Lesson 84 Mythbusting

Lesson 84 on Getting your own way…not

Writing about Amarjeet reminded me of one of her classmates. At the time I was responsible for them there was still a widely held stereotype of Asian girls. They were obedient, quiet and demure.  Shabana, however, had been sent to dispel this myth single-handed.

There were a lot of things Shabana didn’t like about school, most aspects of school work in fact.  She complained bitterly and loudly when her teachers suggested she put pen to paper.  She made a determined attempt to claim her English was so poor she ought to be in my group, because she couldn’t understand what her teachers were asking her to do. Her very vocal disputes with other pupils betrayed her.  Her colourful use of colloquial English enlivened many a lunch hour.

She next took to visiting Mrs Nurse with a range of imaginative symptoms particularly during Maths lessons. As far as PE was concerned she had more frequent and more painful periods than any other girl on the planet and swore blind that this was a condition that ran in her family.

But she soon fell out with Mrs Nurse over the planned rubella immunisation. This must only recently have been introduced, because the whole school was being done. Shabana set her heart against it.  Nobody was going to stick any needle in her arm!

On the day of the injections Shabana went missing as soon as it came to her class’s turn. Mrs Nurse was not pleased. It was a hard enough task organising the orderly lining up of class after class of nervous girls and getting them to the doctor without bouts of minor hysteria breaking out.

Leaving the class under my watchful eye, Mrs Nurse went on a Shabana hunt. She wore a grim expression. The class forgot their own fears in anticipation of an entertaining showdown. They were not disappointed. Soon a furious shrieking and yelling was heard approaching from a distance.  Shabana’s impressive command of the vernacular was much in evidence.

To everybody’s delight Mrs Nurse appeared with Shabana, holding her arm in an extremely firm grasp and half marched, half dragged her, still protesting, past the queue of waiting girls and straight into the doctor, where her shrieks continued. Over the yelling we heard Nurse.

“Be quiet, Shabana! Doctor’s done it! It’s over!”

There was a sudden silence. But Shabana was not one to lose face.

“Huh!” she snorted dismissively as she emerged from the room tossing her head.

“See!” she addressed her awestruck audience. “Didn’t hurt at all!”

And she stalked off down the corridor without a backward glance.

It’s just as well nobody had mobile phones in those days, or we’d all have ended up in court.

On the other hand we might have made a fortune on YouTube.

Lesson 76. How to Be Good

Lesson 76 on Shortening the odds

The reason Owen’s school was so paranoid about their Ofsted visitation was that their SATs scores were so low.

This was not due to any lack of hard work on the part of the staff, but to the fact that many children entered school with few language or social skills. The nursery, which was in a separate block by the entrance gate, had its work cut out getting pupils up to a basic level by the time they reached the infants.

I visited the nursery on a number of occasions and immediately felt it was like being back in some areas of London, where pupils began to learn English only when they entered pre-school. But at Owen’s school it was worse, because in London the children could often already communicate in their home language.

Helping in the nursery was an eye-opener.  Many children lacked even simple skills.  They couldn’t hold a crayon or sit still to listen or join in action songs.  It was an uphill struggle.

So when it came to inspection the school staff knew they were already at a disadvantage.  They were suspect even before an inspector set foot over the threshold. The only solution was to shorten the odds.

From my past experience I knew how to go about this.

First you study the guidelines and criteria on which you will be judged.  Next you find all the areas you can definitely have squeaky clean and get them sorted. All your documentation needs to be impeccably in place, all your policies signed off and up to date. Everybody needs to read and learn the policies, so that they can answer any questions on them.

Then you clear out the clutter.  You destroy the evidence of any practices not matching current requirements.  You scrutinise and censor any work hiding in cupboards.  You strip the library of non-compliant texts and buy or borrow approved new ones.

Nowadays schools have all this done and dusted.  People have learnt how to play the game. But at the start, when Ofsted set out to Name and Shame, it was all new. 

My favourite memory of pre-Ofsted planning was a spectacular piece of design work to which a large notice was attached.

It read –


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 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.


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.