John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector and has written two books on the teaching of writing and spelling.
After so much time with Ofsted, I found myself last week in the company of two real inspectors. The first was the Chief Inspector of Constabulary, Sir Thomas Winsor WS (Writer to the Signet, an ancient Scottish society of solicitors) and the second, Gervase Phinn. Sir Thomas had written a well-argued and very hard-hitting report on the Met’s ramshackle arrangements for child protection, that meets the criterion for inspection I proposed last week – finding out and telling the truth. The inspectorate’s recent reports, not all negative, are here.
Gervase Phinn was giving a lecture tour, and we happened on a matinee in Bury St Edmunds. He was signing books, though this might be better described as giving a free show and acting as his own warm-up man, keeping his audience, many of them older and retired teachers, entertained with stories and jokes, some of them just a little risqué, but not too much, a little like the PM at question time.
I won’t spoil Gervase’s act by passing any of them on, but the phenomenon was interesting. Here was a school inspector that teachers not only liked, but would pay good money to listen to. Mr Phinn continued to tell his jokes and sell his books until three minutes before his show was due to start, at which point he dashed up the stairs to get his suit on, asking the usher to get him a half of bitter for the interval.
Mr Phinn is funny, but not a soft touch. His first series of books – The Dales – feature a young inspector with a sharp eye for excellence as well as competence, who has the good fortune to meet and marry a beautiful, accomplished, and equally young headteacher. He and his colleagues, all highly-skilled teachers, give credible and invaluable praise to the best work, from infants to grammar schools. Elsewhere, they do not pull their punches, opening the curtains on the closed society of archaism and ignorance that still prevails in the worst schools and is protected by the headteacher’s authority. I’ve heard that some of his former bosses in North Yorkshire have not thanked him for this, but those of us who’ve lived and worked in schools think differently.
The heroine of Mr Phinn’s latest series – the Small Village School – is another young headteacher, Elisabeth Devine, described by another character, a senior education officer, as “the standard by which other headteachers are judged.” She, too, finds romance, alongside a gritty picture of the downside of life in rural Yorkshire and the difficulties faced by children and parents.
Elisabeth is contrasted with two bullying headteachers, one of them her predecessor, but the author’s real target is the complacent and deceitful system of educational local government, from the ignorant, blustering weasel of a councillor who chairs her governing body, to the obnoxious chief education officer with his eye on the main chance, which fortunately arises somewhere else. So far, good is triumphing over evil, Elisabeth’s rival has been dumped and the nasty boss has been replaced by the intelligent senior education officer. Two books to go out of the five.
Gervase Phinn’s show combines Yorkshire folklore with a celebration of his colleagues, and of the wit and wisdom of young children. He has great timing, is a good mimic, and really cares. A Catholic, like Sir Michael Wilshaw, he does a lot for CAFOD and Childline, and did not hide his anger over the scandalous abuse of young footballers and its cover-up. But then, exposing cover-up is a big part of the trade of an inspector, and Gervase Phinn was a good one. Some of the second half felt a little bit like Sunday school, but no-one much minded. Gervase was soon back at his table, cracking more jokes and selling more books to an even bigger crowd.