In the past few weeks I've had many conversations with my friends who teach. These chats have been about the stresses and strains of teaching--the crippling workload, the pressure of league tables and exam results, the intense scrutiny of teachers' work (especially at primary level), the burgeoning culture of fear and anxiety in some schools, the rise of stress-related illnesses among members of the profession.
Oddly enough, these somewhat depressing conversations have all ended on the same up-beat note--"But I'm happy once I close the door to my classroom and start teaching the kids!"
I was going to delve on the whys and wherefores of this situation--asking questions about how we got to this place, about what good this amount of teacher exhaustion and stress could possibly do our children, about why it seems suddenly to have got worse. I was going to talk about how heartbreaking it is to see hardworking professionals (and they're all hardworking!) who value young people and their education, be vilified and belittled by government goons.
I was intending to mention Michael Gove's divisive policies (with the possible inclusion of an unflattering picture--no shortage of those!) and the bizarre trend by school inspectors toward viewing low morale in schools as a good thing.
But then...along came OFSTED this week, and my plans were kicked into the long grass, or wherever it is scuppered plans go to die.
Instead, I pimped this week's lesson plans, ensuring that my lessons allowed students to think for themselves, while challenging them to widen their understanding and take their learning further. I re-scrutinised folders and exercise books to demonstrate that students knew exactly what level they were working at, what level they were working towards, and what the hell they needed to do to improve their work. I checked the SEN register twice, three times, memorising data that I already knew and used every day.
At this point, I should say that I teach three days a week. I'm part-time. And, luckily enough, one of the inspection dates (the first, and most stressful) happened on my day off. So, if I'm exhausted with the work I did as a part-timer, how must my full-time colleagues be feeling? How late did they stay awake the night before the inspection?
So, OFSTED came and went, leaving behind an exhausted, and somewhat demoralised staff of very, very dedicated and effective teachers, who plan and mark and deliver a quality education every day of the school year.
Seems the criteria for OFSTED inspection has changed--last year's good is this year's satisfactory, etc. A nice touch, I think, and one that fits the government's whole ethos. Last year's disabled person is this year's job-seeker. Last year's cancer patient is this year's dole scrounger. Last year's university student is this year's unemployment statistic.Last year's soldier is this year's rough sleeper. Last year's health service is this year's business opportunity. See? It's all coming together.
But still, there's a happy ending, at least for me. The inspectors had pretty much finished their slashing and burning by the time I arrived on the second day, and my lessons weren't "visited." So, despite the stress, despite the extra hours of work, the lost nights' sleep, this is what I got to do:
- Talk about Johnson Beharry, VC to my year 7 students, during a lesson on heroes. (They had a lively and insightful discussion about who was more heroic, Helen Skelton or Lance Corporal Beharry. Somebody came up with the brilliant--I thought--idea of having fund-raising stunts carried out in actual battlefield conditions, setting the matter once and for all!)
- Help my year 8s visualise a setting for an imaginative writing piece, and enthusiastically share their creative ideas with each other.
- Hear confident class participation from two previously shy, anxious students.
- And lots, lots more.
In short, I got to do what all teachers want to do--teach. I got to enjoy watching young people blossom and develop into writers, readers, thinkers.
So, yes, there are advantages to inspection, just as there are some benefits to being observed by peers and having our work scrutinised to some extent. But by micro-analysing the minutiae of education, we overlook the broad cultural value of education and schools. By valourising "attainment" above everything else, we ignore the way schools can foster larger social values of inclusion, respect, and cooperation.
In other words, I wish they'd just let teachers teach, and focus more closely on the way schools can become healthier, happier, safer places for everyone. I wish they just let us get on with it--let us close the door and teach.
Oh, and here's that picture I was going to use:
Those pictures, rather....