I met a friend with whom I trained to be an English teacher the other day. We started our PGCE 17 years ago. She saw me on the street with my new baby and hugged me and said, “I heard you’d got out. When they told me I was so pleased for you. The great news is that I’m out too. I feel as though I’ve been in some kind of scientology cult…” she said, “I tell people: I’m a recovering teacher.”
This made me laugh aloud, but being a new parent, now on the outside of schools, it feels quite like this. As a Vice Principal and later as a Head in busy, needy city secondary schools, I felt so empowered and charged with energy about education and how to help students achieve. I worked from 7.00am until 7pm most days and all day Sunday for seventeen years and I never really questioned what I was doing and whether there was a way to achieve the same amount in less time. Even after working twelve hours a day, I still felt the job was left not done properly and I could have been doing more. I missed family events – weddings, funerals, births – planning to spend Christmas with family was so pressurized – I had ten working days off. I always did the ‘graveyard’ January INSET day and so I was anxious the whole time about perfecting the structure of the day – trying to motivate a group of professionals back at work too soon to then motivate a group a kids back to school, too soon. I look back on it now and wonder what on earth I was doing.
I realize now that the haunting fears that dominated my life then – the elusive, slippery and indefinable ‘outstanding’, English and Maths cross-over results, the % of Good or better lessons – are seen as utterly meaningless outside of schools. The educational solar system spins away and literally no-one outside of the system cares whether the arbitrary Best 8 is achieved or not. I spent so many hours trying to cajole, motivate, engender, encourage, nurture and will the students and staff to see these Ofsted markers as the desired outcome. It all seems fairly meaningless now.
My friends, still navigating their way through this bizarre educational solar system, are in a melancholic, hysterical spin. Following the changes in funding formulas, school budgets are so shrunken that less qualified people are leading complex year groups, staff are teaching a bizarre sequence of texts and teachers are steadying themselves with yet another set of curriculum changes in GCSE and A level. Teachers can no longer see or understand what is Good or Outstanding. Good people are on three-years-pay-protection following restructures with their roles ‘deleted’, seeing years of their effort undone and expectations being lowered because the new roles and teaching staff are confused. They are in constant management of change. In one school, I experienced three restructures in four years due to hidden government cuts.
Educational magic happens when there is momentum and it’s as if the triumvirate of DFE, Ofsted and Ofqual have (consciously or unconsciously) aligned to disrupt any kind of positive momentum from happening. Even when students achieve higher grades, the curriculum is then changed to be different, harder, laid out differently, structured inaccessibly and illogically for most students. I felt more and more embarrassed as I wheeled out some of the changes to my teams. I respected my staff and their opinions. We worked in challenging situations, which needed collegial support. They were the experts to me. They knew what it took to achieve grades in their subjects. They knew what work needed to be done. They knew what was achievable in the time limits. Whilst I tried hard to protect them from much of the educational detritus, it remained awkward at times to reinforce ideas that were inappropriate in the context in which we worked. Laughable, sometimes. I could only hold their respect for so long.
What’s missing from most schools is any sense of ownership of their own context. After Gove removed the Contextual Value Added marker, schools were encouraged to be seen as the same; multi-academy trusts have, accidently I think, further reinforced this blue print model of what ‘works.’ I remember an Ofsted inspector telling me that ‘they knew exactly what worked and what didn’t work.’ I experienced a paternally tyrannous Ofsted ideology that took little consideration of the social context in which teachers were working and in which students were expected to ‘thrive,’ regardless of the glaring social factors affecting their wellbeing and communities. I always wanted to say to the inspectors in the kindest way, “please listen to me. I know my school better than you do. You’ve been here for an hour and a half.”
I’m all for sharing best practice but schools are different and their communities make them unique. Truth is, it’s easier for the DfE and Ofsted to assess and manage schools from afar if schools use the same strategy. I was always aware as a Vice Principal when changes had been made to the benefits system – 83% of our students ate free school meals. Changes to benefits for us meant a rapid drop in attendance, lack of uniform, increase in behavioural issues, more referrals to the school counsellor, more social service referrals to an already broken system. I never met one Ofsted Inspector or leader who understood this and how powerless my teachers were to alter children’s social circumstances. We were meant to help them somehow ‘overcome’ their social status with educational progress. All 83% of them. Our progress rates were compared directly to those on the other side of the city. You know, the ones where parents rented student flats to get their kids in to the local ex-private school. They were and now are the direct comparisons.
The changing expectations of Ofsted is shown in their handbook, republished and republished with sentences adjusted again and again (it changed 14 times once between May and September.) It has left poor senior leaders nationwide stumbling and tripping over each sentence at their inspection, “That changed two weeks ago, now you need to show British-ness in your English lessons…” As a senior leader, I found my perfectly rational teachers creating bizarrely confused lessons to shoe-horn in Ofsted expectations. The poor learners played along…the Ofsted inspector nods and the solar system spins effectively. Until, of course, the results don’t come, the Head Teacher is then in panic, receives yet another budget cut and triggers another restructure. All change! By the time, you’ve corrected the issue, the sands have shifted anyway.
A Head Teacher friend of mine is battling the storm by describing her staff team as a flock of starlings who are moving in beautiful ways as a group and from a distance she can see their brilliance. Inside the flock they feel it is chaos, from outside, they look magnificent. I’m hoping that someone, somewhere, is seeing some beauty out of the chaos we’re in.