Er, this is just a suggestion, OK?;Briefing;Governors

2nd July 1999 at 01:00
Training in the national numeracy strategy has been taking place throughout the country. But is it, asks Gabrielle Jones, a waste of time?

It was the third, governor-friendly day of our local education authority's school training for the national numeracy strategy. A question was asked: Parents complain of their lack of knowledge and involvement in the curriculum, but how can we involve those parents who remain uninvolved and thus disadvantage their children?

Perhaps not that unusual a question at a gathering of educationists. Crucially, though, on this occasion, it was a question which did not have an answer in the script.

The trainer did not miss a beat. "I'm just reading these overheads here," she replied, deadpan, in a monotone. There were whispers of dismay; one headteacher hissed to another, "Well, we could have read them at home in 20 minutes and saved ourselves a day."

Striking features of the training - for which many governors had taken the day off work, unpaid - were its lack of relevance for governors and its inflexibility. To add, every so often, "and this would be useful for governors, too," at the end of the odd sentence did not magically transform six bullet points on an overhead transparency into an inspiration and a joy for governors anxious to find out what this new role of numeracy governor entails. Even less so, when the transparency detailed the way to run a maths lesson.

Actually, I am less clear about my responsibilities as a numeracy governor after the training than I was before. But surely, rather than running maths lessons I ought to be making sure that mathematics is being planned, taught and assessed according to the Numeracy Framework?

I and governors from other local schools were longing to be taken through the said framework, a magnificent analytic structure which has the potential to raise national achievement. No chance.

We were not even guided through the excellent Information for Governors booklet which we received before the training. This booklet, listing targets and outlining the lesson plan, is a model of concision. The day's training, on the other hand, offered the most pedestrian kind of introduction to teacher training, all ground through the achingly slow delivery of those endless, overhead transparencies. Practically nothing about maths itself.

There were three trainers, or robots as we started to call them, all fetchingly dressed in summer frocks and matching smiles, offering an audience of governors, heads, special education needs co-ordinators and maths coordinators such suggestions as: "You might find it an idea to write down the maths vocabulary you need in a lesson before you begin."

These are ideas so obvious to primary practitioners that to compare them to teaching your grandmother to suck eggs is insulting to grandmothers. It is hardly startling for teachers to hear that a common format for the weekly plan will be useful or that teaching activities need to be different from assessment activities, though it might have been nice to be told how. But no, like all the really interesting stuff, that was going to be a matter for "your own professional judgment".

Contradictions ran deep: homework should not involve parents teaching maths but parental involvement remains vital; audit and lesson observation are not appraisal, even if done by headteachers (oh, yeah?); the numeracy strategy is designed to raise standards but is undifferentiated in its application to successful and failing schools alike; audit is not compulsory but if the brown envelopes are not returned to local education authorities, the money for in-service teacher training next term will not be forthcoming.

Unfortunately, the trainers could not answer questions on these issues. It was all pre-programmed. Even the proposed action plans had pre-printed answers involving "Put into place the daily mathematics lesson."

Perhaps worst of all for governors, the section on observation of a mathematics lesson hinged on a very technical form. Although the trainers smiled sweetly when questioned and twittered repeatedly, "These are just suggestions, these are all just suggestions," they could not rebut the governor who objected to observing a lesson with a tick-sheet of 40 elements of a good lesson. If observing a lesson with 40 tick-boxes is not appraisal, what is? he asked. It will certainly look like appraisal to the teacher being observed.

Governor-visits to school can be among the most thorny aspects of a complex relationship - as readers will be well aware. Visits only work when governors specifically do not sit in judgment. When a trainer says, "You do not have to be judgmental to observe," what can they mean?

It was a hot, tedious day. At the end, one robot observed, through a clenched-teeth smile, "It is quite a hard task to deliver four sessions totalling five-and-a-half hours."

Excuse me, isn't that what our teachers do all day, every day? And this is training?

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