Teachers cannot mend the crippled limbs of society. Sorry, Ofsted

17th February 2012 at 00:00

One of the enduring myths of schooldays is that one day, when you are all grown up, no one will grade you good, weak or the faintly damning satisfactory. In reality, plenty of employees spend a substantial chunk of every working week struggling to explain their day-to-day activity in terms of someone else's measure of what they should be doing.

Yet generation after generation of pupils dream wistfully of a future free of judgemental adults. I wonder how many teachers have been subconsciously drawn to the profession, yearning for the day when they get to make the judgements, only to find out that they have merely moved one step along a food chain that is so long the end is invisible.

For this reason, teachers bleating about Ofsted have never impressed me. Some of the performance management regimes I have worked under make an Ofsted inspection sound like a visit from Mary Poppins. But my own recent experience has demonstrated why some teachers are right to bristle at Sir Michael Wilshaw's new broom.

"Satisfactory" is undoubtedly a pretty useless term. As the head of Ofsted observed in a recent interview, it doesn't exactly point the way forward. However, tweaking extant systems to replace poor teachers more quickly or to encourage schools treading water to have a go at the butterfly is a worryingly misplaced effort.

My teaching career spanned almost 20 years. Unusually, I worked in boarding schools, in the elite and fiercely selective private sector and in the euphemistically named challenging inner-city comps. Almost a decade ago, I worked as a tutor for Teach First in the scheme's first year and observed first-hand the scale of the challenge teachers face in the type of school Ofsted is so keen to target. Almost 10 years on, I have returned to the classroom temporarily, teaching English. What I have witnessed is, given my extensive experience, profoundly disturbing.

It's something of a cliche that the world of educational policymaking is populated by people who have either never seen the inside of a classroom, spent so little time there as to be pointless, or left the classroom too long ago to appreciate the new reality. This article is especially for them.

Yes, of course some schools can improve, and yes, of course some teachers can do better. So can some accountants, some checkout workers - and politicians. But what neither schools nor teachers can do much about is the nature of the problem foisted on them by the communities they serve. And it is not the problem the policy gurus and the strategic thinkers in government think it is.

Absence of the desire to learn

Again and again in recent weeks, I have encountered children utterly incapable of functioning in a conventional classroom, whoever happens to be standing at the front teaching them. The entire concept of schooling, that fundamental human desire to learn, develop and improve, common across cultures and ages, is absent. In its place is an invidious, dysfunctional dependency on any adult fool enough, misguided enough or, as is so often the case, simply kind enough to want to help.

My career has taken me into quite a range of workplaces outside schools and there is not one person I have ever met in those circumstances, who was not a teacher, who would tolerate for one moment the abuse and interactions with children that so many sincere, professional, skilled teachers in the UK endure day after day.

Schools cannot undo this level of educational disenfranchisement. Teachers, however good, excellent or merely satisfactory they might be, cannot mend this crippled limb of a broken society and it's pretty hypocritical of politicians, of any colour or creed, to mislead the general public into believing they can.

Ofsted has always been a sledgehammer. Sadly, the nut remains doggedly intact because those wielding the hammer have such a lousy aim.

There is no scale for this problem, no performance measure or pay-by-results strategy that can address such intractable ignorance. The nut Ofsted seems unable to locate among so many hardworking teachers' fingers and thumbs is that we have a substantial group of children in our society for whom school is in no sense a meaningful option. What they need, we don't yet have. And every day that we waste, failing to appreciate this harsh truth, is a day that our wider, healthier society and culture contracts further.

Joe Nutt has 20 years' experience of teaching in secondaries. He is an author and worked as a tutor for Teach First.

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