Build on our abilities

29th December 2000 at 00:00
Mike Todd has a solution to the league-table culture imposed by the DFEE.

About 10 years ago I was let loose in a reception class, "nursed" along by Val, my classroom assistant. Sean, a small blond five-year-old firework, was building a tower from the assortment of building blocks in the construction corner. It wasn't part of the timetable, but he was quiet and I was grateful, so I left him to it. It must have taken about 45 minutes, but he made it - a tower as big as he was, and somehow along the way he had learned that most of the bigger bricks needed to be at the bottom.

That example of a youngster's self driven activity was not unusual in primary schools. Sean was employing the old tried and tested "trial, error, and rule" technique. When that happens, all we need to do is to get out of their way while they get on with.

Contrast this with an incident about three months ago. A colleague was correcting some maths and about to do the usual crosstick routine, when a girl said: "Please Miss can you not mark it with a cross, just a pencil dot."

The teacher was puzzled. "Why?" "Well, then I can put the right answer in, you can tick it, and it will look as if I got them all right."

This wasn't to deceive her parents - the girl simply didn't want any evidence that she had made a mistake. It turned out that most of the children felt like this. The finished work had to be perfect. This was the same child who, after completing about six months of tests, said: "Miss, when are you going to teach us something?" Needless to say, the teacher was as frustrated as the child.

So what changed? Why was one child able to learn something naturally, while the other was obsessed with ticks and so bored with assessment that even she could spot that she wasn't learning much?

What changed was practically everything important in education. Teaching is now a secondary consideration - measuring is the primary one. As a result, the only children considered worthy of merit are those who achieve the highest grades - the rest have to fend for themselves. The only teachers worthy of mention are super-teachers; teachers of the year. The only schools of value are thoe at the top of a highly suspect league table. And at the head of this Government obsession with measuring is Ofsted.

We teachers feel like a profession under siege. Being inspected can feel like being in a war zone. The sometimes evident "let's see if we can catch them out" culture hints at a philosophy which is at odds with good teaching practice.

It's the teachers' response that is amazing. Mike Kent, the head of Comber Grove primary in south London, chronicled poor observation, distracting behaviour from the inspector during observed lessons, poor or non-existent feedback, poor attendance or even absence during lessons to be observed, poor timetable management and, to add insult to injury, erroneous statements (TES, May 26).

In the same issue of The TES, Martin Stephens, high master of Manchester Grammar, considered holding inspectors accountable through league tables.

Read again the thoughtful, calm article of Carole Clayson (TES, February 18). Look at the courteous and careful language used by her and others. They all balanced the need for accountability with the needs of the school, children and staff.

We've been bullied with criticism, unreasonable demands and having the control of our professional practice taken from us. Since we have bullies in our playgrounds, and bullies in the staffrooms, bullying tactics from the DFee should come as no surprise.

Maybe that's part of the problem. We are so used to this lack of control in our own profession that we find it difficult to imagine things any other way. But teachers must be able to respond to day-to-day variations in the classroom and to individual needs. The present Ofsted and national curriculum straitjackets take that away. Constant prescription and measurement make a show of progress while ultimately holding it back. They kill spontaneity and creativity.

In the preface to his book Primary Teaching, Dr Robin Alexander suggests that if teachers don't take the initiative, someone else will. Well, someone else has, with a vengeance. We need to take it back. We can do it. We can manage our profession. We have all the skills.

Mike Todd is a supply teacher in York

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