Boycott the box-ticking

Alex Wood

A well-respected Scottish headteacher recently managed to both shock and amuse me. We'll call him David. I'm certainly not going to name him or where he works.

David received a call from Education HQ: "We don't have a copy of your learning and teaching policy."

"No, no, you don't," he replied. "By when do you need it?"

The tolerant official didn't want to break David's back. "Is the end of the month all right?"

"No problem! I thought you might need it immediately," David replied. "You'll have it at the end of the day."

"How can you manage that?" the bemused official responded. "Is it almost ready?"

"No," David said. "I'll Google 'policies on learning and teaching', find the best one and change the badge and the name of the school on the cover to ours. OK?"

This showed admirable contempt for managerial box-ticking. David assumed that the local authority having every school's policy statement on learning and teaching (or behaviour management, or school self-evaluation) was no more than an audit exercise, and that the document would lie unread on a desk somewhere. He understood that most such policies are largely the same things said differently in different schools.

Above all, he demonstrated confidence that his school's learning and teaching was exemplary, and that if the school were to be judged on what happened in reality rather than on paper, it would not be found wanting. I'm certain that was so.

David also told me that his annual improvement plan was always largely a rehash of the previous year's, but that in the middle of a different page each year, he inserted the words "Immediately you read this sentence, please phone David on ... ... " and included the school's telephone number. He had never received a call and therefore assumed that no official had ever read his plan.

I rarely had the chutzpah to challenge my managers in quite so cavalier a fashion. Nonetheless, David has a powerful point. People, not policies, transform education, and committed, reflective, innovative teachers who relate to learners transform learning.

David, however, may now have gone over to the dark side: he has accepted a senior local authority management post. But if he can walk the corridors of power, the system has not been totally refashioned by the bureaucrats who plague schools with calls for policy papers, statistical returns and risk assessments. Let's celebrate David's appointment and adopt at least some of his strategies. Put teaching, learning and relationships first; put reports, statistics and procedures well down the priority list; and articulate that vision to anyone willing to listen.

Let's also trust that the machine won't suck David into its box-ticking mindset.

Alex Wood is a former headteacher who works at the Scottish Centre for Studies in School Administration.

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