Rebel without an answer

16th November 2012 at 00:00

Tomorrow, I will be at the London Festival of Education taking part in a "Rebel Teachers' Workshop". I'm not a rebel by nature but I learned early in my headship that if you don't stand up for what you believe in, you'll be walked all over by bureaucrats, ground down by constantly changing and often ludicrous government initiatives, or taken to pieces by Ofsted inspectors, many of whom are far less competent than the people they are inspecting. As I've spent much of my career challenging the incompetent, the "rebel" label has stuck, particularly after writing about my experiences for this paper for many years.

If they had a mind to, headteachers could spend their entire time locked in their rooms tackling the forms and questionnaires that arrive almost daily, and it pays to be wary. Schools have to provide a great deal of electronic data to local authorities and the Department for Education, and I'm always suspicious about the use they might be put to. A while ago, the Department sent a census, eight screen pages for every person in the building, requiring a level of detail that even included the colour of teachers' cars. I made a fuss about it, national newspapers took up the story, and suddenly the mysterious census disappeared. Who knows what companies would have ended up with the information?

But that didn't stop other forms relentlessly appearing. In the month I retired, a survey about school meals arrived. This was an important form to complete, said the covering letter, because the information was urgently needed by the School Food Trust. Apparently it would help it to "understand factors behind meals take-up and offer 'targeted' advice".

The survey irritated me from the start. The more I tried to interpret a question, the less I understood what information it wanted. The first question asked: "What was the charge-out price, the amount allowed to pupils in the dining room, of a two-course meal?" The second question asked: "What was the charge-out price, the amount charged to pupils in the dining room, of a two-course primary meal?"

I wrestled mentally with these two for 10 minutes, but still hadn't a clue what they were asking for. The price of a school meal? As the second question said "primary", did that mean the first question referred to secondary schools? And if it did, why was the form headed "Primary School Meal Prices"?

Dear God! And I was only on the first two questions.

The following sections contained 53 questions, and I was asked to grade each one on its relevance to rising or falling school meal demand. Level 1 was low, level 4 was high. All the questions demanded a fair level of interpretation. The simplest said "Has the level of demand risen or fallen due to parental perception of poor quality provision?" Well, unless I balloted every parent, I had no idea. The final page asked me to calculate the total number of lunches, free meals and trading days in the last financial year, and at that point my patience expired. Although I was only supposed to grade my answers from 1 to 4, I scribbled any numbers that came into my head and sent the form back.

I heard nothing further. Nor did any colleague I asked, so perhaps there are quite a few other "rebels" out there too.

Mike Kent is a retired primary school headteacher. Email: For further information on the festival, visit

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