I hate to moan, but ..

23rd August 2013 at 01:00

Teachers moan. It's what we do. Perhaps we didn't always, but that was so long ago that only a few of us can remember it.

Yet I find myself in a spot when a non-teacher says to me, "OK, you go on about all this bureaucracy and paperwork, so give me an example." However hard I try, I can't seem to come up with a damn thing.

I know why this happens. It's exactly the same as when a lifer stops seeing the bare bricks that make up the walls of his prison. It becomes so much a part of your existence that most of the time it simply doesn't register. Every now and then, though, something comes along to jolt you back into reality.

For me, it was an "emperor's new clothes" moment with a student last term. We were poring over his portfolio at the end of his access course. "Why", he asked, as I was checking for the third time the extensive paperwork that must accompany each assessed unit of work, "do you need all this?"

We counted the assignment brief and feedback sheet pages. There were seven in total. "Not so long ago there was only one," I said. "It told the student what the task was, followed by a box for feedback on strengths, weaknesses and areas for improvement."

"Sounds good to me," he said. "Why are there are seven pages now?"

"Because the validating body says we must have seven pages."

"That's not a real answer."

He was right, of course. The real answer would have been somewhat longer. Such a volume of paper would not have been the product of any one person. The creating hand would no doubt have passed it on to another. And another. At some stage a committee would have picked holes in the original and added all the extras needed to stop them up.

Thus, page 1 consists not only of titles, dates and unit codes but also a big space for the "description of the assignment", which we are helpfully told in brackets "can be attached as a separate sheet if preferred". Page 2 is for the assessment criteria, listed in full and sometimes running to as many as 10 items. On page 3 the grade descriptors make their first appearance, spelling out in great detail what students must do in each of several areas in order to score either a merit or a distinction for the unit. And on the next page is the same information about how to achieve each grade, but presented slightly differently - either in flowing prose or staccato bullet points.

Am I boring you? I'm boring myself, so I will refrain from listing in similar detail all the inanities of the three feedback sheets that follow. Pity the poor teacher whose lot it is to deal with this many times over in the course of the academic year. It's not just a matter of filling them all in, either. First they have to be sourced, assembled and customised, a job that takes a good couple of hours and often has to be repeated the next year because of "essential" design changes imposed from above.

Next year, the course I work on is going to be revalidated. Perhaps the committee will decide to reduce the form to one page again, but most likely they'll add a couple more.

Stephen Jones is a lecturer at a further education college in London.

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