In education, we've become so numbed by the constant stream of irrelevant documents...

7th May 2004 at 01:00
In education, we've become so numbed by the constant stream of irrelevant documents we're no longer surprised by their inanity

There's a wonderful moment in Ken Loach's film The Navigators where a line manager on the railways is trying to explain to his workers why they have to comply with the request for a mission statement.

"What exactly is it?" asks one of the group.

"Well," says the floundering line manager, "it means we say what we're going to do."

"And then what?" persists his worker.

"WeI ahmI we do it," says the manager triumphantly. The group stares in disbelief.

In education, we're used to this sort of nonsense. We've become so numbed by the constant stream of irrelevant documents we're no longer surprised by their inanity. But if I were giving awards for the silliest document of the year, I'd be hard pressed to dismiss the one I received last year, 80 pages in all, which purports to help me decide how good my school is. You should "identify a school aim", it begins, "such as ensuring that all pupils achieve and make steady progressI " This, naturally, hit me like a bolt from the blue. Of course! Get my pupils to make progress and achieve!

But even this document paled into insignificance beside the one I received from the local authority about school leadership and management. In it, I'm encouraged to sit down and review my school, awarding it points and levels, under several "developmental stages". These include "Foundation Rhetorical", "Developing Singular", "Established Co-operative", and "Best Practice Corporate". Have you the slightest idea what any of these mean? Me neither. Hardly surprising, because they don't mean anything at all. At the end of each line there's a space for me to write "comments", presumably after in-depth discussions with my senior managers. God knows who the comments are supposed to be for. But who could stay awake after reading:

"Does the annual audit include systematic analyses of development activities in the previous development plans and links to the new plan?"

Why are we still bombarded with this nonsense when the DfES has pledged to cut meaningless bureaucracy? Why an assumption that the bigger the document and longer the sentences the greater importance it adopts? Presumably, because the people who write it - the so-called school improvement advisers - would rather hide behind it than roll their sleeves up. It hits teachers at every level, every week. A reception teacher in a neighbouring school has just shown me a document that lists what her learning intentions should be. The first three are that children should be interested and motivated, they should be encouraged to try new activities, and they should understand what is right and wrong. Presumably these things haven't been touched upon in the years she spent training.

At our meeting last week, my deputy and I surveyed aspects of our school.

We're not complacent and we're always looking for ways to move it forward, but we agree that finding money to tile the toilets is more useful than "systematically reviewing whether our audit process is data-led and informatively evaluated". We're always fully staffed. We're very oversubscribed. We get excellent results in music, art, drama. We're in an exceptionally tough city area, but we've never excluded anyone. I can't imagine how we do it. Or could it be that we put all our energies where they're supposed to goI into children and classrooms.

Meantime, like Ken Loach's railwaymen, I'll continue to survey the documents with incredulous disbelief. They're bound to keep coming.

Mike Kent is head of Comber Grove primary, London borough of Southwark.


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