Paper-pushers? I know how to tick their boxes

14th March 2008 at 00:00
Chatting with a colleague the other day, we got to grumbling about the state of education and he asked why I hadn't retired yet.

"You're well past 60," he said. "What keeps you going?"

It wasn't a difficult question to answer. The thrill of orchestra on Thursday mornings, reading stories to the nursery children, teaching my guitar groups, sharing the excitement of children who are just discovering they can read, performing science experiments in assembly, writing and producing the summer musical. Then there's the humour, dedication and enthusiasm of my staff, and the sheer pleasure of knowing you're in charge of a thriving, successful school.

"But don't you get fed up with the endless paperwork?" he asked.

Again, easy to answer. Yes, it could easily get me down. But one morning early in my headship I learned that much fun can be had with irritating bureaucracy, petty officialdom, and constant form-filling demands. I was stretched to the limit that day, teaching two classes because flu had decimated my staff. The local authority had no more supply teachers, and agencies didn't exist. At lunchtime, among the post I found an eight-page form from the town hall demanding a "needs analysis" of my school. Bewildered, I phoned an official, who said I was to provide a list, with suitable justification, of everything I could think of that might help my school move forward in the next five years. Would there be additional money for these needs? Apparently not, but it would "help the authority collate various ways forward".

Irritated, I filled the form with pseudo-jargon, pointing out that the need for a needs analysis would need to be analysed to determine the neediest needs. I assumed that I'd be slapped on the wrist and told not to be silly, but a fortnight later I received a letter thanking me for my very useful contribution. This, I thought, has to be the way forward. With today's relentless demands, seeing what you can get away with is a wonderful stress-buster.

It doesn't just apply to the written word, of course. Years ago, a pompous local inspector was prone to wasting my time expounding his unworkable educational philosophies when I was struggling to get my newly acquired school into shape. He didn't come so regularly after I'd asked him to look after a class of six-year-olds for a moment while I pretended to deal with an urgent telephone call, and then left him for half an hour. And an educational psychologist who drove my staff mad with incessant quotes from obscure theoretical tracts had to admit he'd never heard of McWhirlitzer's Theory of Inverted Behavioural Isolationism, on which I expounded until he looked hurriedly at his watch and said he had to go.

But forms are often the best. Since the overriding importance for my authority is whether or not its schools will achieve high Sats scores, it recently sent a form asking what I intended doing to ensure borderline children reached level 4. I assured them I had rigorously imposed an enforced programme of personalised, value-added, target-driven hoop-jumping from dawn to dusk. Officialdom seemed satisfied with that. Well, they didn't reply, anyway.

Even easier was responding to my school improvement partner's query about our summer-born reception children who, it seems, outperform those born in the winter. What did I intend to do about it? Easy, I said. Just tell parents to avoid sexual intercourse between April and June.


Mike Kent, Headteacher of Comber Grove Primary, Camberwell, south London.

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