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 –

DO NOT TOUCH THE INTERACTIVE DISPLAY!

Lesson 72. The Trouble with Box Ticking

Lesson 72 on Meeting individual needs

I worked with Mr TopJuniors from time to time whenever he needed an extra pair of hands.  His greatest strength was managing the wide range of abilities amongst the challenging individuals in his class. This he did with patience and good humour.  He was straight talking and consistent when it came to sticking to classroom rules.  He never put people down. 

Arthur was one of the challenges he had to deal with.  Arthur desperately wanted to be good, but he found school work hard.  He had moved back and forth between schools as the family fortunes ebbed and flowed.  He had difficulty focusing on tasks, and there were so many gaps in his basic knowledge that he was constantly interrupting and begging for assistance.  This was a source of irritation to his fellow pupils.  It led to arguments and unsettled the group.

Poor Arthur was so eager to be liked and wanted so much to be helpful,  but his unremitting efforts served rather to annoy and hinder the work of those around him, till they tried even the good nature of his teacher.

So Mr TopJuniors devised a strategy for saving Arthur from himself and at the same time protecting everybody else from his well-meaning attentions.

There was a shared activity area connecting his class and the two neighbouring groups. It was easy to move between all three classes through the common area.  The teachers cooperated and often worked on joint projects and activities. Together they came up with a sharing Arthur scheme. 

Arthur’s day was scheduled between the different groups for particular activities.  It was not unusual for pupils to move between groups for different purposes.  Also any pupil who was having a bad day in their own class could be informally moved into another class for time out.  All it needed was a quick word between teachers across the activity area.  In Arthur’s case, however, this was a structured long term plan.

It had two aims.  The first was to give Arthur a chance to master areas of work he had missed, the second was to stop him driving everybody else mad.

But the plan left his teachers with a problem.  It was hard to match these objectives to Ofsted criteria.

There wasn’t an Arthur box. 

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 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.