Things that go bump in the classroom

25th November 1994 at 00:00
Raymond Molony warns OFSTED that things are never exactly as they seem. .. The head of maths bursts into the staff room fuming. "That's the best lesson I've taught all year and there wasn't anyone there to see it!" It was a cry to be repeated a number of times as the week of our OFSTED inspection progressed. Exercise books marked bang up-to-date; staggeringly impressive wall displays staple-gunned to pinboards; inspired lessons waiting like white rabbits to be pulled out at the drop of a classroom door handleIHaving come this far, we actually wanted to be observed.

And why not? Teachers do it alone, almost all the time. Lapped as they may be each day by tides of falsetto voices ebbing and surging with energies; surrounded as they may be by colleagues all doing it a little better or a little worse, yet deep in their luminous felt-tipped centres teachers are very alone. So moan as they may, dread as they will, the grey-suited inspector (and they all wore grey suits with thin, ice-pale stripes running through), the visit is welcomed. A part of us longs for confirmation that we're doing it right, the chance for a pat on the back.

Not that you're likely to get much of that. They're there chiefly to spot areas where you can tighten up. Teachers, more than any other profession I know, are hungry for praise. If you get a "sound" (since "satisfactory" has deservedly been done away with) you're doing well.

We were discussing Yeats with the Upper Sixth when the black leatherette clipboard slid around the door. The slalom-like swerve of conversational direction from jokes to gyres earned the group my undying admiration. Not only did things not fall apart, the centre held magnificently. Opinions swung back and forth across the table; Yeats was being put to bed. Halfway through the lesson I noticed our visitor's feet twitching, he had drawn his chair up to the square, his fingers were strumming. Clearly he was itching to join in.

"Would you care toIah?" I invited. "I'm afraid we're not permitted to influence proceedings," he said, but went on to make an interesting point anyway about Yeats and fairies. He was a charmingly disarming man.

There is, though, a wider implication in his remark. Closely related to the Uncertainty Principle in physics as I understand it, is the acceptance that we cannot know at ground level how particles behave in themselves, in their free unobserved state, because the act of bringing observing apparatus to bear upon them throws them into fits of giggles, makes them blush and causes them to rush about at random in a most unpredictable manner.

The Civil Service mandarins whose business it is to crunch the findings of OFSTED teams into some sort of national picture should know that the observations they receive are not exactly as things are in themselves. In the end they may know our position, but not our speed; or they may know our speed but not our position. But they'll never know both. I like that.

Raymond Molony is senior sixth form tutor at Sidmouth College, Devon.

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