Wasn’t intending at all to write about this today, but here goes…
It’s not my normal style, and I’m not posting this story to gain pity or settle old scores, merely to show that once any system is ruled by fear, it is ruined. In my very long career in the education system, I watched that happen, and it has continued apace since I left six and a half years ago.
I was just told by a friend on Facebook of a horrible incident from her childhood. She’d been in an excellent school where all the children were learning well and very happy, yet a sour, vindictive school inspector came in, found the one child with mild learning difficulties, reduced him to jelly and verbally trashed the teacher, who went home and committed suicide.
Inspectors – like all manner of ‘experts’ – are people who swan into a setting for about 20 minutes and believe they have the knowledge and ability to sum the situation up and make life-changing judgements.
Let me tell you my inspector story – mild by comparison, but the raw nerve that was touched by my friend’s memory.
I posted once about a very special and experimental class I taught. The link to the original post is here. The children were in a mainstream school but between them they had a huge range of problems and life circumstances which would reduce almost anyone to a gibbering mess. Several had been on the brink of permanent exclusion because their behaviour was so extreme.
Well they made massive progress, and the following year I returned to teaching a ‘normal’ class of 10 and 11 year olds – except that this normal class contained a large proportion of the children I’d been working with the year before.
There was Shaun whose dad had died a year or two back after years of alcoholism, Daniel whose dad had just come out of prison and was now back to running a crack house, Isla who had just been moved from her long-term foster-carers and was being rehoused almost every week, Carly whose dad had terminal cancer, Sam who had suffered severe physical and emotional abuse at the hands of a teenage brother and various step parents… and those are just the ones that spring to mind.
By and large, we got along just fine. Plenty of learning took place and although I often had to make allowances for these damaged and traumatised kids, who had a shorter fuse than most, with help from my brilliant learning support team, I was able to achieve my targets and they were making progress – in the ways our leaders required, as well as socially and emotionally (which to me was far more important).
Then we discovered that we were to be inspected by an OFSTED team.
An urgent class discussion took place.
“We really need to show these people how far you’ve come,” I told them. “That means while they’re here, it would really help if you could stay in your chairs, not have any arguments with each other or freak out if you feel a bit challenged. I promise I’ll support you all and it won’t last long.”
Shaun gave an agonised scream. “Can’t do it Miss,” he bellowed. “I know I’ll get stressed out just ‘cos they’re here and then I’ll lose it big time and you’ll get in trouble. I can’t handle it!”
That started an avalanche of worries and tears. In each case it was the same. They were terrified that they would let me, the class and the school down. Day to day living was enough of a challenge for many of them. This was a step too far.
My wonderful teaching assistants and I reassured them, praised them, reminded them how far they’d come and declared our absolute confidence that they could manage this.
The inspector arrived. A roundish, well-heeled lady with a posh accent. As she walked in, the children were immersed in the activity I’d set. All was calm; all were bright. True, Sam waited for the first opportunity when her gaze was averted and crawled under his table, where he remained trembling but otherwise immobile for the rest of the lesson, but this went quite unnoticed and no one showed any inclination to draw it to her attention. The kids covered for him beautifully and kept him well concealed.
Children answered her questions politely and participated with enthusiasm and exemplary behaviour.
When she’d left, we dusted Sam down and told the children how proud we were of them and how wonderfully they had behaved. I was bursting with pride when I headed off to lunch that day.
After school, though, I had my feedback session with the inspector.
“Come in dear,” she smiled. “Yes, a perfectly adequate lesson. No problems and I could see learning taking place. But…” she looked slightly reproachful, “I mean they’re a very well-behaved, good natured class, aren’t they dear? I do feel you could have pushed them a bit harder – given them more challenge.”
There was the briefest of pauses where I could have responded. I considered it. I think the reason I didn’t was the same as Sam’s or Shaun’s. The fear and stress and anxiety had been so overwhelming that I didn’t trust myself to say a word, for fear of letting the school, the class and everyone down. If she believed that my class were well-behaved, then that was all I needed. Yet I’d be lying if I said that her pronouncement on my lesson – ‘average’ – didn’t sting.
I feel no animosity towards the posh inspector. She was simply doing her job. Was she adequate? Who am I to say?
The next day I told the class how impressed she’d been with their work and behaviour. That was all they needed to know. And I began planning my exit from the English state education system.