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 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.

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.

Lesson 53. The Day the Music Died.

Lesson 53 on Messing Up

I’ve lived through a lot of institutional change.  I’ve worked in some good places and some bad.  But before public services went over to a business management model, they were bad in a different way.

There was maverick practice.  There was a lot of risk taking and mess.  There was casual neglect.  There were huge gaps in the paperwork. There was an easy-going acceptance of eccentricity and idiosyncracy. There was a great deal of benevolent paternalism.

What there wasn’t, was exhaustive recording, surveillance and control.  (There wasn’t the technology to support it – no computer systems then). While this permitted a rich, varied range of questionable practice, it also enabled creativity and humanity. It valued and relied on professional integrity and judgement.

Then one day in one particular year, the terminology of public service chillingly altered. The key word became compliance.

To be excellent, you had to comply with a set of externally imposed criteria.  You were no longer there to serve the needs of a particular community or set of unique individuals.  Your prime purpose was to deliver whatever the current central government deemed most desirable, to be assessed by a range of government appointed inspectors, working to a government brief.

And there could be no appeal.  The system was transparent. Everyone could see the criteria.  All you had to do was meet them.

The problem was not so much what the criteria were – a lot of them were sensible, even if pompously expressed. The problem was what was made top priority and what was missed out.

Professionally and personally I messed up at times, but the things that still come back to haunt me are not the boxes unticked, but rather the individuals I couldn’t deal with, those (mercifully few) I hurt.  Because at times I was out of my depth.  I didn’t have the information, or the advice, or support, or the knowledge to cope. Times when I had nobody to turn to. Those are the times when even the best of us mess up and others suffer.

It’s no comfort then to know you ticked all the right boxes, because, once those boxes were there, believe you me, I made sure I ticked them! I knew that to survive you had to cover your own back, otherwise you would be hung out to dry, especially if you were on the maverick creative spectrum. 

Mind you, on the plus side, schools did get cleaner and most of the cupboards got cleared out.