Katie Ashford is an English teacher in a secondary school in the Midlands, these are her individual views.
Schools and teachers have a habit of getting rather panicky when an OFSTED inspection is on the horizon. Staffrooms are abuzz with speculation about when they will come next, the bosses start getting even more obsessed with data and monitoring, and pupils spend hours memorising their target grades and repeating assessment criteria until they are stamped indelibly on their impressionable, young minds. “I am a level 4a because I can use complex sentences. To get a level 5c I need to vary my sentence structures for effect.”
You’d think we’d be used to it now; OFSTED have been around for over twenty years, surely our collective teacher consciousness has grown comfortable with the occasional visit from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate. Sadly, this is not yet the case. We put enormous amounts of energy into getting ourselves mentally and physically prepared for an OFSTED inspection, and it seems to happen in a number of stages.
Stage 1: Denial
“They won’t be coming for a while. We aren’t due yet.” The more optimistic members of staff attempt to allay the concerns of the more nervous types by assuring them that the visit is a while off yet. We make sure everything is ticking over as it should be, and keep on telling ourselves that they won’t be coming any time soon anyway, so we needn’t panic. Of course, I am sure there have been many schools that have been lulled into this false sense of OFSTED-free security and have been caught out by an early visit. However, for the majority of us, obsessing over OFSTED simply is not worth it. It’s easier just to deny that they will be paying us a visit any time soon and to carry on doing what we usually do. This blissful period tends to last for a while, but things start to change as the ominous event draws closer.
Stage 2: Reminiscence
When we can no longer deny that OFSTED are ‘due’, we start to remember what it was like last time they came. We remind each other of the workload, the sheer number of lesson plans that need to be written, the late nights, the perfect colour-coded seating plans, the problem of making sure we out-mini-plenary ourselves and show tons of progress, but most of all, the fear we experience when they walk in to our classrooms clutching their clipboards. Some try to say they aren’t bothered about having an inspector in the back of their classroom. Those people are liars: nobody likes to be judged.
There tends to be lots of one-up-man-ship during this stage, with folks trying to prove that they had by far the worst OFSTED experience of anyone in the school.
“Well, he knocked me down a grade because Johnny spelt ‘incarcerate’ wrong.”
“Oh well, I was told I should have asked three open questions instead of two!”
“I was told I wasn’t outstanding because of one child’s poor handwriting!”
It’s always hard to tell which of these stories are true and which are slight exaggerations or complete fabrications, but either way, it shows just how much anxiety the process can bring. The prospect of an OFSTED visit is a huge strain on staff morale, and as the pressure builds, things rarely get better on that front.
Stage 3: Pressure
Now that we have got over the initial reality check and are beginning to come to terms with the fact that the inspectors will be darkening our doors some time soon, the pressure starts to build and the workload increases. The school alert level is set to amber, and we operate under a set of ‘just in case’ rules. We start to feel the pressure rising, and we have just enough energy to keep it up… for now.
Stage 4: Optimism
After a few months of increased pressure and workload, we begin to feel on top of things. People look tired, but are feeling cautiously optimistic. We know that if OFSTED come tomorrow, the world won’t implode. It might not be a perfect inspection, but we would survive it. Some of the more confident members of staff start saying enthusiastic things like “we can do this! We’re as ready as we’ll ever be!” – after a while, these people can grow tired. Optimism is difficult to maintain in the middle of a dark, rainy November.
Stage 5: Exhaustion
Just as the most optimistic of us begin to flag, so do the rest of the staff. The increase in workload has continued to rise, and the pressure doesn’t seem to relent. Days at work grow longer, nights asleep grow shorter, and tempers grow sharper. More biscuits and tea gets consumed than usual. More of us come into work sporting a lovely pair of dark circles around our eyes. We all need a break.
Stage 6: PANIC
RED ALERT! OFSTED are in the area! All of a sudden, we are awoken from our pressure-induced comas and are rejuvenated by a new wind: OFSTED are supposedly close by and their arrival is therefore imminent. I’m not sure how this intel first reaches the doors of the school, but I would like to think that the Head has some kind of OFSTED radar in his office, bleeping continuously until a giant ‘O’ symbol pops up, prompting a change in lighting (to flashing red, of course) and renewing his sense of purpose. I imagine his office to look a bit like a war room in the kind of awful submarine disaster film that my dad falls asleep to on a Sunday afternoon.
“They’re on the horizon, sir.”
“It’s been a pleasure serving with you, gentlemen. Now let’s do what we were trained to do.”
I really hope it’s like that.
Stage 7: Acceptance
…And after all that, OFSTED don’t bother showing up. All the preparation, planning and panicking was apparently a waste of time. They may have been in the area last week, but they now appear to have popped to the seaside for a few days and are hassling a school in Whitstable instead. By this point, everyone is exhausted and fed up, and finally begins to accept that they will come when they come. “Que sera, sera” and all that.
After months of worrying and stressing, after what feels like years worth of extra marking and monitoring, we sit back, grab a cup of tea and say “just let them come! Let it be over with!”
And with that, we go back into our classrooms, close the doors, and do what we do best: we teach, and we accept that if an inspector should call, we will have done everything we possibly could have done to show just how much our school deserves their recognition.