Lesson 93 Party! Party! Party!

Lesson 93 on The subtle art of point-scoring

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Ofsted inspections in the early days were such a major event in the life of the school that their successful conclusion had to be ritually marked by the post-Ofsted celebration.

There was a considerable amount of one-up-manship between schools as to what form this took.  Visiting heads who came to offer advice and support based on their own recent inspection always finished off their feedback with the same question.

” And where are you going for the party?”.

“Oh we’ve a few options in mind, but we’re not rushing into anything.  We’ll see how things go,” Mrs Head would reply airily.

“Oh, but you’ll need to get booked up!  All the best places are booked up months ahead.  We had ours booked before Christmas!” (This was a two fold barb, demonstrating just how certain they were of a good result and also the exclusiveness of their celebration venue.)

“We went to that new club on the Quayside. Its got a marvellous grill!  We couldn’t fault it, but of course it’s not cheap.” (Neatly insinuating that it would therefore be out of our league.)

So the post-Ofsted celebration had to meet two objectives. It had to be something that we could all enjoy and afford, but it also had to demonstrate to the other schools that we could be as classy as anybody else. The honour of the school demanded it. 

Every week news would come in of some other school.

“Braetop went to the VIP suite at the stadium.  They said the food was wonderful, but the service was a bit of a disappointment.”

“You’ll never believe where Rivermouth went! They had a weekend in Dublin!  Flew from Teeside on Friday night!”

The Golfside Country Club was favoured by at least two more.

Each new revelation was followed by analysis and discussion.  The stadium was too common, even the VIP suite. Dublin was over the top and ostentatious.  The Golfside Country Club was too snobby.

In the end there was consensus.  The Country Hotel and Spa hit just the right note. It wasn’t too far, it was expensive, but offered good discount weekend offers for groups. It allowed everyone to get dressed up, so we could all show off the photographs. 

Most important of all, it would put Mrs Visiting-Head’s nose well out of joint, because we’d be staying overnight in the Courtyard suites, which everyone knew beat minibuses home from the Quayside into a cocked hat!

Lesson 92. The Slough of Despond

Lesson 92 on Disillusion

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After all the pressure and anxiety, then the overwhelming sense of relief, everything went flat.

Mr TopJunior’s reaction was to clear his room of everything to do with Ofsted.  Now the inspectors had gone, he felt free to say how angry the whole experience had made him.  The schedule for inspection had meant he had never been seen teaching his specialist subjects, and he had only ever been visited for partial lessons.

In vain I argued that he was manifestly competent, so there was no need for them to hang around.  He had experienced it as personally dismissive and disrespectful of his pupils for somebody to just walk in and out of their lesson without a word. And then, on the basis of barely 20 minutes observation, to pass judgement on them.

He couldn’t place any value their comments.  He cared so much about his work and invested such careful planning into it. He wanted his pupils to feel their efforts had been recognised. He felt let down.  He was an honest, positive person.  He’d never been cynical, but the inspection had soured his views.

It had been destructive of his sense of professional worth. He couldn’t feel he or his pupils mattered in the process. 

Harder than that to bear, were the negative comments contained in the detail of the report, to which he felt he had contributed.

The government’s pet priority that year was the importance of Standard English, so the inspectors had homed in on the use of local dialect in the classroom.  It had been critically noted that the staff had been heard to use colloquial words and phrases, which failed to provide a good role model for the children.

I had been furious about this. None of the inspectors had any expertise in the theory or practice of language learning, or of working in a multilingual environment.  They were simply toeing the party line. It was a politically required, shallow judgement.

The head just ignored it, and the rest of the staff weren’t too bothered either.  They hadn’t any intention of changing.  The general feeling was that the inspectors had to find something bad to say, and it could have been worse. 

The school worked in two languages, official standard English and the local vernacular. Different situations and contexts necessitated the use of one or the other. Words of comfort or reprimand were normally in the vernacular, praise in either depending on whether it was public or private, instructions in standard English, with a translation if necessary in the younger groups. Who on earth was going to be bothered about them saying “You’ll get wrong!” instead of “You will find yourself in trouble, if you carry on with that behaviour, young man!”

But Mr TopJuniors felt diminished by this slur on his background and professionalism.  It reinforced his suspicion that, despite his strengths, he wouldn’t ever fit the government’s approved teacher template.

Lesson 91. Let Joy be Unconfined

Lesson 91 on Sharing and caring

The inspectors were scheduled to leave on Thursday midday, but around 10 in the morning the head sent a runner round to say they planned to remain till afternoon.  There was still some paperwork they needed to complete.

By this stage the school was running on empty. Everybody, staff and pupils, had reached the end of their ability to be the perfectly compliant school. Owen’s Mam decided enough was enough, and carried him off at midday for a dentist’s appointment.  She wasn’t taking any chances. Three and a half days without a major incident was an all time record.

The staff were gasping for a cup of tea.  Carrying mugs outside the staffroom had been banned and, as everyone wanted to prepare in their classrooms, they went without.  The children were flagging for lack of biscuits. In the pre-reception group the youngest fell asleep on the carpet, exhausted by the sheer strain of smiling brightly and looking attentive.

Then, at half-past two, just before the afternoon break, the head appeared with a mug in her hand and a smile on her face. The suit jacket had been replaced by her comfy cardigan.  She brought the news everybody longed for.

“They’ve gone!”

Break-time was extended so that treats could be broken out of their concealment and distributed. Mugs were reinstated for those supervising in the playground.

The news was good. The relief was ecstatic. Everyone and everything had passed!  Not a single thing was unsatisfactory! Key aspects of the school’s work and ethos had been praised!

“Of course we can’t say anything official yet” said the head, just before she disappeared into her office to phone around and spread the news.

By home time every child in the school was glowing with pride and feeling personally responsible for the successful outcome.  Parents waiting to collect their offspring, came into the school to congratulate the head and the teachers. Everybody could share in the hard-won glory, because everybody, adult and child, had played their part.

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And now the after-Ofsted celebrations could begin!

Lesson 90. ‘Twas The Week Before Ofsted..

Lesson 90 on The importance of preparation.

In the early days of Ofsted schools had months to prepare.  They needed the time.  Before then Her Majesty’s Inspectors had been few and far between.  They descended infrequently, like the gods from Mt Olympus, and they didn’t concern themselves with the housekeeping.

But when Owen’s school had its pre-Ofsted briefing from the lead inspector, she had reminded them teasingly that the team would check everywhere.

” We can even look in the cupboards, mind!”

She was a local infant head who had taken early retirement to go in for inspecting. She had bought a new car suitable for her elevated status and taken up power dressing.  Scarcely gods from Olympus material.

In times before Ofsted many schools had lived in comfortable squalor. One secondary I visited had holes in the doors and walls where people had kicked them in. It looked like a scene from a New York police drama, but none of the inhabitants noticed any more.

Owen’s school was always clean, but there was generous storage space, so all sorts of things had been squirrelled away for some future time when they might come in useful.  All that had to go.

The caretaker had an old estate car, so he volunteered to do shuttle runs to the tip.  The cleaners (all local Mams and Nans) put in extra time to ensure every surface was scrubbed and polished. Every lurking old mug or yoghourt pot was expelled from its pit. Pupils joined in, clearing out their desks and drawers, so that no incriminating evidence of non-compliant activity or unhealthy eating could be uncovered.

The biscuit and treat cupboard was emptied for the duration. Without a word being spoken, everybody understood its existence must be temporarily extinguished. If nobody let on, there would be a very big treat at the end of the week!

My fellow classroom assistant was employed as cleanliness checker. I could hear her stern cry of “Hoy it out!” echoing down the corridors.

Neighbouring headteachers who had been recently inspected themselves briefed on the questions their staff and pupils had been asked. If it was felt that the pupils might not understand a particular line of questioning they in turn were primed in simpler terms.

“If one of our important visitors asks you what your hobbies are, he means what you like doing outside school, not just playing out, but other things as well”

“Like what, Miss?”  Mrs Class-teacher was as stumped as the pupils for a minute.

“Reading! He might want to know what books you like.” The class looked doubtful.  “Well, just think of the ones we’ve read and pick one of them!”

Expensive up-to-date equipment that was lacking was offered on loan from other schools, but apart from some items of information technology, this was felt to be a step too far – the pupils would be too intrigued for it not to be obvious.

On the Friday before inspection week the windows pock marked by bullet holes from airgun pellets were replaced.  The school’s exposed position made it a popular target. 

By Monday two more had appeared, but we had done the best we could do.

Zero hour had arrived!

Lesson 89. United We Stand

Lesson 89 on Being proud of ourselves

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At last it was the week of the Ofsted inspection at Owen’s school.  In those days the schedule for the year’s visitations was published months ahead and a full team of inspectors stayed for four days.

On Monday morning at assembly the head was wearing her meeting visiting dignitaries suit and she was not carrying her usual mug of tea (health and safety). She spoke to the solemn children.

“Now you all know about the visitors who are with us this week to inspect our school.  Well, I think our school looks lovely and you look lovely too.”  (They did, washed and neat! Everybody at home had been busy too.) “I’m sure you are all going to mind your manners, and speak up clearly if one of our visitors talks to you. I’m not going to go on about it.  Let’s just show how well we can work, because we want to make our Mams and Dads proud of us!”

That afternoon I was with my little group in the bottom juniors’ activity area.  By this time I was working with Mr Deputy-head most afternoons. His class included a very disruptive gang of boys, who were almost impossible to occupy purposively after lunch.  They were hyped up by sugary puddings and fighting on the field. Their leader was Damon.

Damon’s gang specialised in ignoring my carefully planned follow-up activities to Mr Deputy-head’s lesson. My usefulness was chiefly in allowing the rest of the class to make progress while Damon and Co. were busy messing me around.

Of course the inspectors chose this lesson to observe. A tall suited gentleman was in with Mr Deputy, while Damon’s gang, with me in the activity area, followed their usual pattern of chatting, joking and refusing to write in their work books. All of a sudden I saw Damon’s face change.

“That man’s coming!” he whispered to his gang, silencing them with a glance, and picking up his pencil.  They all copied his lead. By the time Mr Inspector sat down, they were writing the heading in their books!

“And are you interested in Science?” Mr Inspector smiled at demon Damon.

“Oh yes, Sir,” (Sir!!!!) Damon replied respectfully. “It’s my favourite subject!”

I was struck dumb. Around me the gang bent over their books writing things then rubbing them out in a show of studied concentration. They were acting being good!

“Do you like reading too?” Damon nodded brightly and Mr Inspector turned to one of the others. “And how about you, young man? What sort of books do you enjoy?” Damon’s second-in-command looked perplexed. He’d never opened a book willingly.

“We all like adventure stories, don’t we?” Damon prompted his followers, who nodded energetically on cue.

I could have cried.

Hardened little gang members they might be, but they still wanted their Mams and Dads to be proud of them.