Brilliance that cannot be inspected;Opinion

8th October 1999 at 01:00
WHAT'S happened to those brilliant teachers, the ones pupils remember for the rest of their lives? The ones even the Government's gone dewy-eyed over in recruitment campaigns? The real, charismatic teachers, who don't give a stuff for inspectors, but bequeath a lifetime legacy of big ideas to their kids?

They're being bundled out of the profession by bureaucracy. The current compulsion to inspect everything down to the caretaker's cat is a classroom catastrophe, killing off individuality and flair.

The Government's and the Office for Standards in Education's aims may be harmless enough: to ensure consistent standards. But in trying to set a level playing-field, they create a marsh of mediocrity. Gone are some bad teachers; going with them are many brilliant ones.

Brilliance is unquantifiable and can't be instilled at teacher-training, still less by inspection. Its only fit and proper judges are the folk on the receiving end - the "customers". The greatest compliment any teacher can receive is to overhear a comment such as: "He bangs on a bit - but he's a brilliant teacher."

Here's an example. Most of the 600-plus kids at my previous school were from different backgrounds; they didn't often agree. One thing they were unanimous on was the identity of the most brilliant teacher in the school. Mr X had been there for 20 years, and was the only member of staff the kids called openly by his Christian name - yet still jumped to do his bidding. He was an English teacher (of course), bold enough to try consistently challenging texts across all age-groups and abilities.

He taught Tony Harrison's V to GCSE sets the year it came out. (The rest of us were still doing Under Milk Wood.) Such was his reputation, there wasn't a squeak of protest from parents. Needless to say, his results were consistently brilliant too. The man had nothing to prove.

Until the inspectors called. For this was the very same man who never did any marking, lost pupils' work, had a panic attack at the word "syllabus", and broke into a rash at mere mention of schemes of work. Not one iota of his brilliance could ever be committed to paper.

Yet paper is what counts for inspectors. Each teacher must appear rock-solid on each sheet of A4. In short, spend more time taking cover than concentrating on delivering truly inspirational classes.

A1l the pupils wanted Mr X as their teacher. They forgave him his frailties; they even forgave him for losing their essays. They knew he was devoted to their cause and would do anything for them.

When the inspectors came in, he was in a flat spin for weeks. Their verdict? As a matter of some urgency, he must polish up his approach and become much more methodical. When they had gone, so too was something of his old confidence.

It' s a fact. In today's teaching, academics always come second to admin. Yet playing safe with stodgy syllabuses and microscopic schemes of work is an anathema to the brilliant teacher. He or she knows what makes kids tick can't be reduced to attainment targets. They want fizz, fun and sparkle. And they want to be taught by teachers capable of delivering that heady cocktail. Try getting that down on a form that will satisfy the inspection teams.

Of course, there's an important role for inspections in schools. Wherever bullying or abuse is suspected, a SWAT team should be sent in pronto. But the curriculum - apart from a few general guidelines - should remain sacrosanct: a pool of infinite possibilities for each teacher to tap into.

Until we reaffirm our faith in brilliance, the future for beaks looks bleak. Rather like Orwell's vision of the people who prospered under totalitarianism, our kids will be left facing streamlined people in suits, word-perfect with Windows, yet totally out of touch where it counts: in the classroom.

Andrew Cunningham is an English teacher in Carnleigh, Surrey

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