Window pains

31st October 2014 at 00:00

It was that time again: we dutifully handed over our much-marked exercise books for inspection.

"You spend more time looking at our books than our lessons," one teacher commented to the powers that be.

"But that's where the evidence is these days," we were told. "Your books are your shop window; they show what the pupils can really do."

I was surprised. Mostly because I wasn't aware that I was running a shop, but also by the notion that everything they wanted to know could be gleaned from looking in the children's books. Our school loves scrutinising books because Ofsted loves scrutinising books. The inspectorate has moved into window-shopping in a big way.

But the books don't tell you the whole story. You wouldn't know that the three bald sentences scribed in Callum's last literacy lesson took 40 minutes of gruelling effort from both him and me. You would have no idea that Rebecca's beautifully written story was faithfully copied from her reading book when the supply teacher wasn't looking. You might open Ryan's dog-eared science book and see the atrocious handwriting and a multitude of corrected spellings, none of which indicate that he was the only child to correctly explain evaporation using the word "molecules".

The problem with assessing everything on written evidence is that you miss the crucial aspects of teaching: the moment when something suddenly clicks for a child; the discussions when, just for a few minutes, everyone in the class is totally engaged and focused on the same idea; the lesson when a shy pupil speaks up for the first time and gives an answer you didn't think was possible for him or her.

Although Ofsted is clearly driving this evidence obsession, schools are also to blame for pandering to it. Some school leaders spend hours poring over exercise books and spreadsheets but virtually no time watching actual teaching in action. Placing the emphasis on the content of books puts a cap on risk-taking - teachers find themselves swapping discussion and drama-based lessons for handwriting and general spoon-feeding to get the written work up to scratch.

I'm not even sure that Ofsted knows what it wants. Chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw recently said that energetic and slightly maverick headteachers were the way to improve schools. (He also said that headteachers of outstanding schools enjoyed Ofsted visits, which is like a dentist saying that people who brush regularly enjoy root-canal work.)

It would be nice to teach the odd lesson that didn't have to be recorded in an exercise book, to try out different teaching styles and new ways of learning. But as we continue to polish our windows to a sparkle, I'm reminded that the last pair of shoes I bought after gazing through a shop window crippled my feet, discoloured in the rain and lost a heel on their second outing.

Jo Brighouse is a primary school teacher in the Midlands

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