During a long (and now seemingly far away) summer holiday drive through France, we listened to an old BBC Radio dramatisation of The War of the Worlds – H.G. Wells’s bleak depiction of Martians landing in Woking and then, damn them, causing mayhem across the Home Counties. House prices must have been devastated.
To be honest, my daughter was more alarmed by the rather feeble role played by the solitary woman in the play (“Oh please stop talking like that John, you’re frightening me!”), while my own greater anxiety over a possible alien takeover concerned the possible implications for education policy. Huge and immediate changes could be unthinkingly forced upon us by those from another planet. Just imagine.
Though I also wondered what a super-intelligent life-form might make of educational developments down here. (Let’s face it, not even Mary Bousted can make much sense of it.)
There would surely be much furrowing of extra-terrestrial foreheads: “League tables? Why are the island people still so tribal?”; “Why do their experts go into schools to grade rather than to help?”; “Why are their people’s taxes being used to enrich academy executives rather than the children’s education?”
Someone would also need to explain to the alien another curiosity of our times – the school website. Any browsing Martian, stumbling upon some of those home-page headteacher “Welcomes”, might assume that all is absolutely fine and dandy in schools, despite everything. For instance, my own app-assisted random survey found that the top 10 adjectives used by headteachers in those welcomes are – in descending order – "high", “excellent”, “outstanding”, “best ”, “proud”, “confident”, “rich”, “exciting”, “safe” and “strong”.
What planet are headteachers on?
The alien would have to learn how to read between the lines. For example, when a head writes: “We offer a rich and diverse curriculum experience and we value all subjects equally,” this translates as, “We still cannot find any maths teachers.”
Similarly, when the alien comes across: “Our academy is sponsored by The Climb Every Mountain Group – an organisation aiming to provide excellent education to all young people across the country,” the head is really saying, “I am at the mercy of this lot and – parents – you don’t have much of a say either, as their HQ is in Seattle.”
And when a head writes: “We offer high-quality teaching from committed and conscientious teachers who produce challenging and inspiring learning activities,” this means, “Most of our staff will be off ill from about mid-November.”
Or if they say: “We are very proud of our historic 19th-century buildings,” they mean, “Our school is falling down and there’s no more money to fix it.”
Obviously, a head’s intro should mainly focus on the positives. No individual headteacher would want to include much that is disquieting or "political", particularly when no other school is doing so. Yet there is something slightly North Korean-political when websites are uniformly suggesting that schools are all riding high and happy.
Heads should surely all agree to express at least a few concerns there, over the effects of budget cuts in particular. Parents, pupils and other stakeholders need to get a fuller picture if there is ever to be any hope of generating genuine national awareness and concern. Governments might feel that they can ignore teachers and their unions; much less easy to ignore millions of disgruntled parents.
Stephen Petty is head of humanities at Lord Williams’s School in Thame, Oxfordshire