In the last academic year, I visited more than 30 schools (roughly one per week). I went to primary schools, secondary schools, special schools, independent schools, PRUs. I travelled along the railways of most of the country. And I enjoyed every single visit. Honestly. Schools are fantastic places and I get given really nice sandwiches to eat.
And I come away with loads of useful ideas and fantastic new writers for TES. I am shocked every time by how diverse teaching is, and yet how unaware of that diversity teachers sometimes are and how modest they become when told.
“This is great! Can you write about it?” I say.
Blank look. Puzzlement. Fear. A quick look at SLT.
“It’s just this thing… you know… I do…” they say.
“But I have never seen it or heard of it before!” I reply.
“Really? Well, I guess I haven’t either…”
More looks at SLT. A smile.
“Well, ok, I’d love to write!”
What I do not come away with, though, is a belief that those few hours I spend with that school are representative of what that school is. I get a taste, perhaps, but, equally, perhaps not.
I don’t think that because I watch an amazing lesson, every lesson in that school is amazing or that every child in that classroom thought it was amazing. I don’t see faultless behaviour and believe that, based on those carefully choreographed few hours, this means the behaviour policy is what every other school should be doing, or even what that particular school should be doing. I don't believe that because I saw something go wrong, or a situation handled badly, that this is the norm for that school.
And I certainly would not feel comfortable using that school as evidence for or against whatever is lighting the fire of debate under education in any given week.
I can’t do any of that because to get any real sense of that school, I would have to really live it. I’d have to be there, day in and day out. I would have to talk to all the key stakeholders and do so over a period of time. I’d have to have a deep understanding of the area, its social and economic make up, its history. I’d have to look beyond the statistics and into the story behind those statistics. And then I would have to recognise that I bring my own bias, that I probably see only what I want to see.
So I don’t judge schools. I judge visits, of course I do – anyone who has been to visit a school for an interview or to observe gets an impression of what they think might go on there. But the wise will heavily qualify any assumptions and recognise the limitations of any viewpoint.
Some are not so cautious. Too often, you will hear dropped into a conversation or an argument on social media or a blog post “I went there and it means THIS about that school and THAT about this way of teaching or running a school”.
Really? How do you know?
I went there.
For how long?
An hour. A few hours. A day.
Who did you talk to?
My friend who works there. The head. A teacher I talk to on Twitter. A student, maybe two students.
Is that it?
Well, I also looked at their Ofsted, their results, their value added.
Great, they get results. But how do the students feel? How do the teachers feel? How do parents feel? How do they really get those results?
If you believe in a mystical sense of "just knowing" or that you can rely on the testimony of a few people you meet while there, then you do yourself and the school a deep disservice.
John Tomsett, headteacher at Huntington School in York, wrote us a piece last year about observing teaching (or, rather, not observing it). How can you judge a teacher on a 45-minute lesson, he asked, when sitting in a lesson for 45 minutes will tell you very little about how much is being learned and how effective that teacher is day in, day out?
Much better to work with a teacher over a year, looking at all areas of their work and the students’ work. Then we can begin to see how effective that teacher really is.
We need that mindset when it comes to school visits. They’re a snapshot – true, one that provides fertile ground for an essential sharing of ideas; I love doing them and want to do more this year (firstname.lastname@example.org for invites) – but they tell you very little about what that school really is. We all need to stop pretending they do.
NOTE: Yes, I am fully aware that lurking beneath this blog is a potential criticism of Ofsted, but it’s not: the processes involved in a school visit and an Ofsted inspection, and the training for inspectors, makes the two very different – though there may, of course, be lessons to be learned in both directions…
Jon Severs is commissioning editor at TES. Find him on twitter @jon_severs