This time last week I was halfway through a visit from Ofsted. I’d had 3-4 hours sleep the previous night and was faced with the same prospect again that night. I’d not been able to face eating and Red Bull was my friend. I was running on empty. So much rides on a ‘good’ performance these days, and it’s all based on what 2-3 people you’ve never met before and know nothing about think during 2 days in your school. They put everything under enormous scrutiny and if they don’t like what they see lives are turned upside down and careers are ended.
We’d been expecting them to visit any day but still, when we did get the call, the initial feeling was of a bowling ball in the stomach. “Here we go…” went the thought in my head, and then a sort of numb tranquillity set in and I set to getting ready. In actual fact, apart from feeling physically sick from the time I found out they were coming in at 12.30 on Tuesday to their arrival at 7.45 on the Wednesday, the anticipation was worse than the inspection itself – what can you do about anything at that point? The weeks of ending every sentence with “in case Ofsted are in next week” are far worse because there is always something else you could do, always something else that you fear might be held against you.
The consequences of a bad inspection are well known and don’t really bear thinking about. You can flippantly suggest that if you’re doing your job properly you’ve got nothing to worry about but what is ‘properly’ these days? The goalposts are always changing and often are placed according to an inspector’s loose personal interpretation of ever-vaguer Government policy. The feeling is that if they want to ruin you there are enough gaps in the system to have you whatever you do. Michael Gove recently dismissed the suggestion that Ofsted should be a cause of fear. He demands that teachers are held accountable and I don’t have any real issue with that, but accountable in such an arbitrary way with such grave consequences? If they don’t like what they see over that short time frame a teacher’s job, their career, can be over either through being asked to walk, or due to the unbearable stress ‘school improvement’ puts on people. What jeopardy does Michael Gove have in his job? So long as he doesn’t do something really stupid the only consequence of any incompetence is, because he’s an MP in one of the Conservative’s safest seats, a backbench job for life on £65000 a year. How would he deal with the daily threat of having to have every bit of paperwork perfect and available for inspection at 19 hours notice AND having his performance in parliament, meetings and interviews scrutinised in minutiae with the prospect of unemployment (or further continuous scrutiny of the same kind) hanging over him? I expect he’d reject the comparison, but that is the way of the politician. One rule for you…
A week on then, as the title suggests, how do I feel? Well apart from not being allowed to know how we did (it’s our hard work, it’s our school, it’s our careers, but we the staff are not entitled to know the inspectors’ judgement until the rest of the world does) I feel OK. The weekend afterwards I felt like an arm had been lopped off because there was no need to do the extra work I had been subconsciously doing to cover myself in case we got the call. What I had done was enough – perfection was not needed for a while – and I could relax with the young family I hadn’t seen for three days earlier in the week without constantly remembering other things I ought to do “in case Ofsted are in next week”. That display could wait until Tuesday, the planning for Thursday could be done on Wednesday, the weekend was mine. This week, after school, I spent a while reading in my neglected garden and, for the first time this year, took the time to properly water the vegetables whilst listening to the birds singing and looking at the clouds. I hadn’t noticed I’d stopped doing these things for fear of Ofsted, and I was glad they were back in my life.
In its current form and under the leadership of Wilshaw and Gove that’s what Ofsted does – it looms in the ever-closer distance robbing you of perspective. It takes over your life until, if you notice it’s happened, you don’t like what you and your life have become. Too much rides on too vague a set of criteria judged in too opaque a way. The week after Ofsted I feel free – I await to see how long it is before my vegetables start wilting again.