The letter said the trees had to be a standard height - but there was a way of dealing with the officials, writes Paul Burton
As Victor Meldrew would say: "I do not believe it!" But it happened. A brown envelope landed on my doormat. It was not from the Office for Standards in Education, but it might as well have been for all the anxiety it caused me.
The envelope contained a letter from France Telecom informing me politely that a little man with a clip board (exact wording) was going to measure the height of the trees around "le shack" under renovation in South West Brittany. The outcome was to be a report with action points needed to be taken if the trees were not of standard height or were seen to be interfering with the normal function of the telephone wires.
The letter concluded that I might wish to seek advice and rectify the situation before the inspection or the result could be that special measures would be carried out for which I would be charged. After a deep intake of breath and a few choice words aimed at the dog (not his fault, he just happened to be around at the time) I began to feel the world had gone mad on measuring.
If it moves, breathes, communicates, and shows any signs of life - measure it. There is a whole education industry built around this phenomenon which it seems we have exported to our counterparts in the French telecommunications industry.
Perhaps new Labour will re-address the balance of what to measure in schools, how often and by whom. Furthermore, it needs to consider the amount of weighting given to external quality control via OFSTED and internal quality assurance through schools' own self improvement strategies assisted by LEAs.
Raising confidence and morale, establishing trust and generally trying to put the "E-factor" (Enjoyment) back into teaching needs to be a prime focus of this government. Here in Essex, two particular initiatives have these aims and are developing practical strategies to raise pupil achievement. The first is a collaborative venture between the LEA, the Cambridge Institute and 26 primary schools most of which have faced OFSTED inspections. Paired teams of staff from three different service units (psychologists, special needs support and school development advisers) worked jointly with schools for a number of days in identifying conditions for improvement such as leadership, staff development, involvement, co-ordination, enquiry and reflection. Once the focus had been identified the pairs assisted the schools with strategies for improvement in consultation with the Cambridge Institute.
Over the past 18 months, I have worked with a colleague in Harlowbury primary school, Harlow, focusing on raising the level of "involvement" of all the staff, pupils, parent teachers' association, but with a particular emphasis on parental involvement. Outcomes have included parents producing a reading guide, supporting curriculum evenings and workshops, along with "taster" events about children's work. Important outcomes for staff were re-gaining a sense of recognition and achievement, developing new skills and seeing the impact of the project on raising pupils' achievement.
The lessons gained from this initiative led to another working with the six Harlow secondary schools in a self-help collaborative project producing practical strategies. On a warm balmy evening last month the schools presented their findings in such diverse areas as the effectiveness of rewards and sanctions on pupils, gender issues ("hormones with attitudes"), attendance, the impact of effort grades on standards and the effects of groupings in classrooms. The Harlow teachers and their schools shared experiences, re-gained confidence, developed new skills, supported each other and, instead of just measuring outcomes, tried some practical strategies to make improvements.
Heartened by the effects of all these strategies, I visited "le shack" in the holidays and half-way up a ladder, clutching my hand saw, was greeted by my next door neighbour, a retired farmer who looks like a cross between Bilbo Baggins and Ken Clarke. I climbed down and showed him the letter from France Telecom. At first he chuckled and then proceeded to remove from the back of his tractor an enormous tronconneuse (power chain saw). A few hours later, with my colour restored and some tuition gained in the art of chainsawing, we surveyed the beautiful view of trees, trimmed to the required standard. On reflection, the outcomes were newly-developed skills, renewal of a friendship, a sense of achievement and relief but, most importantly, a sense of reality that not all things can be measured.
Paul Burton is a school development adviser with Essex LEA