Quality starts with the boy at the back;Comment;Opinion

16th January 1998 at 00:00
I can't quite remember when parents were first referred to as "consumers" of education and we became aware of "customers" and the need to sell our wares. But after reflection, I think it interesting to see the effect that such a culture change has had on our approach.

Only a cynic would deny that the advances made in what we must call "quality assurance" have been to the benefit of parents, pupils and teachers. Certainly, the oft repeated trilogy of questions in schools - "Where are we? Where do we want to go? How do we get there?" - provides a dynamic for development that sharpens our focus and leads to a greater self-awareness.

Self-assessment at every level and including pupils' approach to their own studies is a valuable tool in the decision-making process, but in common with the whole quality assurance approach it requires a degree of honesty and confidence that many find quite daunting.

One major effect can be seen in the attitude of probationers. Being lucky enough to work in a school with a high proportion of "young" teachers, I find it extremely noticeable that they operate with an openness that would have seemed odd to those who qualified in the sixties and seventies.

Rather than fearing or doubting the wisdom of inviting others into their classrooms to observe them at work, many of these teachers welcome feedback. They take it as a prerequisite of their professional development that they will continually ask, "How am I doing? How can I progress?", and they rightly expect to be supported in putting into action any positive advice they receive.

While this might be put down to the confidence of youth or a reflection of the high quality of teachers qualifying from our colleges, it clearly must also betoken a profession more willing to listen, reflect and learn from both their own experiences and those of their colleagues.

It is, however, a high-risk strategy. There was a rapid rise in room temperature at a recent meeting when the speaker distributed a questionnaire and suggested we might like to use it with our pupils at random intervals to see how the lesson was going. It invited the pupils to indicate their state of mind at that particular point in the lesson and contained such ranges as alert-drowsy, excited-bored, something at stake-nothing at stake, full of energy-very little energy. We all agreed that for some of our least successful classes the answers might well be alarmingly illuminating.

I decided to put a huge poster at the back of my classroom asking: "What are you doing?" But in the cold light of day I realised it's better not to pose questions to which you have no answer.

Predictably, however, the situation is not without humour. One school issued the statement "The headteacher is approachable and helpful" on its questionnaire but carefully ticked "Strongly agree" before it was issued to parents.

We should probably be aware of where all this may be leading. Taking the example of our premier tyre and exhaust centre, we could envisage the classroom of the future, complete with poster of the teacher's smiling face and the statement: "You should be positively delighted with the lesson you experience. Should the reality fall short the headteacher will be pleased to deal with your complaint personally."

None the less, a senior colleague claims to have operated a quality assurance programme throughout his long career. He says that every 10 minutes or so he eyeballs the laddie in the back corner and roars: "Hey. Are you listening to me, pal?"

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