Lesson 56 on Rendering unto Caesar….
Before Ofsted took over the inspection of schools, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate was a small erudite body of (mainly) gentlemen, appointed for their expertise in their subject area and probably for their acceptable connections. They were very senior Civil Servants answerable directly to their Minister. Most schools seldom saw them. I never came across one during my first 15 years in education.
However, when the National Curriculum was first devised, HMI were tasked with distilling their knowledge and experience into guidelines for a new system of inspection, and in the course of this they sensibly visited successful schools to consult with headteachers.
Just such a school was a small RC primary set in a very poor area of Central London. It was still headed by one of the order of nuns who had been involved in its establishment in the 19th century, shortly after Catholic education was first permitted by law.
One morning my colleague received an urgent phone call from Sister Brendan.
“Ursula, I’ve got a letter in front of me from an Inspector! He says he is visiting me next week! I need you to come to see me straight away to tell me what I should say to him!”
Sister Brendan was one of our most supportive heads, so Ursula reorganised her schedule and set off. Sister Brendan met her in the yard as she entered. She was in purposeful planning mode.
“Now tell me Ursula. You know about these things. Why should he be visiting now all of a sudden? And what can he be wanting to ask me? He doesn’t want to see the children at all. He just wants to talk to me!”
“Perhaps, Sister, he might want to ask you what you think of the new National Curriculum?” (Every school in the country had recently been sent this weighty documentation)
” And what would that be, Ursula?”
” Well, Sister, do you recall those boxes of big hard backed folders the school got last term? You must have seen them.”
“Oh yes! The secretary mentioned them to me.”
“So what did you do with them, Sister?”
“They took up such a lot of space we couldn’t possibly leave them cluttering the office, so we put them in the old PE cupboard!”
“But you were all meant to read them, Sister. They tell you what you have to teach!”
“Why on earth should anyone think we have to be told that? Haven’t we managed perfectly well till now? Do you really think the Inspector will expect us to have looked at them?”
“I think he might, Sister!”
“I’ll tell you what, Ursula. You know all about these government things. It would be a real help if you could come in when he visits. You could just pop by to see the students, and I’ll invite you to join us. He won’t be able to say no. It wouldn’t be polite!”
There was no end to Sister Brendan’s cunning. When Ursula was ushered into her room to be introduced to Her Majesty’s Inspector, not only had the best tea service been brought into use, but the big arch files of the National Curriculum were prominently on display on her desk.
It was only as Ursula sat down that she saw that the contents of the pristine files were still firmly encased in their clear plastic wrapping.
Fortunately, the HMI was facing the other way.