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'Teachers, be careful what you wish for: you might just get it'

Jon Brunskill, a primary school teacher in Leyton, writes:

The morning after is normally worse than the night before.

After a concerted and unified campaign, the new wave of educational bloggers has won the intellectual argument against grading lessons. Like David before them, the profession rose up and felled GoliOfsted. For too long teachers had been told, “Ofsted want this…” and “Ofsted expect that…”; we finally found our voice, and replied, “Why? Where is your evidence that this helps learning? On what grounds are you making these demands?”

But Ofsted’s admission that authentic lesson grading is impossible (and probably damaging) opened the door for an unfortunate Unintended Consequence. If watching teachers teach doesn’t give observers an accurate assessment of what teaching quality is like in a school or classroom, they have to look elsewhere. It turned out that the only thing worse than having a checklist – especially when it comes to workload – is not having a checklist.

Though Hydra was slain, out of its wounds grew…‘triangulation.’ If ‘triangulation’ sounds like a shady and overbearing technique employed by covert intelligence communities, it’s because they share many of the same characteristics. Whilst a blitzkrieg invasion was previously the weapon of choice, Ofsted 2.0 have returned with toothcombs and magnifying glasses. They’re in your house, and they’re armed with a blank sheet of a paper. A terrifying, blank, sheet of paper. They’re scouring your data, talking to your kids and looking at your books.

So, because the holy grail of outstanding teaching is now to be found in books, those books better be prettier than Ms World at her best friend’s wedding, and resistant to Jack Bauer levels of interrogation. The books are no longer just books.

They are “evidence”.

Being solely responsible for the evidence at your own trial is a luxury that most defendants would give their left proverbial for. But this has led to unintended consequence number two: there is literally no end to the amount of marking that you can do. A cursory read of Twitter over the last month or so is enough to reveal that teachers are very much taking that as some sort of competitive challenge.

Marking books is like Dumbledore’s Drink of Despair; the faster you gulp, the more liquid accumulates. Furious scribbling of feedback, which in turn demands a response, breeds further feedback in an exponential vortex of evening-sapping green, amber and purple pen (But not red pen, you monster).

And we’re only too pleased to let the rest of the educational community know just how many hours of our own time we’re spending neatening out books ready for the great day of Judgement.

But in the post-Govean era, there has been a significant but unspoken shift in the educational landscape: we’re running out of people to blame. No longer do we have the excuse that Ofsted told us to do it. SLT are the next obvious target, but I wonder how many of us are reflecting on whether we have actually been told to work as many evenings and weekends as we do. How often is this a gauntlet that we throw down upon ourselves and against each other?

If the teacher down the road is chucking two hours a night at each set of books, scribing war and peace after every maths puzzle and structuring personalised questions for each child, then your poxy tick and flick is going to look like gross negligence.

So there’s a knock on effect. Essentially, Ofsted compare schools against each other, not against standards. Schools themselves define what is possible for children to achieve given the resources that they have. As teachers, our time is our greatest resource and if we submit it by the truckload without request, we simply make a 60-plus hour week the minimum commitment needed to keep our heads above the baselines.

Of course, we all work so damn hard because we have the kids’ best interests in mind. We don’t want to let them down. But the sleep-depriving levels of workload recently touted are very obviously having a negative impact on those very kids that we’re trying so hard to help.

A shift in mindset is needed. The question shouldn’t be, “Who’s working the hardest?” We should all be asking how we can get the job done to the best of our abilities during normal work hours. You know, like every other profession in the world.

I’m perhaps the most guilty of this public grumbling. Just last week I tweeted at midnight about my huge pile of marking, revelling in my own martyrdom. Perhaps it was venting, but maybe I was subconsciously throwing out a boast; a public challenge.

So here’s a new call to arms. Rather than one-upping each other, let’s price-fix our working hours to something more reasonable. Deal?

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