We’ve learned so much over the past year about what really matters.
Whether it’s what really matters in the curriculum (if only as a result of the things we’ve decided we can afford to skip), what really matters about the place of schools in their communities, or what really matters about the job when it comes to the endless battle between work and family life – by removing some of the “business as usual” routines of school life, we’ve been able to step back and focus on what really matters.
In these modern times, it’s also been a case of the word “virus” returning to its more traditional use of referring to biological rather than technological ailments. But the latter is still very much a reality – and I wonder whether a pandemic through our computer networks might have a similar effect.
The impact of tech on teacher workload
While I am a huge fan of my internet-connected devices, and think that, on the whole, computers have been hugely beneficial for education, it does seem that the ease with which we can produce electronic documents and tables has been something of a double-edged sword.
One particular bugbear of mine is the annual report-writing for parents. It’s something that many schools are looking at again this year, as they try to decide how much teachers can feasibly write about pupils’ progress, given the turmoil of the past 12 months.
But that’s only become an issue because of how much we ask teachers to write now.
When I was a middle-school pupil in the late 1980s, my school reports were about 150 words long, and covered just about everything you’d expect: behaviour, friendships, academic strengths and areas of weakness (consistently handwriting and PE, in my case), and a few quick words from the headteacher. With a nice Berol italic pen (surely standard issue in those days), they barely filled two sides of A4.
The obligatory two sides of A4
When computers arrived, typing 150 words didn’t take teachers any less time – in fact, for many it was probably a much more time-consuming task – but the report still barely filled a third of a page, let alone both sides.
And so report templates quickly expanded to fill the space – and, before you know it, it’s not unusual for teachers to be writing short theses on each pupil.
The same two-page problem has arisen with job applications. Years ago, local authorities produced a template format for all jobs in their area, with two blank pages left for a supporting statement.
A keen handwriter might manage to squeeze in 300 words across the piece; a typical statement now might be five times that length, thanks to the narrowing of margins and the shrinking of font sizes. I’ve yet to be persuaded that our recruitment processes benefit at all from this verbosity.
The problem is repeated across the profession. Because it’s easy to produce lesson-planning templates and lesson-observation tick-box lists, the wretched things became commonplace.
Once you can create graphs with software showing every cut and slice of your whole-school data, you can guarantee it will become somebody’s job to do so – regardless of whether it serves any real educational purpose. If it weren’t so easy to print labels of typed objectives, does anybody really think we’d have ever ended up with the madness of sticking them in books for pupils who can’t read them?
Perhaps if we start planning now for a possible computer virus pandemic, we can cut out some of the unnecessary electronic paperwork that only exists because it can. And, while we’re at it, perhaps we could plan for a world without laminators, too?
Michael Tidd is headteacher at East Preston Junior School in West Sussex. He tweets @MichaelT1979