As we in the UK, approach a general election – perhaps the most important election for a generation – the contesting parties have published their manifestos and the differences between them are very clear.
One issue where there are clear differences and which is very close to my heart is education. Labour wants to do away with the present system of school inspection, OFSTED. The Conservatives want to strengthen OFSTED’s powers.
Once upon a time, I used to be a teacher. For the last sixteen years of my teaching career, I worked in a state secondary school in Walsall, a town to the north west of Birmingham, the second largest city in the UK.
It was a good school and I enjoyed working there. The school provided an education for just over a thousand pupils aged 11 to 18. Working there was not without its challenges. Walsall is part of the West Midlands conurbation, the largest urban conurbation in Europe. It is an area that was born in the Industrial Revolution, made its wealth from heavy industry and has, in more recent times, struggled to survive. Like in much of the West Midlands, the industry has moved elsewhere, factories have shut down, people have been left without job prospects. There are significant areas of social deprivation in the region. But there is also a strong sense of community, of regional identity and pride in a shared past. The school where I worked was not just a place to send children between 8.30am and 4pm. It was also a hub for the local community. There was a Youth Club on site in the evenings, a swimming pool for public use, squash courts, evening classes, elderly members of the community met at the coffee bar and had their lunches cooked in the school kitchens. The building was open to serve the community in a variety of ways for the majority of the day and night. And at weekends the school Hall was used for wedding parties and pub football teams kicked balls around the playing fields. The school was firmly embedded in the local community and served its needs well. I liked being a part of that. I did not live in that community, myself. It always felt like a privilege that I was accepted into it and allowed to contribute what I could.
I went there to be Head of Drama. Or more precisely a Teacher of English with Responsibility for the Delivery of Drama. When I arrived there was no Drama Department as such. Drama was not taught as a separate subject. It was meant to be delivered by the English department as part of a pupil’s English lessons. None of the English teachers had any training in teaching Drama and half of them did so reluctantly if at all. There were a dozen pupils studying Drama as a GCSE exam subject, four of whom had any interest in doing so. The rest had just been made to do Drama because nobody else would have them. When I tried to take a register with that class in my first lesson with them, they just made animal noises at me until I was forced to ask for the Head of Year to come see what was going on. At which point, of course, they smiled sweetly and answered their names faultlessly. The Head of Year left and we returned to the animal noises. But there was a Drama Studio. Which was more than could be said for my previous school. It felt like a foothold.
The main stress of working in that school did not come from badly behaved pupils. It came from outside the school. It came from the relentless bureaucracy imposed by Government. It came from the pressure placed on schools by needless scrutiny which was the result of political posturing rather than having any sound educational rationale. I came into teaching at the advent of the National Curriculum, at a time when Government began to demand greater and greater control over what went on in schools. The longer I stayed in teaching, the stronger this centralised control became. The definition of what constituted a good school became more and more standardised. The body given the task of inspecting schools in order to check that those standards are being maintained is called OFSTED (The Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills).
The notion that schools should all aim for the same standards has always seemed spurious to me. I believe that the aims of a school should simply be to help each pupil identify what they are good at and help them develop those abilities in order that they have a rich and fulfilling life. In other words, education should start with the pupils and their needs. Instead, we have an education system that begins with the Curriculum and holds up a dubious notion of “entitlement” as a reason for imposing that Curriculum on all pupils. So, I am not philosophically inclined to be a great advocate for OFSTED. I believe that the system of OFSTED inspections in this country has done much to destroy good teaching and has significantly worsened the life prospects of the majority of young people it has touched.
I have experienced numerous OFSTED inspections as a teacher. This is the story of the one that convinced me that OFSTED is a waste of everybody’s time.
It happened at a time when I was still teaching some English lessons. One of my English classes was 8X4. That meant that they were Year 8 (twelve to thirteen years old), in the X half of the Year Group for timetabling purposes and in Set 4 according to ability…. out of four sets. ie English was not their strong point. However, they were a likeable bunch of young people and happy to work hard as long as what they were asked to do was accessible and meaningful to them. If they became bored or frustrated then things could become problematic. The Year 8 English Curriculum demanded that they study Poetry about the First World War. Poetry was not something that they found instantly appealing. First World War Poetry even less so. So, I had to find ways to engauge their interest. I decided that, since poems like Dulce Et Decorum Est had strong visual imagery, we might use that as a way in to the poems. I got them to think of the poems as little films and had them writing scripts and story-boards for those films. But young people, quite rightly in my opinion, don’t like to perform tasks just for the sake of it, just to keep teacher happy. What is the point in writing a story-board unless you are going to actually make a film? Really? So, I had to promise the class that they would be making movies.
This was in the days before every pupil had the ability to record a film on a mobile phone in their pocket. At the time video cameras were a rarity in secondary schools so I had to pull in a lot of favours and put in a lot of work to get hold of a half dozen video cameras for a day so that the pupils could make their films.
Then I heard that we would be having an inspection on that day. And then I heard that an inspector would be observing my lesson. I felt something heavy drop in the pit of my stomach. The lesson I had planned was a little experimental in nature. We had all been thoroughly briefed over the years about the sort of things OFSTeD inspectors are looking for. It’s not like the inspectors come in blind and simply watch what is going on. They will already have studied a lot of data about the school. They will have formed a clear picture of the school from this data. They will have already have made a decision about whether the school is good or not. All before they even set foot in the school. The inspection is simply about them looking for evidence to confirm their expectations. You learn to make sure that they have lots of opportunities to see evidence of the good stuff and you minimize the opportunities for them to witness the bad stuff. It’s all an elaborate game.
Now, given the inspection context, my plan for the lesson with 8X4 entailed me giving far too much freedom to the pupils. I was expecting them to work very independently and without my overt supervision. This meant me showing them a high level of trust. Under normal circumstances this felt like a risk well worth taking. I knew that they had done all the necessary preparation work. I knew that my relationship with the class was good. It was an appropriate point for me to show them an unusual level of trust. They knew that it was their chance to prove that my faith in them was justified. If it went well, it would result in a strong feeling of mutual respect. They knew that, if they repaid my trust in them, I would make sure that we did more exciting, fun projects like this one. There were powerful reasons for going ahead as planned.
Plus, if I decided to play safe, cancel the film making lesson and do a more normal English lesson activity – one with desks and chairs and books and stuff. If I did that, I knew that the class would repay my lack of faith in them big style. I knew that they could quite easily destroy any lesson that I tried to teach and make me look like an incompetent idiot in front of the inspector. I had promised them film making. If I broke my promise, they would make me pay for it.
So, the lesson went ahead as planned. The inspector arrived just as I was putting the pupils into working groups. I wanted them to work with their friends, people with whom they felt comfortable. But, every teacher knows that you never ask pupils to choose friends with whom to work. That just leads to arguments and, in the case of 8X4, probably violence. So, I came up with a way to get them into groups that created a light-hearted atmosphere, got the lesson off to a fun start and still allowed the pupils to choose their working partners. I asked them to put themselves in groups according to the colour of their underwear. There was laughter and noise and, in five minutes time, the class was sorted into workable groups. I then gave each group a camera, handed out their scripts and story-boards and told them to be back in thirty minutes. Then they all shot off out the classroom to the various locations around the school they had chosen to make their films.
I was left alone in the classroom. Just the inspector and me. He looked slightly baffled. Then he looked down at his clip-board, turned to me and said,
“Did you group them according to ability?”
“No,” I replied “The colour of their underwear.”
He scanned down his clip-board and I watched him tick a box marked “Unsatisfactory.” Then, he left the classroom.
I went out to check on how the filming was going. Yes, there was a little bit of havoc created around the school but nothing major. And half an hour later, the class all arrived back in the classroom eager to see the results of their efforts and to show the important guest what they had achieved.
“Where’s the OFSTED bloke?” asked a pupil named Elliott.
I explained that he had left. He was a busy man and had other places to be. But we could still watch the films without him. Elliott nodded and turned to go to his seat. As he walked away, I overheard him say to his mate, “That OFSTED bloke – what a tosser.”
I found it hard to disagree with Elliott’s assessment of the situation. Any respect that I had for the OFSTED process disappeared in that lesson. The inspector had no respect for the pupils, no interest in what they were doing. He was not genuinely looking to see what we were up to. He was only able to see the world as it was described to him by his clipboard. His world was small and limited. He could only see what he was expecting to see. He was a blind man.
To my mind, OFSTED is the blind leading the blind. It serves only to limit what our children are capable of achieving. I think that it has done immeasurable harm to education in England. Far from improving the prospects of young people, it has made our schools barren, lifeless places. It is a vampiric process. It sucks out the souls of our young.
I can so well see how you found the whole process dispiriting, and if teachers are dispirited what is left but a multiplier effect of conforming uncreativity. Too many Dementors on the loose – the rotten soul-suckers!
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Soul suckers indeed! There were times when it felt like our schools were designed to stamp any sense of fun out of their inhabitants. Surely that can’t be right.
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Not to be too conspiracy-theorist (but well if the cap fits) the last thing a right wing state requires is a general populace capable of joy and ingenuity. Noses to grindstones and stifled imaginations is just the job though.
“I believe that the aims of a school should simply be to help each pupil identify what they are good at and help them develop those abilities in order that they have a rich and fulfilling life.” What can be so hard about that? So logical! Just do this and this alone and we could have success in abundance!
Lovely story about your English/Drama class. I can’t help thinking about the OFSTED guy. What is he like at home? Is he just trying to get along? Make a living? This is where “sheep” come in. Sheep have a place in the barnyard but not in our human society. I wish we all felt empowered to stand up and yell out The Emperor has No Clothes! Maybe the OFSTED guy could be the one who starts yelling.
You touch on an important point here that relates back to my earlier Yule posts. It is about taking responsibility for our choices in life. But first we have to believe that there is a choice. First, we have to have our eyes opened.
I love the idea of colour of your pants grouping! If I did it now would the word safeguarding, child protection etc… It is just so depressing that a person teaching grading is based on such a snap shot. Anyway Ofsted. now do a deep dive!!! Suddenly heads are worried as the creative subjects are being checked upon as lots of schools have scrapped or reduced the hours massively given to Music, drama, DT, food, dance, Art and Textiles.
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To a point I have sympathy for school Heads – it’s a tough job. But, I have not met many who have a clear vision of what they stand for in terms of education. Who have clear boundaries of what they will put up with. Too many are just people who have succeeded in the school system since they were pupils themselves. The sort of people who are good at exams, who have been rewarded by the system as it stands. They are still chasing rewards – that elusive Outstanding! Until Heads turn around and refuse to do that any more, little will change. So, Government has to remove the system, take away Ofsted, start rewarding different behaviours, start encouraging different sorts of people to become Heads.