How we think of schools is influenced by our experiences. But they may not reflect what is happening now.
From time to time the Guardian newspaper runs a “Secret Teacher” column in which an anonymous teacher writes of what life in school is really like at the moment.
One article in the series comes from a school that is obsessed by the image it presents. It is portrayed rather like a retailer with a gleaming shopfront showing beautifully presented goods while out back illegal immigrants are forced to work 18 hours a day for 10% of the minimum wage producing fifth rate products that bear no relation to what’s shown in the display window.
Here’s a short extract from the piece…
“I’ve witnessed pupils’ work ripped up in front of their eyes, and criticised in front of the whole school. Teachers are warned to keep students well away from learning resources, should they end up looking worn for the visitors. Staff have even been asked to impersonate children’s work. Much like a show home, most of what you see is there for exhibition.
“While the continual demand to keep up appearances adds strain to an already unmanageable workload, a bigger concern of mine is the ways in which it affects pupils. The word “perfect” is thrown around like a motto. Perfect presentation, perfect results, perfect appearance. Staff or student, if you don’t live up to the label, giving your best effort simply doesn’t cut it.”
And to be clear this is not an isolated case. While many others have presented similar tales of appearances which hoodwink parents and inspectors alike, there are also tales of schools in which teachers aid and abet cheating in public exams to get grades up, while other schools are increasingly run by teaching assistants rather than fully qualified and experienced teachers. It’s an ideal way of saving money.
Obviously this isn’t the full picture. But that is part of the problem - no one knows what the full picture is because once the people inside the system start using the system for their own ends, no one can be sure what is really going on.
Or as one ex-colleague said to me, “In the old days we all used to have a suspicion about the activities of a teacher or two who seemed to befriend certain pupils too much for it to be utterly innocent, but if we ever reported it, we were told not to be so stupid, and threatened with removal if we made our concerns public. Now we have a different problem, but once again no one knows how to speak up.”
For those of us who look at education from the outside there is another level to this issue, for our perception of schools is always formed primarily by our own experiences as pupils and students, and for some of us, as teachers and maybe inspectors. None of us thus have a chance to get an overview of what is really going on because at each level false information is being presented as fact.
In 2012 Ofsted finally admitted after years of pressure so to do, that it had done no quality control checks over its inspectors, who were employed by private external companies known as Regional Inspection Service Providers. It admitted that many inspectors (including lead inspectors) – were not qualified teachers and many had no experience of working with children at any level at all!!!
Such an admission would be enough to close down a private company, and quite possibly have its management jailed for fraud, but Ofsted lives by other rules and sailed on regardless, even after a second scandal revealed that a number of headteachers who were dismissed following poor Ofsted reports of their schools were now working as… yes, school inspectors.
Eventually in 2015, after years of revelations of failure, 40% of the “additional inspectors” (a curious phrase which means those who carry out the actual work of inspecting schools), were not re-hired after a contractual change. As serving headteacher and columnist on the Times Educational Supplement Geoff Barton said, “'dispensing with almost 40 per cent of inspectors on the grounds of quality is hardly an endorsement of standards.”
Effectively the private inspection companies were chucked out and (don’t say it too loudly) a substantial part of the inspection system was re-nationalised.
None of this shows that the system is broken (although it might mean just that) but it does mean that many of us who have not taught for many years and have not worked as inspectors in recent years, don’t have the clearest idea of what is going on.
So what must we do as we try either to sell products and services to schools, or offer schools free materials, or indeed persuade schools to act as a route towards parents.
My view is that we must think of what type of school we want to work with, and how we want to work with them.
What we must not do, in my view, is assume, or worse, fall back on our own memories. Schools are changing fast; inspection results and parental views are paramount, the inspection service itself has been shown to be faulty, and there are suspicions of an ever deepening malaise. Meanwhile school budgets are being changed in ways that for many teachers and managers make little sense, while pupil and student number sky rockets.
The schools however are still there and are still functioning, and many are doing brilliant jobs in impossible situations. But they are not all necessarily working in the way we might expect.
Many schools are now adjusting to reduced budgets and teacher shortages by not replacing staff when they leave, but instead investing in computerised teaching systems.
Several people have told me that they were certainly not telling the parents this at first, since some parents are fixated on the notion that smaller classes mean better education. (This actually has been proved to be untrue, but it remains a strong belief).
But then when parents started to see the newly constituted computer labs (paid for our of staff savings) and hear how the interactive programs were working, and how the children actually preferred it, they were very excited. Suddenly class numbers meant nothing!
Moves such as this are entirely honourable and justifiable, and are done with the best of intentions - in essence to save our school system from the government.
As a result my view is that what we should certainly not do, is persist in the view that schools now are as they were 15 years ago. That, at least, we can be sure, is quite wrong.