Tired of staring at a computer screen most of the day and sending emails to people sitting a few yards away, I had returned to teaching after several years out of the profession, and found a job in a nearby comprehensive.
I was going in with my eyes open. I expected there to be plenty of challenges; that was one of the reasons I had quit the office job: I wanted challenge. But I was not prepared for the Ofsted madness.
I had never worked in a school with so many meetings. Countless hours of staff time were taken up, sitting in the school library listening to senior managers and looking at PowerPoint presentations, many of which were filled with tables, charts and graphs of data. At first this was just irritating. I had work to do. Much as I rather enjoyed sitting at the back with the muttering cynics, there were more productive things that I could have been doing with my time.
But then I realised that this was far beyond irritating; this was sinister. We were being told how to teach ‘outstanding’ lessons. This meant we had to teach in a certain way, because that was what Ofsted considered to be ‘outstanding’. We were shown Dale’s Cone of Experience and told that if we talked, our pupils would learn little. When I pointed out that the percentages on the cone were a fabrication, I was told that it just made sense that pupils would retain little of what a teacher said. Surely it was self-evidently better that they be ‘actively engaged’ in their learning, not ‘passive’, listening to the teacher.
I had been given a bottom set year eleven to prepare for GCSE, and I sensed that some sort of weird performance was required. So when observed by my head of department, I brought in a soft toy to tick the VAK box as we discussed Lennie in Of Mice and Men. Unfortunately, I often taught this group, which was being targeted for ‘intervention’, in the room next to the head of department’s office. She listened in through the wall and regularly ticked me off for failing to use the methods that would ‘get a pass’ for these pupils. She wheeled in the LA advisor to show me how it was done. The whole lesson was focused on exam technique, as the broadly grinning lady from the LA bounced around the room, talking to the pupils as if they were about six.
I failed to respond with wild enthusiasm. Soon my teaching was being branded ‘satisfactory’. At one point during a follow up meeting after an observation, I made the mistake of questioning why on earth we even cared about the tick list of the bureaucrats. Such thoughtcrime would not get me far. This was a school that had recently had a Mocksted, and the whole senior management team were single mindedly focused on that ‘outstanding’ grade.
Actually, I did need some professional support at the time. My methods were far from perfect. But the main reason for this was that I was still dogged by progressive ideas. I doubted whether it really was just to back up my authority with sanctions. I wondered whether explicit teaching really was that important. I still saw English as a skills based subject, so that it didn’t matter which texts you read, so long as you were developing your analytical skills. During my time at the school, I read some John Taylor Gatto, which pushed me further down the progressive, anti-authoritarian, anti-school way of thinking. I was rather receptive to anti-authority ideas, because I was suffering so much from abusive authority myself.
In the end, I resigned from that school, and I have been working in the independent sector ever since. I always said then, and I still say now, that it wasn’t the pupils who drove me away from teaching in a state comprehensive school. I was sad to say goodbye to them. It was the management who drove me away.
Although we were expecting them at any moment, Ofsted never came while I was there. They came a year or two later. And the grade, after all the countless hours of preparation? Good: the same as the previous inspection.
Who knows how much more learning could have taken place over those years if staff had focused on curriculum design, instead of wasting precious time playing this ridiculous game.