Our Dishonest Inspection Regime

Book burningThere was, as Squealer was never tired of explaining, endless work in the supervision and organisation of the farm. Much of this work was of a kind that the other animals were too ignorant to understand. For example, Squealer told them that the pigs had to expend enormous labours every day upon mysterious things called ‘files’, ‘reports’, ‘minutes’, and ‘memoranda’. These were large sheets of paper which had to be closely covered with writing, and as soon as they were so covered, they were burnt in the furnace. (George Orwell, Animal Farm).

Generating bits of paper is not equivalent to doing anything. It is a proxy for action. Katharine Birbalsingh rightly points out in this article that the inspector’s mantra should be reversed. Instead of saying ‘if it hasn’t been written down, it isn’t being done’, we should say ‘if people are busy writing it down, then it isn’t being done’.

When I did my teacher training, I was at first alarmed by the prospect of having to provide evidence that I had met the required standards, which seemed enormously detailed and complex. But then I realised that it was not actual evidence that I had to provide, but bits of paper which supposedly recorded my having met the standards. I therefore industriously went about producing these bits of paper. This was a completely parallel activity to the business of actually learning how to teach. There was virtually no connection between them. On the one hand, I had to feed the paper monster and keep my university mentor happy. On the other hand, I actually had work to do and things to learn.

I would have had a lot more time to learn and to work if I had not had to waste time generating bits of paper. And I could easily have generated excellent bits of paper without really learning or doing much that was useful. These are parallel universes.

We pride ourselves in Britain on having honest public servants. Inspectors do not arrive in schools, receive brown envelopes of cash, and write glowing reports. But actually taking bribes is not the only form of dishonesty. Inspectors may not be receiving banknotes, but they are happily receiving other pieces of paper which enable them in good conscience to write glowing reports. The worst thing about this form of dishonesty is that everyone involved in it is convinced of their moral rectitude. Meanwhile, while they pat themselves on the back and accept their generous salaries, the actual goal of education is being undermined by their supposedly honest and disinterested work. And the busier and more assiduous they are, the more they waste the time of classroom teachers, and the more the children, for whom the whole system supposedly exists, are neglected.

Ironically, the pupils would be better served by more straightforward corruption. At least it would be quick to hand over a brown envelope. And it would actually be cheaper. The cost of wasting so much of the time of expensive professionals is astronomical, far higher than even the greediest taker of bribes would accept.

Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some points be satiated; but those who torment us for their own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. (C S Lewis).

Bits of Paper Are Not Learning

Book burningI recently did some online ‘training’ which involved reading through a series of pages, then answering some questions. The pages contained chunks of text floating in pictures which added nothing to the information. In fact, they were a distraction. The text floated over different bits of them, forcing the eye to wander here and there. Possibly this was supposed to keep my attention, based on the assumption that simply reading text must be inherently dull, and that I need some sort of eye candy to keep me awake. Then I had to answer a series of simple multiple choice questions, far less challenging than the ones I give to year seven, and I was even allowed to refer back to the text I had just read while I answered them. I refused to do so, because I genuinely wanted to see whether I had remembered and understood the information.

The whole thing was patronising beyond belief. It made me reflect on the typical design of textbooks, which, like this ‘training’ programme, involve lots of eye candy, text floating on different bits of the page, and then a few questions, to which you can find the answers by looking back over what you just read. Then the teacher can tick that bit of the syllabus off, because you’ve ‘covered’ it, just like I am now supposed to be ‘trained’ in the information provided by the online course.

It’s complete nonsense, of course. If you simply read through something and answer some questions on it, while still referring to what you just read, you are enacting a performance which doesn’t even prove that you’ve retained the information during the lesson, let alone whether you will retain it tomorrow, or in a week’s time. It’s a fiddly little exercise which is highly ineffective for learning, and proves nothing. It’s a paper exercise. It produces writing in exercise books and it generates neat progression along a scheme of work. It’s all about generating bits of paper, not learning.

If it really mattered that I should learn this material, I wouldn’t need to read through colourful screens clogged with eye candy. I would just need to memorise the key information, then be tested on it repeatedly, until it was mastered. This would have to be done over a period of time, and there could be no easy ticking of the box to say I had ‘covered’ the material. The tests could take various forms – multiple choice questions, oral recitation, longer summative tests in which the information would need to be applied.

Of course tests are used by schools to check whether pupils have actually learned the material through which they chugged in the various textbook pages or worksheets that they covered. But the test typically comes at the end of the unit, and the pupils are expected to revise for it independently. In other words, the job of actually learning the material, as opposed to just covering it, is transferred to the pupil and their parents (and their tutors – private tutors thrive on this kind of useless teaching). In the absence of memorisation combined with frequent testing, the mastery of content must take place outside the classroom, because it certainly won’t take place inside it.

If we’re serious about mastering knowledge, then we must drop this ridiculous charade of grinding through textbooks or worksheets and generating endless bits of paper: full books and empty heads. Learning means changes in long term memory, and answering questions while looking at something you’ve just read is just about the worst way you could attempt to make such changes.

Why Fixed Routines Are Liberating

Needle GrooveMost progress is made slowly, over a long period of time, by dutiful, steady, hard work. When I worked in project management, I knew the people who delivered on time were well organised and methodical. They quietly got on with it. They were unlikely to be promoted. Perhaps they didn’t want to be promoted. They had been doing the same thing for years, and so they were really good at it.

Routine makes us more efficient, because it makes many more processes automatic, freeing up our working memory for the real thinking. Using the same lesson pattern while varying the material means that our pupils’ attention, and our attention, will be better focused on what really matters: the learning. But if we are preoccupied with inventing and implementing ever new methods of delivery, this is enormously distracting.

The complexity should be in the subject matter, not the delivery. A commentator on a recent post of mine said that in the private sector, he was told to KISS everything, and it worked. KISS means ‘keep it simple, stupid’. Excellent advice; would that it were more widely disseminated to new teachers.

There should be plenty of thinking going on in our classroom, but we should work to ensure that as little as possible of this thinking is focused on making our pupils work out how to respond to our latest jazzy teaching technique, and as much as possible is focused on the really interesting material we are delivering.

Likewise, our planning should be very little concerned with methods of delivery. We should work to establish routines that we use day in, day out, so that we can focus our minds on what really makes a difference: curriculum design. With less time spent doing fiddly planning, we will have more time to build our own subject knowledge too, a vital and often neglected component of our effectiveness as teachers.

Well established routines also help new teachers enormously. They have much more to think about than experienced colleagues, and so if we can provide them with a tried and trusted framework which is already familiar to pupils, their lessons will run much more smoothly and effectively.

Routines can be tweaked, but they should never be scrapped and replaced overnight. Small, incremental, organic change should be the norm. We want to fine-tune our routines to make them even more effective. But unless we use them faithfully, we’ll never achieve this fine-tuning.

Why would anyone be opposed to using the same routine over and over again, when there are so many benefits? Perhaps the most common objection is boredom. The assumption here is that routine means sameness. Of course it doesn’t, because the material being taught varies endlessly. When the mind is focused on this, engaged with this, there should be no danger of tedium. And keeping other, less important factors constant sharpens that focus.

I do wonder though whether some teachers object to routine because they believe teaching should be fun just as much as they believe this about learning. Being steady, organised and methodical just sounds too much like hard work.

How Liberal Education Was Stolen from the People


Edward L Thorndike, who pioneered the intelligence tests that sorted young people into ‘appropriate’ tracks.

It sounds terribly sensitive and pragmatic to provide an education which is ‘suitable to the needs of the less academic’, but when we examine the historical origins of this concept, it becomes increasingly clear that it is aimed at denying the majority an academic education, in the name of rationalist social engineering imposed by a cultural elite.

In-school vocational education was invented just over a century ago by those who claimed that most children could not access the academic curriculum. In Left Back, Diane Ravitch describes how, early in the twentieth century, as huge numbers of immigrants poured into America from southern and eastern Europe, professors in the newly created schools of education speculated about how to integrate these new arrivals, whom they presumed to be of feeble intelligence and dubious character.

Their solution was to place them on a track towards a certain type of work as early as possible, and provide them with practical training, rather than a general academic education. In fact, it was common among the pedagogical experts to consider it dangerous to provide a liberal education to the seething masses who were arriving at Rhode Island. It would give them ideas above their station.

Unsurprisingly, the working people were not calling for this a century ago. On the contrary, a rapidly increasing number were enrolling in high schools during the first few decades of the twentieth century. And despite the efforts of the experts, the high schools remained largely traditional for a generation after theories about vocational education and a differentiated curriculum were first proposed. Those reactionary old schoolmasters and schoolmistresses continued to fill the poor children’s heads with antiquated knowledge, whatever the experts might say.

But over time, as younger teachers began to replace the old guard, progressive ideology tightened its grip. They had been trained in the latest methods by the experts, so they knew that it was cruel to impose an academic education on all these feeble minded children. No, they should spend their elementary education discovering nature, and their later years should be spent fitting them to be hewers of wood and drawers of water.

Thus it was that America lost the noble ideal of nineteenth century educators, who had believed in providing a liberal education to all, so that anyone, whether the son of a lawyer or of a carpenter, could develop his intellect as far as he wished. American idealism gave way to American pragmatism.

The old idealism did not fit into the twentieth century, the century in which big business wanted docile employees and consumers, and big government wanted docile clients. It was these interests that funded the schools of education, and it was these interests that provided the underlying motivation for denying a liberal education to the majority in the name of rationalist social engineering.

Managerial Interference and Teacher Autonomy

Brandy Bottle

The elixir which once rendered heads harmless

You don’t raise many cheers by arguing against autonomy for teachers. Autonomy is associated with professional status. A professional should be trusted to make their own decisions from day to day about how they go about their work.

In reality, however, these decisions will always be limited by many factors outside the control of the individual professional. They will not be able to choose the curriculum, especially if their school is serious about a coherent, knowledge rich approach. They are unlikely to be able to choose which classroom they use, or which pupils they teach. The resources they use will be constrained by finances or simple availability.

I’m not sure many teachers would want to control all of these things in any case. The key thing they wish to control is the day to day delivery of lessons in their classroom. They want to be able to make the daily decisions about how to operate within the constraints that are inevitably outside their control.

But this autonomy is bound to be limited early in any professional’s career. Junior doctors must be supervised by more experienced practitioners, and so must inexperienced teachers. This supervision is supposed to help the person new to the profession to develop the skills and knowledge which will later mean that they can be given more independence, and eventually help to train less experienced colleagues themselves.

There is a reasonable progression, therefore, to greater autonomy as time goes on and the professional proves that they can be trusted to operate without supervision.

But there needs to be a proper hierarchy of responsibility. Heads of department and other more experienced professionals within a department should be the only ones doing the ordinary supervision of less experienced staff. This is the normal line management method used in most companies. It would be very odd if the managing director started to wander around, poking into specialised areas of the operation and passing judgement on them. In fact, such activity would indicate that there had been a severe breakdown of trust within the organisation. It would be viewed, quite rightly, as interfering micromanagement. Even more bizarre is the practice of senior managers attempting to ape government inspectors as they conduct their ‘learning walks’, or surveillance operations, as they should be called.

Consider a software company. It has grown over the years, and the managing director, who used to do coding, now has an administrative role. But he can’t leave the coders alone, even those with many years of experience. He insists that he needs to grade their coding. So he sits behind a coder for twenty minutes, watching them work. Then he grades them on a four point scale. If they are in the lower half of the scale, he starts telling them in detail how they should perform their daily duties.

A company like that would have a high staff turnover, and there would be a mixture of fear and contempt for senior management. In contrast, a sane approach would be through line management responsibility, whereby a more experienced coder on the same team would help a new member of staff develop their knowledge and skills. The line manager could apply his superior knowledge to specific problems, and build steady, incremental improvement in a trusting relationship.

The interfering behaviour of senior management who interfere in the day to day operations of schools has given a bad name to supervision and observation in general, when really these practices should be seen as helpful and supportive elements of professional development. They would be seen that way if they were conducted in a collegiate manner, and completely separated from any capability proceedings.

There was a time when there was really only one senior manager, the head, and rather like a jolly country parson in a Trollope novel, his main duties consisted in drinking brandy, smoking cigars and making the occasional rousing speech, while his secretary took care of the administration. But as the ranks of senior management have swelled, we have reached the point where there are many highly paid and lightly timetabled people whose very raison d’etre is interference. If they gave it up, they’d have hardly anything left to do. They might have to return to working for a living instead.

The Horrors of September INSET Days

Many readers in the Northern Hemisphere will just have survived another gruelling session of internally teacher provided teacher training, known as INSET (‘IN SErvice Training) days here in England.

It seems like such an eminently sensible and laudable notion: teachers take a number of days out of frenetic classroom activity to reflect and improve on their practice.

If only that were the focus of INSET, I would be heartily in favour. Sadly, many teachers will just have experienced several days of manipulative indoctrination in whatever trend their senior leaders have decided to follow this year. I have spent many a day sitting sour faced at the back of the room while unrealistic, unworkable or downright damaging theories are poured into my unwilling ear, thinking ‘I’ve actually got quite a lot of work I need to be doing right now’.

Teachers’ time is precious, and it’s expensive. Building things out of straws in order to learn about problem solving skills, or listening to the self-satisfied witticisms of an overpaid consultant, are not good uses of that precious time.

In the end, I’ve had to conclude that the best INSET I’ve experienced at the start of the year hasn’t really been INSET at all. I mean that it hasn’t been training; it’s been a bit of essential admin, a few reminders about school policy, and plenty of time just to get on with planning and preparation for the new year. It’s not jazzy, but it certainly isn’t a waste of time.

Training is best in small doses spaced out through the year, delivered by current classroom practitioners, with plenty of regular opportunities for one to one follow-up under minimal senior management surveillance. That way it might actually help people improve, instead of being a gigantic waste of taxpayers’ / feepayers’ money.