In 1947 The mad French Surrealist Antonin Artaud produced a radio play called ‘To Have Done With the Judgement of God’. It involved some grunts, screams, cries and, literally, a ‘loud fart’. He died soon after…
In the piece Artaud wrote:
“It seems that, among the examinations or tests required of a child entering public school for the first time, there is the so-called seminal fluid or sperm test, which consists of asking this newly entering child for a small amount of his sperm so it can be placed in a jar…”
In England we do something similar: world weary old campaigners, old stalwarts and now new schools entering the public sphere for the first time, are all inspected by Ofsted and a small amount of spit and sinew is examined with the results placed not in a jar but on a website for all to scrutinise. The Ofsted ‘Experience’ is an experience which most of us in education have been exposed to and with differing results. I am not against the need to judge, I just wonder whether we need a more ‘polytheistic’ approach.
Harry Fletcher Wood has posted a very interesting blog about the Ofsted inspection at his school, Greenwich Free School in South East London. I live in Greenwich and am very interested in GFS and hope that both he and the school will do well. I am a veteran of 5 Ofsteds and I understand the trepidation beforehand and the feelings one goes through during and after the inspection. As the inspections have got shorter and cheaper over time they have become, paradoxically, more important. Parents take notice of them, as does the media, but also teachers looking for jobs look at the Ofsted report as a short cut to knowing what a school is like. Along with the headline figures for GCSEs A-C, Ofsted is essential. Yet, of course, the real world is more complex than either of these measures can really convey.
How to reflect this complexity? Well, perhaps we need more ways of celebrating our schools (or getting them to pull their socks up…) Why? Because every human system is flawed and the more power we give one system the more its distortions become apparent. This doesn’t mean replacing Ofsted with another quango or reforming Ofsted so that it still has the same influence but judges in a different way (though that is no reason not to look at it, this is not an argument for retaining apparent flaws if they can be addressed) It means having other credible measures also in place.
What other credible measures could be put in place? Well, a school could release data on staff CPD and improvement figures (e.g. ‘5’ staff achieved QTS, 3 an MA, 13 were judged outstanding through the school’s own appraisal procedures), and headline data of the school’s own self assessment and its areas of focus for improvement. L.A.s could inspect all the schools in their area especially if they are expected to have some sort of overseeing role, if not L.A.s then some other organisation and this data should be published in the same way as Ofsted publish their findings. The Good School’s Guide and other credible private providers could also have a role in similar processes, though I do think schools can get carried away by having a fetishistic collection of symbols on their letter headings. Some providers should be seen as more equal than others in a school’s assessment. These ‘headline’ figures could be viewed in the same way as nutritional information on food packaging. When I’m shopping I take notice of the traffic light ‘headlines’ of amounts linked to GDA’s though I am sure there are many flaws in this system they allow me to get an overview as well as take notice of the particular things I’m trying to get or avoid.
By having more ‘higher stake’ inspections and by publishing more data a school will deal with the stress of inspection far better, the more judgements there are, the less ‘shocking’ the experience. The more variety in the feedback helps the institution to become more ‘anti-fragile’. Currently far too much rests on Ofsted, a bad report can leave a school reeling.
On another matter I do think teachers need feedback on how they are doing; unfortunately there are few schools that get this right. Our schools are far too ‘time poor’ with people running about chasing paper and spending time with children in classrooms rather than investing in the adult human relationships that are so essential in healthy organisations. Often staff appraisal is put on the back burner whilst the school gets on with the day to day and this leads to a crisis of hurried formal ‘observations’ rather than the important informal conversations in and around each other’s classrooms. People who don’t work in schools have little idea of how few minutes are spent sharing ideas, giving feedback and support with one’s colleagues in a relaxed manner. Teachers spend too long at the ‘chalk face’ or are too busy planning, marking, trying to keep their family relationships from falling apart to develop properly professionally.
Which brings me to this point: if Government wants to improve schools and sustain improvement, instead of throwing money at, say, interactive whiteboards it would begin to invest more in giving teachers ‘space’ away from teaching. I think One and a Half school days minimum, per teacher, per week should just about do it. Oh, and no cover… and no endless, pointless meetings… and… ad infinitum…