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No more than a charade

One of my favourite TES features is "What keeps me awake at night", because it is written by people at the sharp end of teaching who tell it like it is.

A recent example had me nodding furiously in agreement. The writer, a teacher of five-year-olds, said that much of her time was spent devising unnecessary targets, writing lengthy action plans and gathering data. Because of this, she said, she spent far too little time teaching - the job she was employed to do. And none of this extra work had any relevance to the children or their progress.

Shortly after I read this piece, a friend from a local school phoned me. After many sleepless nights, she had decided to resign from the job she loved.

My friend is a special educational needs coordinator and a talented, committed professional. For years, she has enthused children who find learning difficult. They are often from such disrupted homes that simply turning up at school is an achievement. She has given them encouragement, affection, goals, a stimulating educational environment and, in almost all cases, the ability to read.

What she can't do is turn these children into students with high academic ability. But if they aren't forced up to the level of more able children, the data will show a big enough dip for the school to be in serious trouble at its forthcoming inspection.

A programme of intense coaching has therefore begun. Watching her students struggle to achieve results that are beyond their capabilities, while getting precious little enjoyment from their schooling, has caused my friend much anguish. She doesn't want to be part of this charade any more. She also knows that even if the booster groups work, when the children move to secondary school their new teachers will soon realise that the paper results are unrepresentative of the students' true abilities.

The constant demand for huge amounts of data unnerves teachers. One wrote to me recently, saying that if the monthly information she was required to present didn't show a constant upward trend, she would be hauled into the school leader's office. Although she loves teaching, she is already beginning to consider an alternative career.

"The crazy thing is," she says, "the headteacher can point to a dip in the graphs but he barely knows the names of his teachers, let alone having the slightest rapport with the children. I'm tempted to tinker with the data, but my conscience will not allow it."

It's easy to see how all this has happened. Computers can manipulate incredible amounts of data, which is convenient for inspectors because they use it to assess a school even before they enter the building. Then all they have to do is gather a little evidence to support their assessment.

Government ministers need the data because it can be used to show what a jolly good job they are doing. And if the numbers leave something to be desired, well, it's the fault of teachers, who simply aren't working hard enough to raise standards.

Mike Kent is a retired primary school headteacher in England.


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