Met up with an old chum last week and had a sad conversation. We’d trained together and set out on the mission simultaneously. He was one of those annoying wretches who became competent quickly. After five years he was a department head and soon after a member of senior management. I hadn’t seen him for a while, and I was surprised to hear that although he was still teaching, he had gone from officer to private again. Normally you’d suspect a scandal or some dark secret behind the demotion - not a bit of it. He’d changed schools for family care reasons, and had spent the last year back in the trenches. And now he was considering packing his bags and changing career.
Now this is a superstar teacher. This is someone who managed to combine excellence in the classroom and airtight organisational skills with drive, vision and absolute dedication. Liked and respected by kids and staff, this was a teacher you would have on your fantasy school team. What had changed, I asked, to make him lose his heart for the job? The answer was simple.
“Accountability and data,” he said. “I came into this job because I love teaching children; because I see them as people who need the best start in life we can give them. They’re all sons and daughters, and they’re in my room because I’m supposed to help them learn and understand.”
“And now they aren’t children. They’re units. The school sees each examinable cohort as a set of targets; the ones who look like they’ll meet that target get ignored, and the ones who might get all the attention. And the ones who probably won’t get their levels and C grades…the ones who need us most…get the scrapheap.”
I understood, and he continued.
“And it doesn’t stop there: schools don’t make decisions based on how it benefits the pupils anymore. The first thing they ask themselves is ‘what will Ofsted think?’ So instead of having a vision about where they want to take kids, they worry about nothing else but how it looks to an external assessor.
I did an activity day a few weeks ago for a whole year group where we looked at helping out in the community. The kids loved it - some of them even started up their own schemes with local hospices and homes. No lesson objectives on the board; no evidence of progress. No differentiated challenge or plenary or levels. And it was the best, most enjoyable thing I’ve done in ages. And it was also completely unlike how I have to teach these days.
Every kid has a target, and God help them if they don’t do well in a test because that means their level has gone backward. We have to level everything, and I know that even the Fisher Family Trust say that levels shouldn’t be used like that. So why are we? Because of accountability. Because my school thinks that children should all make smooth progress every lesson, every term. And if they don’t the school wants to know why. I’ll tell them why; because they’re human beings, not bar charts. I want to teach children; they make me pretend to teach robots.”
I could do little else but commiserate with him. And as we sank a few more Drambuies, I assured him that there were plenty of schools out there that didn’t see children as dots on a scatter graph; that still believed in education for its own sake and the Hell with the child-catchers of bureaucracy.
I just don’t know how many.