by Alan Watkins
One could almost hear the discussion a few months ago between Jim Hacker, if he had responsibility for education, and the chief inspector of schools at Ofsted.
It probably went something like this:
Hacker: Right! We’ve been in power now for more than a year, and the schools are not providing evidence that their kids are better off under our parties.
Inspector: That’s because ....
Hacker: No excuses! My job depends on showing improvements. Change the ground rules.
Inspector: As I tried to explain, Minister ...
Hacker: All those schools with satisfactory records! It’s not good enough. Re-grade them as unsatisfactory.
Inspector: Yes, Minister.
Good belly laughs all round.
The trouble with Yes Minister and Jim Hacker was that it was always so close to the truth.
Not that Michael Gove would have done anything like this, of course.
I was chatting with a head the other day. Her school is officially satisfactory with good grounds for Ofsted to say it should achieve a “good” rating.
Since she was appointed she has transformed her school from failing to the point where it can see an excellence label on the horizon. You would think she would be delighted – she’s not!
Instead of being praised, she now faces the sack if surprise visits from Ofsted are still “satisfactory” within the next two years.
She (as well as her governors and all her teaching team) face ignominy.
They will be sacked and replaced by a team who will manage to tick a few more boxes on the Ofsted checklist.
They have also found the rules keep changing that set their targets.
There are no problems with expecting improvement. Nor is there blame to be had in trying to achieve perfection.
What is completely ignored by the 'tick box’ culture encouraged by the inspectorate is the nature of the community served by schools.
My friend’s primary is typical of many in Kent and Medway. It has a mix of children – and a mix of parents. Most are responsible. Some are not. At home some children are ignored.
“For some parents – too many by far – children are status symbols,” I was told.
“When they come to an after-school dance they are made up to the nines, dressed in the latest fashion – they look like tarts, but they are only six and seven-year-olds.
“Some of my mothers are 19 and 20 – how old were they when they had their children? What understanding do they have of parenting, life and all the other skills? The answer is little or none.”
I often see mums pushing pushchairs and chatting on mobiles as their child tries unsuccessfully to get their attention.
“It’s the same in the home. Our children learn from nine to three – then they go home where there are no books, inappropriate television and violent video games, no house manners ...
"Some of our kids come to school without the basics like toilet training. They don’t speak. They have few personal skills.
“Parents arrive in the area and their children are suddenly dropped on us. We have kids from certain families where children come and go as they please.
“We have kids who arrive unable to understand a word of English. The trouble is the inspectors don’t recognise local problems such as this. All they are interested in is the ticks.”
Like lots of satisfactory schools, her team have been told they are unsatisfactory, coasting, not pulling their weight, failures ...
“If my school has not improved I shall retire – I’ve never said that before, but I shall.”
At another school there are dozens of children whose first language is not English.
They have appeared as their families move into north Kent. When the inspectors arrive there will be black marks against their place of learning for failing to teach them in the few weeks that they have been on the school roll.
There isn’t a school where conscientious teachers do not leave every day with bags full of work to mark, to check or to advise. They have forms to complete to confirm their projects are working, reports to produce on the ordinary and the exceptional, and pages to explain why a child has been punished and how.
They then work at home until midnight night after night after night. Is this what society really expects?
Surely our schools should be happy places of learning where teachers can pass on their experiences, and bring out the best in the children? Hard luck if Ofsted arrives on a bad day.
We may lose good heads if this happens – and is that really what we want?