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 64. Goodbye to the Boys in the Band

Lesson 64 on Learning to be ashamed

The naming and shaming aspect of Ofsted prompted the teachers in Owen’s school to fret over different things.  With Mr TopJuniors it was his spelling.

Mr TopJuniors had been educated at a time when the systematic teaching of grammar and spelling had been deeply unfashionable. His talents and interests also didn’t lean towards these particular topics.  His great strengths were Maths, Science, Sport(in general) and Football(in particular). He was very much valued in school.  After all, just how often do good mathematicians opt for primary teaching?

When I was involved in teacher training, good maths and physics graduates were like hen’s teeth.  We did everything we could to lure them into the classroom.  We ignored government guidelines insisting graduates teach all three sciences and welcomed with open arms maverick physicists, who preferred to teach physics and maths. 

When this was finally outlawed, I would recollect the qualities of past students and regret the loss of the nonconformist. One of my favourites played in a band.  Everyone knows what this entails – staying up late on school nights and not doing your homework. Our experience, however, was that such individuals also tended to be interesting, creative people with a number of performance skills, useful in getting their subject across to reluctant teenagers.

My favourite was one of those.  At the end of his training year, he cheerfully phoned us from his interview at a prestigious independent school.

“Hi Anne, could you possibly spare a couple of minutes to speak to the headmaster? I can’t remember which part of the coursework I’ve got to resubmit, so can he have a word with you?”

What could I say? This young man is talented and confident. He loves his subject. He’s a team player, good in the classroom, but he doesn’t fit the government prototype of a model teacher? Of course the irony of the situation was that the independent sector didn’t have to care – they snapped him up!  It was only the poor old state system that lost out.

Mr TopJuniors fell into something of a similar category.  As a practitioner he was calm and constructive, taking difficult pupils and situations in his stride. His room was an orderly and cheerful place to be. His pupils made good progress. He just couldn’t spell. Everybody knew it.  Pupils and colleagues were happy to help.  He welcomed any corrections. It wasn’t a disgraceful secret.

But now he was worried sick about writing on the board during Ofsted week. 

He decided he would have to set about re-inventing himself.

Because, when he listened to the official naming and shaming rhetoric, Mr TopJuniors knew he came in the wrong packaging.

Lesson 57 Nothing But The Best

Lesson 57 on Tough love and self-respect

Miss Hilary and Sister Brendan were not alone in being indomitable headmistresses of a certain age. Primary education used to be full of them.

There were three unmarried sisters, all primary headteachers in the town where I trained. One was head of my first practice school.  I was terrified of her. 

The school was a single storey Victorian building set amongst Coronation Street type terraces sloping down towards the river and the shipyards.  Because it was built on a slope, the school was on two levels. The head’s office was on the higher level and she could stand at the top of her steps and see into the classrooms, which all had windows onto a central corridor. She could be down those steps and into your classroom like a shot.

As I was getting my class to tidy up at the end of day, she suddenly appeared.

” No, no, Mrs Wise! This is how we clear up!  Children, show Mrs Wise!  One – we collect up our work! Two – we open our desks! Three – we put things neatly in our desks! Four – we close our desks! Five – we stand behind them! Six – we wait without fidgeting for Mrs Wise to dismiss us!”

From the children’s unsurprised reaction I realised I wasn’t being specially singled out for improvement because I was a student. Everybody – staff, pupil, parent or representative of the local authority – had to live up to Miss Ryan’s high standards in her school.

All her pupils came to school clean and, in winter, warmly dressed.  She made certain that uniforms were rigorously recycled, so that nobody, however hard up, had to come to school less than decently clothed. (At least on the surface – getting changed for PE revealed another story.)

I taught in the oldest class and every single child could read and write.  Some were better than others, but they were all equipped to function and work in a literate society and this in a catchment area that must easily have been amongst the poorest in the country.

I often wondered how Miss Ryan got her school to achieve so much against the odds. It wasn’t just through force of character and fear, though that certainly helped on occasion. 

It was by stubbornly refusing to accept anything but the best for her pupils.  An inexperienced student had to brought up to scratch.  The local authority had to be badgered for money.  The janitor had to be briefed to scrupulously monitor the site. Cleaners had to be encouraged to keep every surface shining. Everybody in school had to be exhorted to take pride in themselves and their work. 

A proper pride, based on the honest satisfaction of a job well done.

I bet Miss Ryan could sleep at night.

Lesson 56 The Old Guard 2

Lesson 56 on Rendering unto Caesar….

Before Ofsted took over the inspection of schools, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate was a small erudite body of (mainly) gentlemen, appointed for their expertise in their subject area and probably for their acceptable connections. They were very senior Civil Servants answerable directly to their Minister. Most schools seldom saw them. I never came across one during my first 15 years in education.

However, when the National Curriculum was first devised, HMI were tasked with distilling their knowledge and experience into guidelines for a new system of inspection, and in the course of this they sensibly visited successful schools to consult with headteachers.

Just such a school was a small RC primary set in a very poor area of Central London. It was still headed by one of the order of nuns who had been involved in its establishment in the 19th century, shortly after Catholic education was first permitted by law.

One morning my colleague received an urgent phone call from Sister Brendan.

“Ursula, I’ve got a letter in front of me from an Inspector! He says he is visiting me next week! I need you to come to see me straight away to tell me what I should say to him!”

Sister Brendan was one of our most supportive heads, so Ursula reorganised her schedule and set off.  Sister Brendan met her in the yard as she entered.  She was in purposeful planning mode.

“Now tell me Ursula. You know about these things. Why should he be visiting now all of a sudden?  And what can he be wanting to ask me?  He doesn’t want to see the children at all.  He just wants to talk to me!”

“Perhaps, Sister, he might want to ask you what you think of the new National Curriculum?” (Every school in the country had recently been sent this weighty documentation)

” And what would that be, Ursula?”

” Well, Sister, do you recall those boxes of big hard backed folders the school got last term?  You must have seen them.”

“Oh yes! The secretary mentioned them to me.”

“So what did you do with them, Sister?”

“They took up such a lot of space we couldn’t possibly leave them cluttering the office, so we put them in the old PE cupboard!”

“But you were all meant to read them, Sister.  They tell you what you have to teach!”

“Why on earth should anyone think we have to be told that? Haven’t we managed perfectly well till now? Do you really think the Inspector will expect us to have looked at them?”

“I think he might, Sister!”

“I’ll tell you what, Ursula.  You know all about these government things.  It would be a real help if you could come in when he visits.  You could just pop by to see the students, and I’ll invite you to join us. He won’t be able to say no. It wouldn’t be polite!”

There was no end to Sister Brendan’s cunning.  When Ursula was ushered into her room to be introduced to Her Majesty’s Inspector, not only had the best tea service been brought into use, but the big arch files of the National Curriculum were prominently on display on her desk.

It was only as Ursula sat down that she saw that the contents of the pristine files were still firmly encased in their clear plastic wrapping.

Fortunately, the HMI was facing the other way.

Lesson 54 Survival Skills

Lesson 54  on Collusion

When I got involved in teacher training, I had the chance to go into lots of schools and classrooms. I went into schools where the deputy smelt of drink and others where I was offered tea in bone china cups in the headmaster’s wood-panelled study.

I worked right from the period of “We were very glad to have Jim as a student with us.  He worked hard and helped with the football team.  He will be a credit to the profession”, through to assessment by means of a many paged official document attesting to the level of competence achieved in every possible aspect of “classroom delivery”.

In the bad old days we just phoned round schools we usually worked with to find places for our students. The basic criterion was that the student should be able to get there by public transport within a reasonable time.

As a result some students ended up in what would now be called “challenging” schools. 

One poor student used to come to me every evening in tears. There was one class in particular she could not manage.  Whatever approach she tried, and she had tried a number very diligently, the class played up.  I offered to come in on their worst afternoon slot to see if we could work something out together.

When I went into the class, Miss Student announced that this was the “visitor” she had mentioned.  They looked at me speculatively as I took a seat near the back of the class. They clearly knew all about “visitors”.  People with files and briefcases meant officialdom.  They were bad news.

The lesson began and Miss Student had to hide her astonishment at the way things progressed.  People opened their books and faced the front.  They put on a good show of being attentive.  They put up their hands in response to questions, even when they didn’t know the answer.  The only wonder was how long they could manage to keep this up.

I shouldn’t have underestimated them.  As they laboriously set about their written task, heads bent over their books, one boy in front of me could contain himself no longer. It was almost the end of the lesson.  Turning round to me with a proud grin, he demanded recognition and confirmation.

” We’re being good aren’t we?”

Afterwards Miss Student was speechless.  She couldn’t understand what had happened.  But I knew.  They simply liked her.  They had just been testing her out and having a bit of fun.  The moment it became serious they didn’t want to drop her in it.

And it was all done wordlessly and seamlessly, by a few glances between the usual suspects.  They knew a decent teacher when they came across one, even if she was a bit raw and wet behind the ears.  When it came to fooling somebody with a clipboard, they would unite behind her against the common enemy.