Do you know how some things just hang in the air? You can feel them coming, building up that suspense. You have the feeling that it’s going to influence your life quite a lot, but you’re not quite sure if it’s for better or for worse. That’s how I think many teachers feel about Ofsted. Ofsted, that government entity of inspectors that set the standards for teaching, inspect the schools in England and rate them on a scale from inadequate (1) to outstanding (4). In Finland, inspections have not existed since 1990. Here they still haunt teachers’ lives. And maybe they should, because who wouldn’t want to be outstanding?
Lack of school inspections and incidentally teachers’ professional freedom and trust towards them are always mentioned as the cornerstones of the Finnish educational system. Ask any expert on the matter. While I agree and value the Finnish system, I do not necessarily think that school inspections are bad. Then who am I to say, I’ve never experienced one.
While I’m still waiting for the call or the unannounced visit alongside my colleagues especially because our school is in the Ofsted inspection window, I feel I’ve already been exposed to the suspense Ofsted creates. Somehow as soon as you immerse to the “I’m a teacher in England” -mentality, the fear or distress or hope of Ofsted, lives at the back of your mind.
Before one truly encompasses that mentality, it might be hard to understand. You might wonder, mostly to yourself because you don’t want to be offensive, that does it really matter? Who are they to judge? How are they going to determine by one-day visit, whether or not my teaching or the school’s safeguarding is outstanding or not?
But then you start noticing things. How the banners outside schools claim their excellence with “Outstanding by Ofsted”. How Ofsted reports are mentioned on the government website as a means to choose the school where you want to place your child in. How you hear stories of families moving to a town 20 miles away “Because of the excellent schools”.
Truly you know you’ve been contaminated, when you travel to a small village in Devon during your well-deserved half term break and you spot a local primary school. Instead of looking around the courtyard and sensing how the school is, or even by just trusting that it is an excellent school, with first instinct you walk over to the school’s notice board and take a look at their Ofsted score. And that’s when you realise that you have started to judge a school by one single word, the word of Ofsted. You have opened yourself up to the distrust of that school. And I suppose that’s ok, that’s what everyone does. And that’s what schools want you to do. Or is it really?
Oh, the tales of Ofsted are manifold. Back in Finland, you would occasional hear the comment of “Do they still have inspectors there? Well we don’t need them.” Here on the other hand, the remarks are more intriguing. Their unannounced visits when they give you a call from the parking lot: “We’ll walk in in five minutes.” The uncertainty of whether they stay for a day or two. The dread that they have set their mind on something even before they set foot to the school. The fear that they are only there to pinpoint mistakes and failure or to spot mistakes on working walls, to point out an American spelling on the word “colour”. Oh, I’ve heard them all because I’ve asked.
Most of them were probably exaggerated and largely hearsay, but the most alarming one really stuck with me: the inspectors are people who have long ago lost contact to what a one off school day in a primary school in 21st century is like and more importantly what every single day cannot be like. While this is a valid concern and something that one does wonder, I’m really hoping it to be just a rumour.
I also hope from the bottom of my heart, that when the inspectors waltz into our school they can see past the shock, the nervousness and the fear of being judged that flickers through the school, and get to see the great work that every single teacher is doing every single day in our excellent school.
Because I can imagine that the feeling at Central Primary after the next review would be very much like the one Ofsted’s Chief inspector Amanda Spielman shared in her speech in March 2017.
“By pure chance, I was in the school just as they received their outstanding judgement, and I saw first-hand the pride that all the staff felt in seeing their achievements for young people recognised. That experience brought home to me just how much our findings matter to those we inspect and how we must never lose sight of that when we make our judgements.” 
As noted by Spielman herself, there really is an importance of being outstanding. Now the only question left to ask is, should there really be?