Behind the paperwork, our pupils come alive

Mike Kent

Here's a question. The children in your class are good readers, but half a dozen struggle. What do you do about it? Yes, that's what I thought you'd say. You find the reasons why the six are struggling and you put extra effort into helping them.

Here's another question. You're one of the senior officers at the local education authority. You want to know which of your schools are doing well, which are merely jogging along and which could do with some urgent assistance. What do you do? Well, I'd have thought you visit all your schools and get to know them well. Then you prioritise, leaving the most capable alone because they know what they're doing. Instead, you put a great deal of effort into the ones that aren't performing well. It's hardly rocket science.

That doesn't seem to happen now though. Instead, every school has to have an expensive school improvement partner, and local authorities rely on them to pass back information.

This information is gathered from the mass of paperwork the improvement partners are required to complete, little of which tells them anything meaningful about a school. It consists of data, percentages, predictions and tick boxes; everything about today's education that is mind-numbingly boring for all.

Since her appointment, my improvement partner has visited my school six times, but has only stepped out of my office once. There are too many boxes to tick. Frankly, I could be completely delusional about my school and she wouldn't know because she doesn't have time to go and look.

And the paper. Oh, the paper. Before my improvement partner's recent visit, my local authority sent all its schools - good or bad, successful or hopeless - what I assume it thought would be a helpful piece of kit. It's called the self-evaluation tool; its 20 pages supposedly offer criteria for school improvement.

As a tool, I found it as useful as a chocolate spade. It bears no real relevance to children, or to what should be happening in primary schools. It simply demonstrates that the less you visit schools, the less you understand how they function.

It's full of empty prose telling you that if standards show decline over time, or there is evidence of falling trends, or performance against contextual value added is below the national floor target (stay awake, please), you'll need some support. Well, wouldn't any head who was even vaguely in touch with their school know that already? And frankly, if I see the words rigorous, robust or secure any more, I think I'll scream. After reading the document with mounting despondency, I filed it safely. In the bin.

Last week, Chloe, just seven years old and a violinist in our school orchestra, passed her grade one exam. Connor, having joined us from another school where his attendance was appalling, has decided that school is rather enjoyable and his Mum says he's now up and dressed before she is. Michael, a member of my guitar group, looked excitedly at a difficult piece of music I presented him with and then played it perfectly first time. Ellen, new in reception, created a beautiful Elmer the Elephant collage and couldn't wait to run up and show me. Tyler, who's just started secondary school, came back to visit and said how much he's missing us. When he joined us, Tyler could have been a real problem, but we found he had an aptitude for the cello ...

Because they don't visit schools, local authority officers miss out on all the delightful things such as these.

Instead, the paperwork is paramount. Presumably these days they prefer to sit in their ivory towers, ticking boxes and turning out twaddle.

Mike Kent is headteacher of Comber Grove Primary in Camberwell, south London.

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Mike Kent

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