Two tales that prove how tick-box culture in schools has taken-over from common sense

Celebrated educational journalist Richard Garner recalls two stories that left him questioning our school accountability system, and what it has prioritised

Richard Garner

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It sometimes seems that in the world of education, priorities are all wrong.

Take this story – poignant during a time of Sats testing – told to me by a primary school teacher at the recent ATL conference.

It was the day of the Sats tests – high stakes all round and her Year 6 class had their noses to the grindstone trying to do their English tests.

Suddenly she noticed one of her star pupils – let's call him Darren – had put his pen down and was staring out of the window.

"Darren," she said. "Pick up your pen and start writing again." There was no response from the lad.

"Darren," she tried again more urgently, "start writing again. The school is depending on you to get a level 4. Our whole reputation and standing in the league tables is at stake." 

There was still no response from the lad.

She tried another approach, sidled up to him and put a comforting arm upon his shoulder. "Darren," she said soothingly. "What's the matter?"

"It's me dad," he said. He pointed out of the window. "There are three police cars outside our house and they're dragging him down the street."

She tried after the test to plead mitigating circumstances but failed. The school was told that only if Darren is taken ill in the test can he be excused for not finishing his paper.

An outstanding fail 

Now, another story. A supply teacher who lives near a primary school was called by a harassed headteacher 20 minutes before the first period was due to start.

"Can you get in here quickly?" he asked. "The Year 5 teacher has collapsed and had to be taken into hospital. Can you get in here to take the lesson?"

She obliged. She noticed two adults at the back of the class as she entered the room but thought nothing of it – parents were often invited in by the school to watch lessons. She gave the pupils a play about Henry VIII to read – and cast boys in the class as the six wives of the king for a play-reading session. All of the pupils seemed to be enjoying the exercise.

At the end of the lesson, one of the adults came up to her. "Congratulations," he said, "that was an outstanding lesson well delivered. But we're going to fail you."

"Fail me? Who are you?" she asked.

"We're Ofsted inspectors."

"Why are you going to fail me if it was an outstanding lesson?"

"There was no evidence of lesson preparation."

"Lesson preparation? I only knew I was going to take it 20 minutes beforehand."

"Nonsense you had plenty of time. You knew of our visit."

"No, I'm a supply teacher."

"You're not Mrs Smith then?"

"No, I'm Mrs Williams."

"That's as maybe but we're still going to have to fail you." He got a sheath of papers out of a briefcase. "It says here," he said, jabbing his finger at the appropriate spot, "there's got to be evidence of lesson preparation."

Now it so happened the teacher concerned was a senior union official. She told the inspector she would be informing her general secretary of what had happened and that the chief schools inspector would soon be in receipt of a critical letter about the episode. It was enough to crack the hard-heartedness of this particular inspector. 

"As I said," he said, "it was an outstanding lesson well delivered. That's what we'll say." It occurred to the teacher, though, that not everyone could summon up the support that she did.

Immediately after the incident, she went to the headteacher's office. "You didn't tell me you were in the middle of an Ofsted inspection," she complained. "You wouldn't have come if I had," he replied. Needless to say, the reason for Mrs Smith's collapse and hasty retreat to hospital was also the Ofsted incident.

Two isolated incidents – but two incidents where a bit of common sense would have been better than a tick-box approach. 

Richard Garner was education editor of The Independent for 12 years, and before that news editor of Tes. He has been writing about education for more than three decades. 

To read more columns by Richard, view his back catalogue

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Richard Garner

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