A five-star calamity

11th September 2015 at 01:00

Less than five minutes after exiting the dentist’s chair, the survey pinged up on my phone: could I please rate my treatment on a scale of 1 to 5? And how satisfied was I with my overall experience? In my relief at having survived another visit, I gave him top marks, leaving him free to drill another day.

The world has gone survey mad. We are encouraged to critique each and every professional we come into passing contact with; instant feedback forms and websites with names like IsMyPostmanHotOrNot.com are proliferating.

Education is not immune. As teachers, we spend so much of our time being judged by those above us that it seems unfair to allow the kids to weigh in too, but there is a growing appetite for pupil and parent feedback on the quality of teaching staff. In the past, disgruntled parents had to make do with sharing their grievances in the playground; now they have the whole of cyberspace to vent in.

Of course, this is nothing new to those working in higher education, where student satisfaction forms have been commonplace for decades. But in this era of high tuition fees, where every undergraduate is a customer, a lecturer friend tells me that student feedback has become so important that, in many cases, it has become the only measure of the quality of teaching.

He says that some of his colleagues are beginning to dumb down their courses. Under the teaching-as-popularity-contest system, lecturers offering essential but sometimes unexciting core skills are at a disadvantage – and the feedback forms can seriously damage their promotion prospects.

At least in higher education the students have reached a certain level of maturity. While I’m all for pupil voice, I believe in responding to it with caution, especially among primary-aged children who tend to judge the quality of their teachers based on how often they teach art and how many stickers they give out. Younger children also struggle to see things in the long term.

A recent survey found English schoolchildren to be some of the unhappiest in the world (see bit.ly/UnhappyInEngland). And it reported that nearly 50 per cent of 10- and 12-year-olds had been left out by other children in their class at least once in the previous month. This is sobering news, but I was surprised that it was only 50 per cent. Friendship groups in schools are fluid and constantly shifting, so children who feel left out are just as common as those who claim they are being bullied because someone took their rubber without asking.

I’m not sure the survey asked the right questions. Why not ask pupils if constant testing is making them unhappy? Or if continual assessment that compares student with student is eroding their self-esteem? If living half their lives on social media is making them feel pressured and paranoid? Or if the monotony of teaching to the test often means that school no longer feels like fun?

If you really must, ask them what they think of their teachers – but only on a day when they’ve had an art lesson and a sticker.

Jo Brighouse is a primary school teacher in the Midlands

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