The scratch-card guide to evaluation

3rd November 1995 at 00:00
Are you doing anything next Wednesday? At a bit of a loose end, by any chance? Likely to spend the day kicking your heels, or playing patience, just to pass the time?

Well worry no more about how to fill those empty hours. Get yourself down to the Copthorne Tara Hotel in London where, according to the information sheet I have been sent, you can spend the day at a conference entitled "Making the Most of the National Lottery as a Funding Source". Then you might land a bit of lottery loot, as Eton and other deserving institutions have done.

Among several speakers who will address you during this exciting opportunity to learn about lottery funding is one Virginia Bottomley MP. In a letter reproduced in the programme, she writes: "I will be giving the Government's view on how the lottery has developed as a funding source and how we see it stimulating wider participation and interest in sport, the arts and the nation's heritage throughout the United Kingdom. I welcome this event as a very useful forum for all those involved, or interested in, lottery funding. "

Can't wait to book your place? Well the bad news is that, if you want to hear Virginia's pearls of wisdom, you had better write a cheque for up to Pounds 411.25, because that is what it will cost you to attend the day conference (though it is less for charities). This does include what is quaintly called "luncheon", a somewhat dated term for, I hope, at the top price, half a ton of caviar washed down with a dozen bottles of Bollinger. You will probably need the champagne to recover from the shock of having parted with up to 400-plus smackers for the privilege of listening to Virginia bloody Bottomley. She should pay us to turn up.

In this scratch-card society, those who have little money are persuaded to part with some of it in the faint hope that they might get lucky. It may be just a bit of fun for those who can afford it, but a lottery raises much of its cash from the desperate. It is a squalid way of funding what should be public services.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that life itself is a bit of lottery nowadays, especially when it comes to the assessment of teaching ability. I was intrigued at the irony of the account in The TES Diary (October 13) of Chief Inspector of Schools Chris Woodhead being assessed by Her Majesty's Inspectors on the talks he gave at their annual in-house Office for Standards in Education conference.

For those who missed the Diary piece, what happened was as follows: the HMIs have to evaluate the conference speakers using the same five-point scale they employ on their visits to classrooms. Chris Name-the-Bad-Teachers Woodhead was given a clutch of the two lowest grades 4s and 5s, on such features as "usefulness", "interest" and "presentation skills". So far, very ironic, ha ha. Poor old Chris fails his OFSTED and has to come up with an action plan. Tough toenails, no excuses, it's a hard world, on your bike.

There is, however, a serious side to all this. What was striking about the evaluations was that, although large numbers of HMIs gave him the bottom grades, some marked him higher. For example, the spread of marks on the criterion "interest" was very wide, with 11 per cent putting him in the top category with a grade 1. A further 25 per cent ticked grade 2, 28 per cent grade 3 and 36 per cent awarded grades 4 and 5. On "presentation skills", no one gave him a grade 1, but 51 per cent ticked grades 2 and 3, while 49 per cent awarded grades 4 and 5.

My reaction to this was quite simple. Don't stand around. Dial 999. Ask for all the emergency services - police, ambulance, fire brigade, Virginia Bottomley, the lot. If Inspector A gives grade 1 for the same performance that Inspector B rates a grade 5, then this must be national crisis time.

It confirms what many of us have argued for years, which is that the assessment of teaching is a highly subjective matter, and that OFSTED can be a bit of a lottery. One man's meat is another man's hit squad. Think of all the teachers being inspected at this very moment who might get a grade 5 from Harry Hardcheese, but would perhaps have earned a grade 1 from Simon Softee.

This whole saga illustrates beautifully the problems of assessing teaching. I don't always agree with his message, but I think that old Wooders is actually a good speaker, so I might want to give him a grade 4 for "content", but grade 1 for "presentation skills". Someone else might agree with every word he says and award grade 1 for "content".

It is, however, all too easy to allow our emotional reactions to "content" or "personal appearance" to colour our appraisal of general "teaching skill". Different aspects of teaching sometimes need to be kept separate from one another. I hope Wooders learns from his own experience at the hands of his assessors and recognises that the evaluation of human ability is not always a simple open-and-shut matter.

So I have devised my totally impartial British Instruction Assessment Scale (BIAS) for the completely objective award of a grade 1 for teaching. Superteachers must manifest the following characteristics: * Wear elbow patches and Hush Puppies; * Say "Ey up" when a pupil misbehaves; * Like Yorkshire pudding; * Not have nodding dogs on the rear shelf of their car; * Support Sheffield Wednesday; * Hate Arsenal.

Copies of the BIAS scale are available from Virginia Bottomley for Pounds 411.25 (including luncheon and scratch card).

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