When my children were at primary school, there was an occurrence that cropped up regularly. Like the harvest festival and the carol service, the summer fair and the “meet the teacher” evening, the Ofsted inspection had its place in the calendar.
They would arrive home with letters from the headteacher, telling us the dreaded inspectors were descending in three weeks: asking us to note the date, to ensure any homework was done neatly and correctly, and that our loved ones were turned out sprucely in their uniforms, hair brushed and shoes polished.
Ahead of the great day, the tension in the school would rise. The teachers would become angst-ridden, classrooms would be tidied, wall displays refreshed with the very best work placed to the fore, and floors and windows cleaned. On the day itself, the teachers would turn up in smarter-than-usual clothes, with their hair done. In the normally packed car park, spaces would mysteriously appear, “for the inspectors”. The staff room was adorned with vases of fresh flowers and tins of chocolates.
It’s hard to think of more that could be done: instructing the more disruptive pupils to stay away, perhaps, or handing the inspectors brown envelopes stuffed with cash.
Fortunately, Ofsted grew wise to what was going on – presumably, it was impossible for them not to. Last February the Chief Inspector, Sir Michael Wilshaw, proposed unannounced inspections in England. Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, said he warmly welcomed the move: “No-notice inspections, especially where behaviour and teaching standards are of concern, will provide parents and others with a true picture of schools’ performance.”
Predictably, headteachers and the teaching unions disagreed. The Association of School and College Leaders said no-notice inspections would not improve the effectiveness of inspections. Its general secretary, Brian Lightman, said: “We welcome moves to improve the effectiveness of inspections, but I have real doubts that no-notice inspection will accomplish this. An effective inspection system is based on mutual trust and respect, not the premise that schools are trying to ‘cheat’ and need to be caught out.”
The result was that time-honoured classic of British officialdom: tough talk followed by climbdown leading to fudge. In September 2012, Ofsted announced it would introduce “almost-no-notice” inspections, calling headteachers the day before arriving.
“Almost no notice” – is there a more meaningless phrase? We should have realised: either you have notice or you don’t. And if you have some, it’s still possible to take steps that you would not otherwise take.
This was brought home to me when I read an account of the most recent inspection of Grey Court School in Ham, Richmond-upon-Thames. The head is Maggie Bailey. “When the call came from Ofsted at 12.10pm the previous day, Bailey was out… Her deputy rang her and she hurried back to put her eight-page ‘Ofsted plan’ into action.”
Eight pages. What does it contain? The mind boggles. Alas, we’re only provided tantalising clues. “She called assemblies for every year group, asking the pupils whether they wanted to be at a ‘good’ school. She told her teachers, most of them very young, not to get over-anxious or to over-prepare for lessons.”
Sadly, that’s all we’re told. And that’s not enough to fill half a page, let alone eight.
This isn’t to knock Bailey. She did what any headteacher would do in the same circumstances. She’s clearly doing a great job. Once a failing school, Grey Court has shot up the charts since Bailey took charge in 2007. In its report, Ofsted rated her school outstanding in all areas.
But Grey Court is not alone. In March, more than three-quarters of schools were assessed as good or outstanding by Ofsted. That’s a healthy number. I’d have more faith in it, however, if I knew those marks had been achieved by inspectors swooping in without warning, before the heads could dust off their eight-page Ofsted plans.
One of the principal objections of the unions is that no-notice causes too much stress for hard-pressed teachers, and puts intolerable strain on the school. I disagree: even a day’s notice provokes frantic preparation and a sleepless night. No-notice removes the pressure: if you don’t know something is happening you can’t worry about it.
It’s a pity that Wilshaw and Gove relented. They should have stuck to their guns. Only then could we have full confidence schools in England were being properly judged.
There are 338 reasons to be disturbed by the sniper case
Much has been made in some sections of the press of the “heroic” status of SAS sniper Danny Nightingale, who faces jail for stashing a Glock pistol and more than 300 rounds of ammunition at his home.
Nightingale was originally ordered to serve 18 months in military detention, after pleading guilty in 2012. That was overturned on appeal, on the grounds that he was placed under “improper pressure” to plead guilty. A retrial was ordered, and now he’s been convicted of illegal possession of a gun and ammunition.
In his defence, it was first claimed he’d been given the Glock as a “souvenir” by Iraqi troops he’d trained in Iraq in 2007. Later, he changed his story, claiming he’d made a “false confession” and blaming his confusion on memory loss. The weapon and cartridges, he said, belonged to his housemate, another soldier.
During the case, plenty of media attention was focused on the gun. It was not uncommon, apparently, for soldiers to retain such “war trophies”. What always bothered me, however, was the ammo.
I could even buy the story that the Glock was a memento. But the bullets? They were in a box under his bed, and were left over, he maintained, from working as a firing-range instructor. Hmmm. Somehow it was always the ammunition, all 338 rounds of it, that disturbed me more.
So long, Chairman Mo, and thanks for the wonderful memories
An era is drawing to a close with the news that Mohamed al Fayed is on the point of selling Fulham Football Club. For the octogenarian Egyptian billionaire, the deal would mark a final retreat from public life, having previously sold Harrods.
As a Fulham supporter, I will miss Chairman Mo. He’s been good for the club, putting in enough cash to lift it to the Premiership and keep it there.
His regular appearances on the pitch, waving the club scarf, and the playing over the tannoy of Fayed rapping “We are not Barcelona, we are not Real Madrid, we are Fulham…” were mad but fun.
I got to know him when he bought Harrods and I covered his long-running battle for ownership of the store with Tiny Rowland. I’d receive a summons to meet him in his lair “above the shop”.
The greeting was always the same: “Hey Baldie, how are you?” Then he’d point at my groin and say, “You getting enough?” It was part of his patter to then ask the men he met how many children they had. When I’d reply five, he would say, “He, he, you getting plenty, plenty.” This would usually be accompanied by a suggestive gesture involving his arm.
There was a season when I was allowed in the directors’ box and lounge (declaration of interest: I paid for my ticket) at Fulham’s Craven Cottage ground. It was a bizarre experience. Mohamed never went in the lounge, preferring to entertain guests in his own, luxuriously appointed, wood-panelled room across the corridor.
Back in the lounge, there was an odd assortment of characters. Max Clifford would be there, along with Princess Diana’s step-mother, Raine Spencer, resplendent in fur, and other minor celebrities. There were major ones, too. Down the years, Fulham was visited by Britney Spears, Tony Curtis, Pele and Michael Jackson.
We fell out over Jackson. When Fayed moved the statue of the late singer he’d commissioned for Harrods to the stadium in 2011, I disapproved. I said not only was there no connection between Jackson and Fulham, but I felt uncomfortable taking my son to a ground where there was a statute erected in memory of a man who loved other people’s children so much he took them to bed with him for a nightcap of “Jesus Juice”.
We haven’t spoken since, but as a Fulham fan who gave us many wonderful memories, I wish him well.