An inspector calls

be afraid, be very afraid

Feeling like you are sinking under a sea of data, struggling under increasing demand from employers and government? Spare a thought for your colleagues in the UK. They work under the gaze of Ofsted (the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills), which sounds like it was lifted straight from the pages of a Kafka novel.

Ofsted inspectors can turn up at schools with only a couple of days notice and begin classroom inspections. Their judgments can lead to teachers and principals being sacked and schools being given the dreaded ‘special measures’ notice.

Some of these Ofsted inspectors are not qualified teachers and have dubious qualifications. Things that happen in the UK often get imported to Australia. Beware!

Keith Heggart's story

IEU Organiser Keith Heggart taught in the UK for five years and he recounts his experience of Ofsted below.

I spent almost five years in a place called Chafford Hundred, teaching at a brand new comprehensive school. I remember, one morning about five weeks after I had started teaching (five classes of Year 9 English!), the staffroom was in uproar. Everyone, from the principal down, was panicking about something called an Ofsted inspection. As a young and naïve teacher, I hadn’t heard of this, and I didn’t know what it meant. An older teacher explained it to me. Basically, Ofsted had the capability to undertake random inspections into schools, where they would come into the school for a week to observe teachers and classes. Every teacher would be given a rating at the end of the inspection – a ‘1’ meant you were ‘Outstanding’, while a ‘4’ meant that you were ‘Inadequate’.

He explained he was from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate (HMI), and it was his job to inspect the lead inspector who was inspecting the inspector, who was inspecting my classroom.

In the weeks leading up to the inspection, the normal day to day functioning of the school came to a halt. Teachers gathered obsessive amounts of data, and spent hours planning lessons for the inspectors. Sure enough, when the inspection took place, my classroom was visited by an inspector. I remember the inspector entering the classroom, not making eye contact or greeting anyone in the class, but going to the back of the room, where he sat making furious notes on a clipboard. I carried on teaching my class as we’d been instructed to do so. Five minutes later, there was another knock at the door, and the lead inspector came into my room. I must have looked confused, because he quickly explained that he was there to observe his colleague inspect me. A little disconcerted, I carried on with the lesson, hoping that my bottom set Year 9 English class didn’t take this as an opportunity to get carried away.

The lesson was going reasonably well, but, sure enough, five minutes later, there was another knock on the door. I answered it – exasperated – and there was another man with a clipboard. He explained he was from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate (HMI), and it was his job to inspect the lead inspector who was inspecting the inspector, who was inspecting my classroom to ensure that the inspection was being carried out correctly. By this stage I had run out of chairs in the classroom, so I told him he could stand at the back. The students were bemused by the whole experience.

I made it through the inspection – over the course of the week, they came into my lessons three or four times, but never for more than 20 minutes or so. The part that struck me was the manifest unfairness of it all. None of the inspectors had been in a classroom for 20 years, and they were going to make a judgement about my teaching – and the students’ learning – based on a tiny snippet of an observation. They didn’t know anything about me, my classes or my students. It seemed like a strange way to make a judgement about anyone’s ability as a teacher.

Wayne Foster's story

Wayne Foster, Science Coordinator and VET Primary Industries Teacher at Carroll College Broulee did an exchange to the UK in 2010 and got caught up in an Ofsted inspection. He tells his story here:

We were told in a staff meeting in January that we were in the 'Ofsted window'. You could instantly feel the tension in the room and the principal looked stressed and ill. We were told we would be given two days notice before the Ofsted inspectors arrived and it could happen any time during the next six months. This news hung over the school like the sword of Damocles.

During the next five months there was lesson observation after lesson observation and learning walk after learning walk. Curiously, after each of my lesson observations there was no feedback but many notes were written down. Maybe it was because I was on exchange and it wasn't worth putting too much time into me. Finally, in May, we were told in a special meeting that Ofsted were coming. They would be at the school for three days and all teachers could expect to be observed twice.

Ofsted came to the science department on Tuesday and they observed my Period 2 Year 7 class. Year 7 was learning about heat transfer. We had previously discussed how heat can be transferred through conduction, convection and radiation and this period we were going to perform an experiment to observe conduction happening.

I introduced the experiment from the front of the room, drew a diagram to show how the equipment should be set up, went through the procedure and the safety measures, encouraged students to get into their groups and perform the experiment. The Ofsted inspector sat at the back of the room and observed all this and scribbled away. At about 30 minutes into the lesson she made for the door. The students were happily going about doing the experiment. 'How did I go?' I asked the inspector smiling. 'Inadequate' came the grim reply. To this day I have no idea why.

My second inspection occurred the next day. I had a reduced Year 10 class due to students going to reading assistance and other activities. I decided to allow time for the six or so remaining students to complete assignment work. I got them working and simply circulated helping them with their work one on one. Unfortunately, one student decided to influence the inspector's observation and enjoyed muttering “I hate science. Do you hate science?” to her friend.

The inspector scribbled furiously. Again, after about 30 minutes the inspector made for the door. I kept the door open and met him just outside in the corridor. “How did I go?” I asked. I wasn't smiling this time following yesterday's assessment. “Inadequate” he replied pompously. “Why is that? I'd appreciate the feedback,” I said. “You showed very little of the Standards,” he said, showing me his checklist and comments. “But it wasn't a normal lesson with a class full of students,” I reminded him. “We can only comment on what we see,” he told me. “You should not have the students unsupervised,” he gesticulated towards the classroom behind me. Seriously? I was standing at the door to the classroom.

The next day we had a departmental debrief and morning tea. It was here that I found out what UK teachers do to impress Ofsted. Everyone, it appeared, had their showcase lesson which had been 'Ofsted approved'. They stopped whatever they were doing within the teaching program, dragged out their 'Ofsted approved' lesson, performed it with all its teacher centred bells and whistles and got judged ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’. Job done!

It took several weeks for the final Ofsted Report to come through to the school. Everybody was on edge or looking a bit sick during this time. Despite my contribution the school was judged ‘good’ overall and avoided being put on special measures, which is the great fear. The next day the principal was a changed person: much less frightened looking and much emboldened by the report saying good. There was departmental data analysis and blaming as to why the school wasn't judged outstanding in the following months.

What did I learn from experiencing Ofsted? It is a flawed, high pressure, punitive system that has destroyed the morale of the UK school education workforce. Schools are most effective when there is a sense of team – a carrot approach rather than a big government stick.

There is great value in teachers sharing ideas and practice through observation and collaboration but the Ofsted system has destroyed that, replacing it with isolationism, a blame culture and a transient workforce finding it difficult to cope. I hope we never see any sort of Ofsted inspection system in Australia.

Wayne Inwood's story

Wayne Inwood did an exchange to Scotland in 2012 and his experience was different. It should be noted that Ofsted does not cover Scotland – inspections there are carried out by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate.

The school was very supportive of me at all stages leading up to and during the school inspection. It followed pretty much the same style of inspection as I have experienced here in Australian schools during my 38 year teaching experience so it was no real shock to me. Having caring and professional support colleagues at my exchange school and in particular the advice of my assigned professional school companion made the experience all that much easier.