'The inspection lies in wait for us - like an execution'

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
Click to follow
The Independent Online

A Welsh comprehensive sits on top of a hill and can be seen for miles. It is housed in poor-quality Sixties buildings that once held 1,700 pupils. Today there are only 700. It serves the working-class side of a city, and many of its pupils come from families riven by unemployment and disadvantage. The author is the deputy head.

A Welsh comprehensive sits on top of a hill and can be seen for miles. It is housed in poor-quality Sixties buildings that once held 1,700 pupils. Today there are only 700. It serves the working-class side of a city, and many of its pupils come from families riven by unemployment and disadvantage. The author is the deputy head.

The brand new displays are pinned up and mark books are dragged into something approaching accuracy. The inspection, almost the only topic of conversation for months now, lies in wait for us on just the other side of the weekend. Like an execution.

We try to keep in our heads the fact that we do what we do because it is right, not because we need to be frightened by the inspectorate. Nevertheless, this week we have had high staff absence. At least part of it is a reaction to the stress of the situation. Ours is often described as a challenging school and an underlying worry is whether the inspectors will be able to understand what our school is about. Would they be able to work here on a daily basis rather than just watch? We doubt it. They will come and they will go and it is only a week after all. It is sad, though, to see very good teachers paralysed by anxiety.

Monday

The inspection process is clearly a benefit system for retired teachers from the more comfortable end of the profession. They wear smart clothes. They are neither haunted nor frayed, but bring with them an air of innocence and purity. They do not look like teachers. Perhaps this is one of the factors which disturbs the pupils, for they are especially lively from the moment they clap eyes on them in registration.

Unusual things happen all day. Within 30 minutes we have a small fire in the toilets which is easily controlled by the caretaker. Then at break we have a major fight in front of some inspectors. We haven't had a fight for ages but this one is special. There is blood all over the carpet in the office. The caretaker is called to clean it up. I sense that he is not a happy chappy. I suspect that the tension felt by my colleagues has been communicated to the pupils who become increasingly excitable. A rumour of unknown origin is sweeping through some classes, suggesting that those found wanting by the inspectors will be locked away in "The Homes". As a consequence, some pupils are refusing to speak to them and when approached are hiding by putting their head on the desk. They often find outsiders difficult to cope with.

At lunch I am suddenly locked in an embrace by Louise in Year 8 Special Needs, who tells everyone very loudly that I am her friend. I am unsettled by an inspector walking past. I wonder if he understands.

Later, the irate stepfather of one of the combatants in our earlier fight suddenly appears in the head of year's classroom, seeking justice and retribution. The inspector present takes over the lesson while the matter is resolved. News of this small gesture of professionalism sends emotionally fragile staff home in good heart.

Tuesday

The school is a little calmer, though these are without doubt intense days and teachers are very much on edge. There is a sense that your fate is in the hands of others, the pupils and inspectors, and they are both unpredictable.

They say that they are here to measure teaching, not teachers, but is that possible? When things go badly you can't help but think that they are the same thing.

A pattern to their deliberations begins to emerge. The team has been impressed by the generosity, openness and honesty of most of our pupils. However, they have found it hard to come to terms with some of the more disadvantaged pupils and the challenges they present to their teachers. If such problems have not been part of the team's professional experience, then how can they offer meaningful reflections to those for whom such things are an integral part of their working life?

I discover that the lay inspector, the one who has no background in education, is slowly losing the plot. He has decided that we have a problem with internal truancy. We don't. He says that we either ignore it or encourage it. We don't. Some boys did disappear during the afternoon but we found out about it and dealt with them straight away, as always.

After school, the reporting back to departments begins. The conclusions are based upon the documentation we submitted and two days of observation. To my mind this seems superficial but I have to admit that the impressions they have formed are generally accurate and supportive. Some of the inspectors are prepared to offer useful advice, which is good of them, for this is not within their remit.

Wednesday

Many of the staff have faint smiles on their faces for the first time in a while. They are naturally relieved and a little more relaxed, though they cannot understand how judgements can be made so quickly. However, the rigour of the process does not currently concern them. They are just pleased that their part is over. One colleague bursts into tears on being told she is good. We all know that she is a fine teacher. Is it necessary to go through all this heartache and expense just to prove something we already know?

By lunch it is clear the inspector does not understand how our budget is put together. He says that it is very complicated. It isn't. He does not seem to grasp that we have to make unpalatable decisions in order to operate within a budget. Other inspectors, too, seem to have unrealistic expectations.

If I am to give extra curriculum time to all those subjects which they believe require it, then we will have to work on Saturdays. When they say silly things, I think they have an obligation to suggest an answer, especially when a workable solution escapes me. I am grateful for the advice they have offered to departments but I cannot help feeling that some whole-school issues are beyond them.

Thursday

The main issues identified by the inspection team are starting to emerge. They are concerned about attendance, which is not a surprise. I am not sure how much more my colleagues can do to improve attendance and I am eager to take advice.

There are some families which will not send their children to school. Also, schools in disadvantaged areas have higher levels of illness. They are also concerned about staff having to teach outside their subject specialism. This, I'm afraid, is the consequence of not having enough teachers. I'm intrigued to think they might have a solution.

The lay inspector keeps banging on about this and that, but no one is taking much notice. Everyone is exhausted now. The staff are emotionally drained and irritable - and so are some of the pupils. A deeply troubled boy in Year 11 suddenly explodes for no apparent reason. I have to exclude him. The tension is getting to us all. I have an absolutely dreadful lesson with Year 8. Chaos descends from nowhere. Thankfully, I am not being observed but the inspection team next door hears me losing it, big time, with Jade. I don't care. I have had enough.

Friday

The day passes in a blur. By the time I emerge from my classroom it is virtually all over. The children appear to have accepted the inspectors as part of the furniture.

I am sure that the Registered Inspector and his team are motivated by a genuine desire to support schools and to help them improve. I wonder whether this is the most productive way. When they say unrealistic things to me it makes me less inclined to accept the good and helpful criticism they make.

Taking and working on advice depends upon respect. How can that be established within the context of an inspection? Surely the atmosphere which is created in schools at such a time as this is unhelpful. Is all this grief really necessary to affect change? I know the issues which need working on in my school. I don't need anyone else to tell me what they are. It is not the vision which my school lacks. It is the resources. That is what schools need, I think. They need a team that comes in and works with them, rather than merely making observations, a team that spends some time in a school and brings with it a wide range of professional expertise and a wide range of resources. That would certainly be better than this assumption that we need checking on because it is the only thing that makes us do our job. Is any other profession hounded in this way?

I am close to tears as the week draws to a close and I consider the stresses and absurdities of it all. Suddenly the fire alarm goes off, the final comment of the pupils on this unsettling week. I collect the inspectors and we all troop out into a wind so bitingly cold that the friends of the perpetrator are all too keen to turn him in. At least a sense of morality has been maintained. I exclude David and arrange for him to meet a Fire Safety Officer. And, when I emerge from dealing with this, the inspectors have gone. I feel rather flat.

I await their report with interest, even if the issues they identify will be predictable. I could write it for them. The difference between us is that I shall be back in school on Monday.

And the inspector's verdict was: Very positive and supportive. The school was felt to be doing a good job in challenging circumstances

Comments