Talking is futile

Stephen Jones

At some stage of each inspection process, the inspector will arrange a meeting with the foot soldiers of the institution to speak to them face to face; to sound them out and discover what they think about their workplace and its practices.

So here we are, facing one another across the table. On one side sits the inspector: shirt and tie; sleeves rolled up ready for action. On the other side sit the troops, the lecturers, dressed in various shades of deshabille ready for a different sort of action: defence rather than attack.

Both sides supposedly share a common language, but from the outset it is clear that the exchange is more a dialogue of the deaf than an intelligent conversation. The inspector speaks the argot of the educational manager: an aspirational register in which everything must improve year on year, forever moving onwards and upwards.

This language variety has its own particular jargon and vocabulary, concerning itself with such things as benchmarks and targets, retention and achievement. For the inspector these things are reality, the one true reality of the pedagogical experience, because they are measurable and capable of being tapped into a computer and set in columns.

Thus, in his best inspectorese, the man in his shirtsleeves asks questions of the lecturers. He is looking for answers in the affirmative; answers that show things in their college are indeed moving onwards and upwards.

The lecturers would like to do as they are bidden. But they speak a different educational dialect: one that deals with people, not statistics; with students rather than units of potential achievement. However much the plan may involve a retention curve that arches skywards, there may be times when a student tells you that their childcare arrangements have broken down and they have to abandon their studies.

While the argot of educational management speaks of certainty and control, the lecturers know there will always be a percentage of their job that is beyond their control, and that this percentage will vary every year according to chance.

So instead of answering the questions that are put to them, the lecturers are shifty and evasive, preferring to answer the questions that they would like to have been asked, rather than those they actually were.

It would be nice to think that such polarities could be overcome. And that teachers and their regulators could once again speak in a way that the other could understand. But the signs coming from Ofsted chief Sir Michael Wilshaw tend to indicate that such a spirit is unlikely to be with us in the foreseeable future.

Stephen Jones is a lecturer at a college in London.

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