A parallel universe in paper, my Dears

6th January 1995 at 00:00
One of the best features of a new year is throwing things away. Weeding bookshelves of documents no longer needed, nowadays known as a Dearing, is more pleasurable than cleaning a full blackboard or emptying rubbish out of the car. After a hard year's work, there's nothing to beat a good Earing. I have just put half a decade of mad curriculum disease into the shredder. It brought back a few memories.

The 1989 science curriculum had electricity and magnetism as Attainment Target 11. In May 1991 a new proposal for five Attainment Targets instead of 17 appeared. Good old electricity and magnetism were now in Attainment Target 5, "Forces". Four months later, in September 1991, another green bottle fell off the wall, and there were only four topics. Electricity and magnetism survived, in new Attainment Target 4, "Physical Processes". "Looby-dooby doo, I'm a petunia", sang the nation's teachers in unison.

The national curriculum baffled scientists by generating its own electricity and magnetism, propelling itself into and out of Attainment Target 97b "Scrymzzical Breeglebums", or 36m(iii), "Flangical Triceps", completely defying the laws of conventional physics. There were no tears shed as that particular load of drivel went into the waste bin, I can tell you, though I kept a few souvenirs for days when a little mirth may be needed.

I was in mid-Dearing when the phone rang. "Hello", said a voice, "It's ABC Market Research here. My name's Denzil. We're doing a report for the Office for Standards in Education on the use that people in education are making of OFSTED documents." I hesitated. Was this a wind-up? Was it some friend who had finally flipped and started playing practical jokes? Was it chance that had brought together the ritual shredding of one set of daft documents with an inquisition about another? And if it was indeed true, would anyone ever believe me if I told them about it?

It was genuine. Denzil, a very nice man, really was doing a piece of market research on the use that people in education are making of OFSTED documents. It is known as "cold calling". Market researchers ring you up and conduct a telephone interview. They then sit there with a set of checklists on their knee, trying to squeeze you into one of three or four crude stereotyped categories - more or less what OFSTED itself does to schools, if you think about it. The giveaway comes when they utter statements like, "So would you say that you are 'fairly happy' or 'very happy' about the quality of British boot laces, then?".

Anyway, Denzil set off on his trek: "What is the main use you make of OFSTED documents?" I looked across at the near 500-page ring-bound file on how to inspect a school. It had certainly come in handy propping open the door when shifting obsolete national curriculum documents out to the skip, but presumably Denzil's pen was poised over categories such as "information" or "staff development", rather than "door stop".

I thought hard. "Do you want an honest answer?" "Yes, of course." "Well, the answer is that I do use it for in-service courses, but my main use is 'satire'. "

There was a pause. "I beg your pardon?" "Satire. I satirise it. It's been a godsend. It's very thorough, but it's frightened everybody witless. Teachers need a laugh on a dark December evening, so I take the piss out of it". Long pause while Denzil hunts through his categories.

As Denzil ploughed methodically on with his questions, the parallels between the national curriculum in its first manifestation, and OFSTED in its present incarnation, became increasingly marked in my mind. Both generated too much paper, most of it unread by many teachers. Both were founded on lack of faith, on the identical suspicion - that teachers could not be trusted to do a decent job and needed a heavy, blunt, bureaucratic instrument, reinforced by cumbersome statutory authority, to cudgel them into shape. Both caused great anxiety, and wasted hours of the time of busy people.

Many teachers have not yet been Ofstedded (new past participle). The process is only rescued by the presence, for the time being, of a few real inspectors who know (a) what they are doing and (b) how to hide their lay inspector in the nearest lockable cupboard.

If more teachers had been Ofstood (pluperfect subjunctive passive), they would have seen what it is like - the mass of preliminary information needed, much of it unnecessary; the disruption to the school's working life; the Lord Mayor's Show; the gibberish of the final report; the feeling of having been done over, however skilfully; the lack of follow-up, continuity and after-care.

One of the saddest features of OFSTED is when bewildered, hard-working staff, in a tough downtown area, read the mechanical prose of the final report, with its emphasis on their exam results being below the national average. Huge prominence, in the recommendations of OFSTED reports, is given to structures: the school's development plan, management and administration, whether it has a legal assembly. There are too few recommendations on relationships, classroom process, imagination, content, commitment, expectation, community, the very lifeblood of successful education. This is not surprising. The process has been privatised. It had to be designed so that any dickhead could administer it.

Denzil was on to his last question. "Is there anything else you want to say about OFSTED?". Sorry, Denzil, there isn't time. Let us just hope that the "averagely satisfactory" and "satisfactorily average" language and culture of present-day OFSTED will one day be gleefully shredded. We need a far better system of quality assurance, with much more attention to improving what happens in the classroom, as well as support and follow-up for schools that have been inspected. Real and lasting development for the better is more important than neat bureaucratic categorisation. January 1996 for a good Dearing?

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