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 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 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.

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……..