which had been seen, rather than on outdoor games, which had not.

'The inspection legislation says we will inspect to see whether schools are delivering to pupils what the law requires them to deliver. You can have extremely good teams and win prizes but not have a good programme of physical education for the school,' he says.

Monitoring of last year's inspections suggests that many secondary schools found them useful - 40 per cent told researchers from Reading University that their report would make an important contribution to their development. But there are doubts as to how the same approach will work in primary schools.

Dr Brian Fidler, one of a team of three that carried out research into the contribution the inspections made, said that schools with a positive attitude to inspection tended to get more out of it. 'In those schools which really didn't get the right message over, staff were more stressed than they need have been and that prevented them from getting value from preparing for the inspection. You might hypothesise that primary schools would be more apprehensive than secondary schools,' he says.

Even in secondary schools there have been hitches. At St Wulfram's Church of England High School in Grantham, Lincolnshire, staff were disturbed to hear that assemblies were not thought to comply with the law on religious worship. Inspectors who saw seven assemblies in six days said one on the theme of friendship did not meet the requirement that it should be 'in the main Christian'.

The school's headteacher, Michael Cartwright, was aggrieved to learn that the inspectors also objected to him taking four of the assemblies himself - he had felt that this task was an integral part of his job. But he was incensed when he learnt that, as a Voluntary Controlled school, St Wulfram's should not have had its assemblies inspected by Ofsted at all. His local diocese is to repeat the exercise this autumn.

(Photograph omitted)