The dark side of the whiteboard - Chasing the tail of hollow ambition

26th August 2011 at 01:00

I've never been 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 (what's wrong with "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 initiative brings another aspirational objective and, since schools seem to have more stakeholders than a vampire fest, this amounts to quite some list. One project about to go national is Achievement for All (AfA). Worthwhile it may be, but it's not exactly a SMART target. If Simon Beasley in Year 9 completed his target-setting sheet with the phrase "I will do better at everything", you'd soon put right. "This is not a SMART target," you'd write all over his scrawny dreams, then explain during a 90-second meaningful mentoring conversation why this won't do. You conjugate the words "smart", "measurable", "attainable", "realistic" and "time-limited" and ask him to try again. His face takes on the 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."

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 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. AfA's inclusion agenda is admirable (it focuses on the lowest-attaining 20 per cent), but less appealing is the fact that it's being bandied by the Government to bolster special-needs reforms, including "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 a 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 world, the rest of us are nibbling on custard creams, thinking up new variants on how the dog ate our school's CVA.

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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