Finding Elmer

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It’s been well over a year since I hung up my Ofsted badge. I still miss being an inspector though because it was something I think I was good at, that I enjoyed doing and that to a certain extent was something we all needed.

Like it or not, external regulation is here to stay in some shape or another. The more people like me (and you) that are a part of it – serving professionals trying to make a real difference from within – the better, however flawed it may be. I wrote about this once in a a previous post but it cost me dearly because Ofsted didn’t like it and so I had to go.

What’s even more galling is that the knighted  regional director who let the axe fall is no longer with Ofsted. He left a few months after me and so never did bother writing back in reply to my letter. He never spoke to me on the phone either, instead instructing one of his office staff to do the deed.

This is a shame as it left a bad taste in my mouth and was not the memory that I’d want to take with me of my time with Ofsted. By and large, I had the pleasure of working with some brilliant inspectors. To this day there are a great many still out there working hard to #HelpSean to debunk the #OfstedMyths.

So I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t miss being an inspector. But there are many more things by far that I don’t miss, such as the nightmare of scheduling and forever having inspections cancelled due to last-minute tariff changes. Here are a few more things that I was glad to see the back of:

RAISE online – barely able to make head nor tail of my own RAISE online, the very thought of having to engage lovingly with somebody else’s used to fill me with dread. Why anyone would want to be a lead inspector was beyond me, especially when inspecting each and every week. To have to plan an inspection around it and come up with evidence trails based purely on graphs, charts and datasets is no mean feat. I had nothing but respect for those able to do so, week in, week out. Even though it was a complete waste of time.

EYFS – I love EYFS but as an inspector it was all I ever got to see and so by the end I’d seen enough to last me a lifetime. I remember on one occasion jumping with joy when I knew the school was junior only. I knew exactly why it was always me dispatched to the early years unit, because as the only serving primary headteacher on the team it was assumed I was the only one who, by-and-large, had the vaguest idea of what to look for.

Book scrutinies – exactly the same can be said about looking at children’s books. It was always me that found myself locked in a room at 11.30am on day 2 having to write an Evidence Form (EF) summarizing in 30 minutes the strengths and weaknesses of marking and feedback. And when that was done, an evaluative summary of the average levels’ progress made by each group in each subject for each year group would be much appreciated, thank you very much.

Evidence forms – quite frankly, these were the bane of my life as an inspector. Everything had to be written down but the form never seemed to make the job easy, especially when it came to writing evaluatively or remembering all the codes. EFs were carbon copied, so neat, legible handwriting was essential which when working under pressure, perched on the edge of a sandpit in the Nursery outdoor area was always tricky. Even worse if squatting on a log in a bog, froze to the bone in three inches of mud in Forest School (and yes, guess who always got sent there).

SMSC – As soon as EYFS, forest school and the book scrutiny were out of the way, I always knew what was coming next. ‘You wouldn’t mind having a quick walk round school would you and try and see if you can find any SMSC? It’s just that we haven’t found any yet and are due to feed back in an hour. Oh, and don’t forget to try and find the candle.’ So off I’d go with my clipboard and EF and invariably end up writing evaluatively about Elmer the Elephant. Once done, it was then a case of a quick dash to find the ubiquitous display about ‘Our Values’, October’s Black History Month display (invariably it remained up all year) and Kenya (every school has one). Such was my tenacity, more often than not I’d find the assembly candle even if in most cases it was  shoved  down the back of the piano (tick spiritual).

The single central record – just the thought of it makes my stomach churn. Again, it was always me that got to go and meet with the lovely Ethel or Doris and try and get to grips with their quirky style of filing. Apart perhaps from one or two inspections, I don’t recall anyone getting it right first time. I was always quite glad that they didn’t because it gave me an excuse to delay having to go outside and measure the height of the external door handles.

The box-room office – people were always amazed when we’d rock up at a school, that as an inspection team we’d probably never met each other before. I think they thought we all lived in the same house and knew each other intimately. This can be the only reason why they would put us in a room the size of a laptop screen. Even better if it had no windows, Wi-Fi or a plug point. So a cupboard then.

The ‘chair outside the classroom’ gag – you must have heard this one. I sat through it dozens of times and on each occasion had to chuckle as if I’d never heard it before. It goes like this and involves the lead inspector explaining to the staff at the start of the inspection how lesson observations work: ‘…and when we come in to your room please try and ignore us. We don’t need anything from you, although a chair to sit on would be much appreciated…’ Then comes a pause for the punchline. ‘Preferably inside the classroom.’

In the spirit of redressing the balance, in my next blog I shall attempt to list the things that I do miss about being an Ofsted inspector. It won’t be the longest of posts, granted, but it will attempt to show how an external perspective can add value to a school’s journey of improvement, candles, Ethels and Elmers notwithstanding.

The Art of Standing Out‘ is available now on Amazon, published by John Catt Educational.

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