Yes, I admit it, I just couldn't resist any longer: this Blog entry is going to be about Ofsted. (For those of you outside the UK, this is the Office for Standards in Education; for those of you teaching in the UK, this is the Office for Stress and Eternal Damnation). Now, here's the thing: I've always felt rather sorry for Ofsted inspectors. Let's face it, it's not the kind of job you set out to do when you're a child. Imagine, you're ten years old, and you're thinking of a vocation, a career choice, a major life decision about where you want to go and what you want to do. Shall I be a doctor, a nurse, a vet, a teacher, a fire fighter, an astronaut? No, I know, I've got it, I think I'll be ... an Ofsted inspector. That way I get to be really popular and teachers will be ever so grateful when I tell them how to do their job.
And here's another thing: the poor loves never get to see all those magical moments that happen so unexpectedly when you're working with children. That lesson you planned on the back of a fag packet, which weirdly captures their imagination and suddenly they're running with it, flying with it, finally grasping that tricky concept you've spent so long trying to get across. Those magical moments that never seem to happen in your carefully planned lesson, with its five pages of explanatory notes, its finely tuned starter activity, its deliberately chosen and lovingly differentiated resources. Or, in other words, those dull, safe lessons that teachers do when there happens to be an inspector in the room, because they're terrified of taking risks, of making mistakes.
Yes, there is something to be said for having some kind of inspection system. It can help parents make a choice about which school they would prefer their child to go to (I'll be dealing with this notion of 'choice' in an entry very soon). It can help struggling schools get more support, and it acknowledges the dedication of those staff who do things well. But if you're new to teaching don't be fooled - hard to believe I know, but there was an inspection system in place before Ofsted. Except it was a mostly supportive approach run by locally based inspectors, who knew their local schools and the circumstances in their local area. What really concerns me about the current system is the total lack of trust in education staff as professionals. The balance seems to have tilted so far in the direction of mistrusting us, that you have to have evidence to prove every last aspect of what has happened in your classroom. Instead of just focusing on helping children to learn and develop, spending time with them and enjoying the job, you have to record every last detail of what you've done. Because that way someone has the evidence they need to make a judgement about you. Yes, the ever present threat of Ofsted does help to keep schools and other settings on their toes. But just look at the quantity of paperwork and stress required to achieve it.
I'm currently involved really closely with my local pre-school on a voluntary basis. And as I watch the staff playing with the children, who absolutely adore them, it really warms my heart. But what's this? Suddenly they stop playing with the kids. They dash off to grab a camera and take a photo; or find a sticky label and write a few notes. That way they can grab that vital evidence they need to prove that they're doing their job, to fill out those profiles that record every step of a child's progress. "Please!" I want to scream, "Don't stop playing with that child to document the fact that you're playing with her and something great happened. Just play. Just enjoy the moment. Just do what you think is best. I believe you. I believe in you. You honestly don't have to prove it."
But they do. And it's partly my fault. I've never been in a management position before. I've never had to worry too much about what Ofsted did or didn't say. I'd always rejected the promotion ladder as an option, because I wanted to stay in the classroom. But now I find myself in the very odd position of actually caring. Because as Chair of the Committee, I want us to get a good Ofsted report next time round. Now, most of what I do at our lovely little preschool is motivated by wanting to improve things for the children and the staff, rather than trying to improve our inspection grade. But in the back of my mind, I want us to get that public approval, that 'good' or (whisper it) 'outstanding' that makes parents sit up and take notice. I hang my head in shame for even thinking that way, I'm drowning in paperwork to provide proof of all the great things we do, but there it is: I actually care what Ofsted think.
And for that, Ofsted, for that, Government Education Departments of every hue, I curse you and your lack of trust.
Elephants in the Classroom
You know that saying, about there being an 'elephant in the room': something everyone knows is there, but no one wants to mention? In teaching, there isn't just one elephant in the classroom, there's a whole herd of them, rampaging through the room. In this blog I plan to turn a spotlight on some of the unspoken and sometimes unpalatable truths about our noble profession (and the good stuff too). Because if we can't be honest about what makes a good learning experience, an effective school, or a good teacher, and equally what makes a bad one, then everyone loses.