So everyone's happy... except the children

24th January 2003 at 00:00
Journalism is an anarchic profession (or "craft", as many prefer to call it) with no fixed qualifications and few agreed techniques. I would not dream of dictating to New Statesman contributors how they should set about their work. I might request an outline of their ideas, but not a detailed scheme.

My concern is that their end product informs and entertains the reader.

I do not suggest that schools should be organised like newspapers and magazines. They perform public functions with public money and must conform to procedures, many of them expressed in legalistic form. But the danger is that the procedural tail wags the teaching dog. Indeed, in schools, it now threatens the dog's survival: all that wagging, I fear, will make the poor creature dizzy, bilious and ultimately insane.

The document on workload, agreed between the Government and the unions (but not the National Union of Teachers), supposedly comes to the dog's rescue.

It is in many ways admirable. It is very good on what teachers should not be doing: photocopying, putting up classroom displays, ordering supplies etc. But I wish it were equally specific about what teachers actually are supposed to do. Take marking. Yes, marking: you know, writing comments on children's work, correcting errors, making ticks and crosses.

I did not really expect references to "marking" in the agreement. It is the kind of simple, old-fashioned word used by people at bus stops ("she's not coming out tonight; she's a teacher and she's doing her marking") and so has no place in a document composed by politicians and bureaucrats. But I did vaguely expect a reference to "pupil feedback", a modern word for marking.

But no - all I found was "planning, preparation and assessment" which, given the affection of the education world for impenetrable abbreviations, naturally becomes PPA. Marking, I suppose, comes under "assessment". But what exactly is assessment? I suspect that the authors of the agreement have in mind the ticking of boxes, the noting of targets, the making of reports in the correct jargon. No doubt heads will ensure that, during the time set aside for PPA in the school day, teachers are plentifully supplied with such tasks.

But children do not read official forms; they want to know what the teacher thinks of their work; they want to be praised, coaxed and, where necessary, blamed. I think this used to be called "marking": giving tangible evidence to pupils of how teachers were responding to them, often using words that were designed, not to fit some externally-determined template, but to recognise a pupil's individuality. I am not sure it is the same thing as "assessment".

Once, the only pressure on teachers came from pupils. It was possible for teachers, if they could tolerate rows of bored faces day after day or, worse, misbehaviour and humiliation, to get paid for minimal effort. We all remember a few such teachers from our school days.

But most teachers made more effort, if only because they wanted the respect of their colleagues. The behaviour and motivation of pupils were the benchmarks against which they measured themselves. The idea that, before Ofsted appeared with its clipboards, teachers were never assessed is preposterous: they received instant and often brutal feedback from the 30 or 40 bodies in front of them.

Now, for all the talk of individual learning schemes, teachers no longer serve children. They serve management, an entirely new concept in schools.

Lesson plans and assessments are produced to the deadlines and the requirements of various bureaucracies, not for children who exist increasingly as abstractions, to be aggregated into levels. The school day was once planned so that it made sense to children; now, it need make sense only to adults.

Peter Wilby is editor of the New Statesman

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