Lesson 63 There’s a Man Going Round Taking Names

Lesson 63 on The virtues of forward planning

Next door to Owen’s class was the reception class.  Mrs Reception was one of the best teachers I ever came across in my entire career.  She had trained for teaching later in life when her own children were young and she brought with her a rich store of practical wisdom.

Like almost all the teachers in Owen’s school she had been born in the area and had been brought up on one of the town’s many estates.  She had a keen sense of the social niceties of these.  Her own estate had been one of the oldest, but was towards the middle of the respectability spectrum.  She was warm in her childhood recollections.

“There was always something happening,” she would reminisce. “It was like Dallas without the money!” (Dallas being the popular soap opera of the time)

The estate where the school was situated, Mrs Reception assured me, was second from bottom in the town hierarchy.  There had been some staffroom disagreement as to which came bottom.

Mrs Reception was very concerned about Ofsted. This was her first post and she had only a few years experience, but she was a great one for organisation. Believing it best to leave nothing to chance, she soon had her plans laid out.  She would train her pupils to shine.  She was determined nobody for whom she was responsible would ever be named or shamed.

Central to her training regime was her special cupboard. In Mrs Reception’s cupboard was a truly marvellous treasure house of treats. There were biscuits in order of merit for rewarding whole class achievement, ranging from rich tea for completed but average work to chocolate hobnobs for excellence.  There were selection packs of small chocolate bars and suchlike for group awards and larger bars for outstanding individual achievement.

Every treat had to be earned, but there was an eclectic list of criteria for reward.  You could get a reward for not gurning and screwing up your face when you were in a bad mood.  You could be rewarded for taking your turn and not complaining. Not interrupting or shouting out for a whole afternoon could gain some individuals an extra biscuit.

The chief thing was that it was fair.  Mrs Reception knew her pupils’ individual strengths and weaknesses, and the whole class appreciated this.  People were rewarded for doing things they found difficult, whether this was school work or social behaviour.  Also the desired improvement had to be maintained over a period of time and Mrs Reception was ace at judging how long a period justified a reward.

The pupils in Mrs Reception’s class had few advantages in life, so she provided as many as she could in school, and not just of the confectionary nature. Everything was in her room was organised and secure. People knew what was going to happen when. Where many homes were insecure and chaotic, Mrs Reception gave pupils a safe, predictable place in which to learn. And my goodness, did they learn!

With regard to Ofsted, she knew her pupils were thrown by unexpected visitors, especially ones who looked like any form of officialdom. At the end of one day catching sight of me in the activity area with a notebook and Biro in my hand, she had a flash of inspiration.

” Now you know, children, that I’ve told you about the special visitors we’re going to be having.  Well, Mrs Wise is going to come in for our storytime just like one of them. She’s going to write down in her special book the names of who behaves and who doesn’t behave (looking pointedly at a few usual suspects) and then afterwards she will give me her special list.”

Put on the spot I assumed a proper gravity and stance to obey my instructions.  Pupils remembered their very best carpet behaviour and, mindful of the cupboard behind me, performed like little stars.

Desperate times call for desperate measures.


Lesson 62 The Perils of Classroom Observation

Lesson 62 on Being an unintentional agent of change.

Owen’s class was “challenging” to say the least, and their poor teacher tried everything to get through each day without major incident. She prepared mountains of work and activities.  She praised good behaviour, she applied the recommended sanctions for bad. When that failed, she raged and threatened.  Treats and bribes were withdrawn.  The worst offenders were banished to distant corners.

As the days went by, however, I noticed that the class were strangely untroubled by any of this. In fact very little upset them. They only complained in earnest if they actually got hurt. True they made quite a bit of noise and fuss, if someone lunged in their direction, but it was just a ritual response. Only Aaron, the class outcast, got genuinely miserable and cried. 

It began to dawn on me that they related to each other by poking and jostling and arguing and shouting out. They had settled into a comfortably familiar pattern of behaviour. At certain points in the day things would escalate into a teacher meltdown.  Owen would be banished to the activity area.  Jimmy would be ordered to sit in his usual spot in the corridor. Arran would be moved next to Mrs Wise. A modicum of work would be done, till the next distraction simmered to the boil.

They were in a routine.  It just happened to be the wrong routine, as far as teaching and learning was concerned. It was pupil, rather than teacher, directed.

Threatened with Ofsted and the fear of a fail grade, Mrs Classteacher reacted with ever more desperate strictness.  She stopped liking her pupils. It’s very hard to like a class who threaten your employability. 

The class knew the score and they clearly felt this relieved them of the obligation to pay any heed to her.  There were some individuals who toadied up to her. They must have learnt this to be a useful strategy in dealing with authority figures.  The majority, however, seemed to regard her as just another adult cross they had to bear. 

One day Mrs Classteacher asked me what I thought of her chances regarding the inspection.  I answered as honestly as I could within the bounds of politeness, that they were borderline.  There were certain things commonly happening in class that would lead to a straightforward fail.

She was shocked.  I think she must have been expecting a more positive response.  You can get so used to bad habits that you stop questioning them and the class were little experts in behaviour management.  They had conditioned her into going along with their preferred pattern.

She never spoke to me again. After all, I couldn’t cope with the class myself, so what gave me the right to be so harsh a judge? But observers (and Ofsted inspectors in particular) don’t have to be able to do the job themselves.  That’s one of the reasons practitioners disparage them.  They just have to be able to tick off the required boxes.

Although Mrs Classteacher didn’t speak to me after that, she stopped doing the things I had mentioned.  I often wonder if the crafty old head allocated me to Owen’s class in the hopes of just such an outcome.

My services were suddenly and urgently required in another class.

Lesson 61 Dread and Dismay

Lesson 61 on Confronting the perfect storm

When Ofsted first started inspecting schools in England, the timetable for their visits was published for a year ahead. This meant that schools awaiting inspection had months to prepare and worry.  It was like a menacing thundercloud approaching from the horizon.

I was based in a small primary school for the year in which they were scheduled for inspection.  Situated on a bleak, windswept estate,  notorious for petty crime and blighted by unemployment, the school struggled against daunting odds.

The first class where I was working was composed of a disastrous mix of personalities.  Some classes miraculously gel as a group, while others manage to rub along together more or less cooperatively, but a very few just get on each other’s nerves, endlessly bickering and winding each other up.

Owen’s class was one of those.

Owen was the chief disturber of the classroom peace.  He was a master of timing. He would wait until everyone had eventually been settled on the carpet, then he would hit out and/or shout at one of his neighbours, accusing them of some incursion into his space.

The same pattern repeated itself when the class was seated round their tables at the beginning of a lesson. Owen would fall off his chair or knock over the materials for the planned activity.  The class would need to be settled all over again. This was not easy, because most of the others had their own difficulties.

Two of the boys kicked, hit and bit at the least imagined provocation. Another continually begged for attention and assistance, unable to face any task alone, but nobody in the class wanted to work with him. One girl was severely undernourished and continually fell asleep. Another was loudly argumentative.  Yet another lived in a world of her own, humming and singing to herself.

Their poor teacher was beside herself with dread and anxiety. At that time the only recognition given by Ofsted to pupil background was the percentage of pupils on free school meals, but the bottom band for this was set at 50% or more.  In Owen’s school the uptake was over 90%.

No way could I have taught that class. Most mornings there was another classroom assistant as well as me, but even the three of us were hard pressed to cope.  It was a perfect storm.

And with this group, Owen’s teacher had to run the gauntlet of naming and shaming by Ofsted.

No wonder she was driven to despair.

To be continued……..

Lesson 60 Covering Up

Lesson 60 on Concealment

When it comes to inspection and quality assurance, the aim of any system, however wrong headed, is to improve things.  The trouble is that improving things means different things to different people.  To government it generally means getting the workers to toe the party line, whatever that happens to be at the time. 

Unsurprisingly this leads to a “them and us” mentality amongst the workforce. 

Long ago in the 1970s, Neil Postman in Teaching as a Subversive Activity wrote about pupils having in-built “crap-detectors”. When it comes to government directives, workers have these too.  They tend to become cynical and sceptical.  They start to lie.

I came up with my personal top ten reasons why people conceal their workplace practice.  (Feel free to add your own or disagree.)

Wisegrannie’s Top Ten Reasons Why People Cover Up.

1. They know it’s crap, but nobody wants to lose their jobs.
2. They know it’s crap, but they don’t want a crap place on their CV.
3. They know it’s crap, but it’s easy to get to & the only job around.
3. They know it’s crap, but it’s a friendly place & mostly harmless.
4. They think it’s crap, but no worse than other places they’ve seen.
5. They don’t think it’s that bad, because they’ve seen worse.
6. They don’t think it’s that bad, because they’ve never seen better.
7. They think it’s good, because they’ve never seen better.
8. They want to think it’s good, so they can feel OK about it.
9. They know it’s good, but they haven’t done the paperwork.
10. They know it’s good, but it doesn’t match official requirements.

Now, be honest!  Think of all the places you’ve worked and tick any of the above that might apply.

Lesson 59 Poacher Turned Gamekeeper

Lesson 59 on Learning to fool the system

In the dim and distant past, when I sat my Scottish Higher Leaving Certificate in Latin, teachers were not required to be sensitive to the self-esteem of their students.  After we got our results, the Latin teacher read out all our grades in class and commented on them.  Coming to my name he paused, then pronounced his verdict on my five years of study in his department.

“And Annie Wilson passed! My, but it’s marvellous what native wit can do!”

And native wit was what schools fell back on, when Ofsted inspection was first introduced.  The first response was not to think “How can we improve our practice and achieve true excellence?” but rather, “How can we get through this, without showing ourselves up?”

The expressed intention of the new inspection system was to “Name and Shame”, so straightaway schools went into defensive and damage limitation mode. I was sent by my institution on the first round of Ofsted training, specifically to find out how to play the game.  They could then rent out my new skills to train others in how to navigate their way through the process.

Educational institutions cynically recognised that your level of success in external assessment depended on knowing the rules and understanding the marking system.  You needed to learn how to package the goods.

Nobody expected to be able to transform a really grotty school into a beacon of excellence by skillful packaging alone, but it was a truth universally acknowledged that it was possible up your game and scrape your way from a fail grade into the safe haven of satisfactory.

Native wit and ingenuity can get you more than just a C in Higher Latin.