Stay sane in ever more testing times

19th August 2005 at 01:00
Each January, I fail to make resolutions for the new year because I won't keep them anyway. But I'm changing my ideas now and I've been scribbling out a list. The delay of six months is no more ridiculous than my diary running from August to July. Actually, non-teachers do think the diary is ridiculous but it makes complete sense to anyone working in schools. Ditto to my new year resolutions.

So why break the habit of a lifetime? My resolutions will require me to alter some of my customs, while others will be inconvenient. All will need a substantial effort if they are to succeed, but I'm getting desperate so there is no dodging some desperate measures. Some years ago, I stopped enjoying my job. It didn't happen overnight and, because I have always found running a school engrossing and enjoyable, I was slow to spot that serious changes were afoot.

Realisation dawned only when job satisfaction turned to grind and my enthusiastic approach to each school day was buried by fear and a heavy heart. I was leading a double life, too, since colleagues still regarded me as highly committed and motivated, while I knew that my recent vital signs were of disappointment and distress. This loss of interest and enjoyment appears to have coincided with the expansion of the increasingly systematised activities of target-setting, performance management and school improvement. The ideas themselves are admirable enough. It's the dead-handed and joyless methods by which they are conducted that are destructive.

Now Her Majesty's inspectors of education are making it worse. When they announced their next gift to schools, my heart sank. HMIE has proudly announced that, as from this month, the existing four-point scale for school evaluation will grow to six points. The present top rating of "very good" will be overtaken by a new rating of "excellent". The second-top rating of "good" drops to number three, while some schools previously rated as "good" will find themselves demoted into a grudging "adequate" category at number four.

To make it worse, HMIE pretends it's doing us a favour. It says the new scale will allow "clearer recognition of exemplary best practice" and "an enhanced focus on securing improvement".

So the "excellents" can pin gold stars to their chests in their "exemplary" little club, where they will no longer have to mix with riff-raff, like ourselves, who have managed to achieve some "very goods". And to keep us in our place, we shall be whipped on to greater efforts otherwise known as "an enhanced focus on securing improvement". As for ratings once described as "good" - don't get too comfortable, they are likely to be only "adequate".

Of course, it's a very clever move by HMIE. When too many schools are meeting targets at "good" or "very good" levels, increase their insecurity by raising the bar so that they have to worker harder. In a few years, they'll put "brilliant" beyond "excellent" and start all over again.

I don't want to play this hateful game any more. I despise the changes it has bred in me. I want to ease back on crippling intensity and cynicism and I want my colleagues and myself to find satisfaction in the school's progress without the pressure of aiming for the impossibility of perfection.

My new year resolutions are about staying sane. So, for the first time ever, I shall have a break at lunchtime. I shall decide times when I am not available. I shall, with St Francis of Assisi, accept that there are situations I cannot change and I shall not cover other people's jobs. I shall park my car miles away so that I have to walk. I shall pass time with people, and listen, talk and laugh.

Will I keep my resolutions? There is no choice. Success will make school life bearable and allow us to move forward. Failure is not an option.

Brian Toner is headteacher of St John's primary in Perth.

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