There is no doubt about it: I have spent long enough ranting about both the internal and external inspection systems in schools. I think prior readers will by now have realised, maybe even appreciated, my views on the whole disgraceful, downbeat, dour, depressing, damn thing. But, really, I do feel compelled to ask this question at least one more time: ‘How is it possible that there be such a gulf, NO: an enormous, vacuous, gaping, septic, chasm between what our Secretary of State for Education is advocating and the insidiously-enforced practice that is actually happening in a great number of schools?
Here is just a brief example of his recent words:
“All too often, we’ve seen an over-emphasis on group work – in practice, children chatting to each other – in the belief that is a more productive way to acquire knowledge than attending to an expert”.
(Michael Gove, Sept 2013)
“Attending to an expert”? Remember that, teachers everywhere. That’s YOU he’s talking about!
And It’s not just him, either. The Chief Inspector, no lesser being than the BOSS of the OFSTED inspectors, Sir Michael Wilshaw, for whom we are all trying to perform this toe-deforming, Bolshoi-esque, never-to-be-truly-perfected dance, also says ‘No!’
“OFSTED should be wary of trying to prescribe a particular style of teaching, whether it be a three part lesson; an insistence that there should be a balance between teacher led activities and independent learning, or that the lesson should start with aims and objectives with a plenary at the end.”
(Sir Michael Wilshaw, Chief Inspector of Schools)
So, unless I’m very much mistaken, the message is this: rip up the rule book; ignore it all! Do the things that work for you! Don’t worry if you’re (metaphorically) teaching ‘Agadoo’, as long as the kids are learning and the results are good.
Great, but all the evidence is to the contrary, I’m afraid.
My school is completely fixated on how we can achieve the utopian goal of ‘outstanding lessons’ across the board. They deliver training sessions on the various aspects of this, hand out reams of paper on the subject and never miss an opportunity to remind us what ‘OFSTED will be looking for’. They scrutinise, observe, tick boxes, write reports and check and double-check almost everything we do, with this goal in mind.
On the 8th October last, I was subjected to a ‘learning walk’, which is really just a mini-observation. It was an English lesson, in which I was teaching a mixed-ability year 8 group creative writing skills. The lesson was based on the topic of ‘Our City’. The following day, the feedback arrived in my inbox declaring that, whilst the content was ‘good’ (thanks a lot!) the ‘outcomes were unclear’ (what?). These people observed the first fifteen minutes of my lesson. On which, I had the learning objective: to use a variety of stimuli…so that we can create and describe a setting’
To ‘create and describe a setting’ was ‘the outcome’, which, incidentally, was achieved. It was also noted that the starter activity lasted for ’2o minutes’, which was too long and also contained too much ‘teacher talk’. No mention of the fact that in that time pupils answered some challenging lexical questions AND read aloud from two of Dickens’ original texts. I really don’t understand the issue? In fact, I completely despair. I was attempting to introduce some higher-level, linguistic techniques to some of the most damaged, disillusioned and disaffected kids in the country.
Instead of supporting and championing this aim, my management staff, -like some kind of zealot, religious converts, claiming to be acting under the auspices of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate – are telling me I’m wrong because my ‘starter activity’ was ‘too long’.
Yet, YET, we are both doing as we think we have been told to do. What exactly is this madness?
Next week I’m to have a lesson observation; I don’t expect it to go well. As I have written about before, I am struggling to mould my teaching-style to fit the particular model that my school requires. I would go as far as to say that I am almost doomed to fail. Is it me, or them? Who is right? I really have no idea. What I am painfully and excruciatingly aware of is that I have, I’m afraid, buckled: I have planned a lesson in which I am trying to meet all of my management’s demands. Why would I do this? Because the only alternative that I could envisage was inevitable failure. This way, at least I stand some minute chance of success.
All of this actually makes me want to weep. The fact that I find myself staking my solid, eighteen-year-reputation on ideas that are, it seems to me, almost wholly gimmicks and half-truths: three-part-lessons, peer assessment, National Curriculum levels, group work, objectives, targets, outcomes, paired work, pre-planned questions , plenaries and mini-plenaries, Smart Board, ‘Visual, Aural and Kinaesthetic’, etc.
All of these have their place, here and there; but you cannot compact and compartmentalise them into neat lesson component parts as if you were rote-constructing a Mini motor car on a factory production line. Real lessons don’t work this way. Real lessons are fluid or malleable; real lessons are more like trying to concoct something delicious from the turkey after Christmas: crumble in a stock cube; throw a bit more cream in and leave to simmer. A handful of peas; a pinch of salt and some garlic; a peck of pepper, perhaps. I wonder if I dare chuck some chilli in?
That’s what real lessons are like. If I happened to speak for more than ten minutes, it’s because I felt it was necessary; because that’s how the lesson evolved. It is simply because that’s what I felt was right at the time. Kids are people, not products to be constructed and churned, all shiny and ‘educated’ off a production line. Oh, and while I’m about it, teachers aren’t sightless, mindless, manufacturing machines, either.
Interestingly, no one had ever said to me that I was ‘requiring improvement’ until last July, which was well into Mr Gove’s tenure. Perhaps no-one cared enough under the Labour rule that had dominated the country for the majority of my teaching career. Something has changed, though. That much I do know, for sure.
So there it is: gauntlet thrown down. Are you causing all of this, Mr Gove? Can you hear me, Mr Wilshaw? I work with some of the most damaged kids in the whole of the country, but they aren’t the lunatics that have taken over the asylum. You mentioned before, your intention to give teachers more freedom and autonomy. It’s certainly getting no better for me, no matter what you say. In fact, it has never, ever been this crazy.
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