Lesson 87. Summertime and the Living is Easy

Lesson 87 on The application of theory

It was a wonderful day today.  The sky was cloudless, clear and blue.  The temperature reached 29.8° in the shade.  So, in the interests of research, I decide to grade our beach bars.

Two of these are situated side by side, so they share the same situation and view. They’re both clean and the kitchens can bear inspection. The first however is very good with areas of excellence, while the other is satisfactory, with areas of good.

What makes the difference?  Simply the culture of the place and the attitude of the staff.

I would say it’s pretty certain that the staff in both establishments are on minimum wage and work long hours. They all have to deal with a wide range of clients, some of whom are extremely tiresome.

Yet in my good/excellent bar the atmosphere is always welcoming and cheerful. The staff smile and chat. They show an interest in your welfare.  They are always on the lookout for whoever needs attention.  When things are quiet they get on with routine tasks. They don’t hang around behind the bar and chat amongst themselves or lounge around texting on their phones.

Every season new staff join from a range of backgrounds – Irish, Polish, Russian – yet within a few days they are inducted into the ethos of the establishment.  They are cheerful, good-natured, calm under pressure, and focused on the clients’ requirements. They work as a team, helping out where anything needs doing, even if it isn’t specifically “their” job.

The second bar has a local staff, who turn up every season.  They never make any changes or improvements, but they are pleasant and polite. They serve you reasonably quickly. They are quite helpful when you wave at them for attention. But they hide in the background most of the time, watching the sport on television, with forays outside to bring dishes or drinks to the table.  They don’t give much appearance of interest in their clients, though they don’t bear them any ill-will. They do smile at them from time to time.

There is, however, a third bar which I would have to fail. It is a very attractive garden bar, which fancies itself a cut above the rest, newly refurbished and very clean, with a sparkling kitchen.  But, oh dear, what a disaster area when it comes to the staff and the atmosphere.

The manager has a face that would sour milk. No attempt seems to have been made to organise or train staff. They just wander around until they fall over a customer, then they have to go off and ask for help because they have some problem with the order, or they don’t know how to use the credit card machine to pay the bill.

When things get pressured the manager rushes around in a martyred fashion trying to do everything herself.  Then she turns around and blames the young, inexperienced staff, who have been hanging about or hiding, because nobody has ever explained to them clearly what they are meant to do. Then they get miserable and resentful and the service gets even worse.

But at least I can comfort myself that I am only relying on these services for a drink and a bit of harmless entertainment.

I can also relax in the confidence that natural justice will triumph, and, by the end of the season, the superficially adequate but totally uncaring garden bar will have closed its doors for good, while my two favourites will be waiting for me when the next summer season comes around.

Lesson 86 When A Pass Ain’t Necessarily So

Lesson 86 on Why it isn’t as simple as it seems

I learnt about strategies for passing tests early on. I can remember very little of my first school except that we had a mental arithmetic test every Friday, which I dreaded.  I couldn’t calculate quickly and there wasn’t enough time. So I had to devise a way to deal with the situation. I must have been about eight.

I observed that the teacher got the ten weekly questions from a book.  I managed to see and memorise the title. I nagged my mother into buying the book, then I proceeded to learn the questions and answers off by heart. It worked. It didn’t help my grasp of maths, but it certainly improved my marks.

This taught me that to scrape a pass in something you aren’t very good at, you need to suss the system.  It won’t make you a brilliant success, or even understand the subject, but it can get you a pass.

For instance, when I was in teacher training I had a cohort of PE students, who weren’t very fond of essays.  They preferred running around outside practising various sports, at which they excelled.  But they had to pass my component of their course. So I made them study the criteria on which they would be marked and explained the implications of these by giving them concrete examples of work to grade. I made them practise how to plan an examination essay, so that it answered the question asked.

My students grouched and groaned but they had the sense to follow the instructions. They all passed.

It’s called teaching to the test and it works.

I had a clear conscience about getting my students through. They were good lads who would do a decent job. But bad people out there can use the same techniques to make sure their failing practice claws its way up to just acceptable.

The borderline between just acceptable and unsatisfactory is a highly problematic area, however detailed and exhaustive you make the criteria.

In practice it’s a dreadful nuisance failing things. As an examiner or an inspector you have to be able to justify your judgement and a fail almost always involves extra time and paperwork. Also people complain about being failed and that involves even more. It’s much easier to let people scrape through, especially if they promise convincingly to remedy matters.

It takes a brave, principled person with plenty of stamina and determination to face up to the flak of failing a powerful organisation.

Even in my lowly role I was once dragged through every step of the process right up to the House of Lords by a disgruntled individual who was convinced against all the evidence, that he should have passed a final examination.

If he hadn’t managed to do something that got him deported I imagine we’d still be arguing it out somewhere, in yet another expensive, exhausting and time-consuming forum.

Lesson 80 Less is More

Lesson 80 on Shamelessness

I originally included a whole scene-setting introduction here but, on re-reading it, I decided it wasn’t necessary. The final sentences said it all.

Evaluation by an external body can bring out astonishing dishonesty when staff have no respect for the process.  I once overheard a respected headteacher, just before an inspection,urgently addressing the staffroom at lunch time.

“Now you are all to memorise that we have had four fire drills this year, because I’ve just done the paperwork to prove it!”

Lesson 79 Babies and Bathwater

Lesson 79 on Disempowerment.

I’ve havered on about inspection, because once the tick box thing happened in education, good people who loved their work started to get stressed and the joy began to go out of it.

At Owen’s school one teacher refused to be intimidated – Miss Maverick. Her only compromise was to write things down in the agreed format, though I have my suspicions that she did not always stick rigorously to the lesson plans submitted for scrutiny.

Other teachers gave up some approaches they knew worked well with their pupils, because they didn’t fit in easily with government requirements.  When Ofsted was coming, you couldn’t afford to take any unnecessary chances.

It was most difficult with the youngest.  The sparkly new timetable covered every possible requirement and recommendation, but it was heavy going for all concerned.  Before, the day had been organised to take advantage of the times when pupils were at their brightest and reserve till after lunch the activities suitable for when they were less able to concentrate.  Now, in order to fit everything in, there wasn’t so much flexibility.

Mrs Reception was particularly dutiful in implementing to the letter everything recommended for her age group.  Some of it was an uphill struggle.  It hadn’t been designed with the needs of her pupils in mind. It didn’t suit their attention span or level of afternoon tiredness. At the end of one wearisome day, she turned to me in frustration.

” I know we’ve got to do all these things, but sometimes I wish I could just get on and teach!

Lesson 78. Different Kinds of Bad

Lesson 78 on Coercion

Governments like to be in control of education.  It costs a lot and has the potential to influence people. And unless you are very watchful, not in the ways you want.

In the bad old days teachers and local authorities used to think for themselves.  Public opinion shrieked when they came up with something particularly loopy, so in general most schools did the same sort of things, though with local variations. Central government sounded off and cajoled and bribed, but didn’t directly control things. This irked those in power.

No wonder a National Curriculum and lots of inspectors to make sure everybody was toeing the current government line looked so attractive.  That was bound to make everybody learn the right stuff and, just to be absolutely certain, universal testing at every stage would show up any backsliding.

Parents, and other interested parties, who had been worried by the worst excesses of loopiness, thought it was probably a reasonable enough plan, if it helped pupils get a fair chance. In their innocence they thought it was just about making sure people learnt to read and write and got their GCSEs.

But this is where the different kinds of bad came in. As follows:

Your institution is bad

1. If you do not follow government curriculum directives (even if you think they are wrong).

2. If you do not adopt government guidelines (They may not be requirements, but any failings will be attributed to your neglect of these and you just try to prove any different!)

3. If you do not have acceptable policy documents in place as demanded by government regulations.

4.  If you have not identified your priorities in line with current government thinking.

This was probably not what parents had at the top of their lists, but never mind, because obviously the government knows best and all practitioners need in order to be successful in teaching is to do what they are told!

Now, best beloved, you can work out the darker implications of this story for yourselves. Let other pens deal with pain and misery.

I remember a canny old head who very early cottoned on that the best way to keep people off her back was to faithfully ensure the current pet government priority was boldly flagged up in her school through colourful displays and organised activities.

One day the Director of Education was asked by an senior official at Ofsted if he could recommend a school to visit which demonstrated excellent practice in a pet priority area. Off the top of his head he mentioned the canny head’s school.

Next thing he knew the furious canny head was on the phone.

“What do you mean by sending this man round to us!” she fumed.

“But Mrs CannyHead, you got such praise for all your multicultural initiatives,” he defended himself.

“Don’t be silly! That was last year! We’re onto information technology now!”