Ofsted – the Nebach of schooling

Nebach: (Yiddish) unfortunate person; one who flaunts their unfortunate status; informally – ‘someone who, when they leave a room it feels like someone just walked in’

Ofsted inspectors in their shabby, shiny-trouser-bum suits glide imperiously from this school to the next. They hop off their floating carpet, made magic by an overweening authority, to be greeted by another of their hand-wringing subjects. The faux gravity of the shiny-trousers wafts through the corridors like a stink-bomb, as they, themselves, waft from classroom to classroom wielding judgement like a child’s limp rubber sabre.

Insinuating himself into a back row one shiny-trouser casts a pretend-seeing eye across the scene. Five minutes of stolid observation pass. He looks over the heads of the children – he knows them by heart anyway. And the teacher – that shouldn’t be too hard. “Hmmm…,”  he whimsies, “good…er…wait…no, inadequate…ah, well – okay…good – or is it…?” . Well, perhaps he’ll wait for a ‘deep-dive’ and then decide. He turns to a student, an eight-year-old – “what are you learning?”. The student struggles with the galactic enormity of the question. “Vikings.”  The shiny-trouser narrows his eyes as a cougar stalking a mouse – “and what about Vikings?”. The child stares into the cosmic maw – “they invented dragons…?”. Shiny-trouser leans back with a grimace-smile and thinks, “oh yes – now I see – definitely inadequate – what on earth…’invented dragons’?!” and readies himself to glide out in search of the next mouse. Purposefully uncomprehending, he leaves behind one of the most complex, intricate social spaces society has managed to create – a classroom – the momentary culmination of 30 individual, young lives and the teacher’s 23 years of experimenting and honing her practice, all juggling with an outlandish but enforced curriculum. Shiny-trouser carries with him this jewel-of-judgement which will figure conspicuously in his report – ‘Vikings invented dragons!’. It is redolent of superficiality, misbegotten education, distorted historiography. Clear evidence of inadequacy.

The magic carpet of authority floats away, the school sinks. Sinks back into its daily routine of meaning-making, reassuming the Sisyphean task of inducting young people into social life. The air clears the corridors. The drum-skin tension of judgement slowly relaxes along with shoulders and brows and normality seeps back out of the walls. 

The lesson continues as the teacher’s voice softens and blends. “Okay – so, Vikings and dragons. Now, we know, don’t we, that dragons played a part in ancient societies from here to China – and that Vikings brought them to our shores. But what did dragons stand for? Why did the Vikings carve them into their ships?”. The class is silent in musing. “Fear,” says one. “Okay – fear – but in what way?”. The student hesitates a moment – then, “well if it looked like the Vikings lived with dragons that would make them terrifying”.  “Yes – how so?” Another student, “well it would make them different, wouldn’t it – like we see aliens”.  Teacher: “Okay – so what’s the connection between Vikings landing on our beaches and us thinking of aliens landing in flying saucers?” Student: “well, maybe we’re still afraid of dragons.”  The teacher looks out of the window at the departing inspectors.

[The ‘Viking’ story is taken from a real case of a school inspection. Explored in greater detail in my book, SCHOOL: AN EXPOSÉ (Amazon).]

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