Chasing the tail of hopeless ambition

26th August 2011 at 01:00

I've never been a great one for ambition. As Faustus, Macbeth and Rebekah Brooks demonstrate, it comes with a hefty price tag and an interest rate that makes BrightHouse credit seem like alms for the poor. Schools are driven by lofty ambitions: from their Tina Turner mission statements (why can't we just settle for being "simply a bit better?") to the latest Michael Gove bolt-on, ambition has been tied to teaching like a tin can to a dog's tail and we chase round and round in desperate circles, pursuing its hollow clank.

Every new initiative brings another aspirational objective and, since schools seem to have more stakeholders than a low-budget vampire fest, this amounts to quite some list. One project about to go national down here is Achievement for All (AfA). A worthwhile goal it may be, but it's not exactly a SMART target, as we call it.

If Simon Beasley in Year 9 (S2) completed his end-of-year target-setting sheet with the phrase "I will do better at everything", you'd soon put him bang to rights. "This is not a SMART target," you'd write all over his scrawny dreams. Then you'd explain to him during a 90-second meaningful mentoring conversation why this just won't do. You slowly conjugate the words "smart", "measurable", "attainable", "realistic" and "time-limited" and ask him to try again. His face takes on the hopeful, expectant look of a Golden Retriever whose dinner bowl you have inadvertently kicked. Against your better judgment and with the twin bells of "independence" and "ownership" ringing in your ears, you scribble out his efforts and in your best Year 9 handwriting add: "I will improve my maths grade by using a protractor rather than my thumb." The lower you aim, the less they fall.

Education's aspirations are so huge they drown us. We totter through each working day swamped in borrowed XXL ambitions, looking like Kate Moss in a Vanessa Feltz hand-me-down. Ambitions need to be tucked, nipped, and tailored to size. AfA would be less problematic if it was more realistic: Achievement for Girls who don't spend Lessons applying Blusher; or Attainment for Boys who refrain from setting Fire to the Toilets. While AfA's inclusion agenda is admirable (it focuses on the lowest-attaining 20 per cent of kids), less appealing is the fact that it's being bandied by the Government here to bolster special-needs reforms, including the "over identification" of pupils with SEN. Apparently, some of us are so lazy we'd sooner give kids a statement than a decent education.

Nor is AfA's champion, children's minister Sarah Teather, the only one who thinks schools need an ideological prod. The training body Future Leaders' critical view of school leaders is implicit in its supercilious strapline: "Every Child. High Expectations. No Excuses" - the inference being that while its Future Superheroes save the western world, the rest of us are nibbling away on custard creams, thinking up new variants on how the dog ate our school's CVA (contextual value added).

So, this September, rather than being a jack of all ambitions and master of none, I am adopting a more pragmatic approach. Thanks to a recent consignment from Staples, I will be tackling social inclusion by means of new stationery: "Every Child. Pointy Pencils. No Blunt Tips".

Anne Thrope (Ms) is a secondary teacher in the north of England.

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