How not to announce bad news

The teacher stood up in the Science office and told his colleagues he had something he felt he needed to tell them.

He said that he had heard a rumour that three teachers in the department were going to be made redundant. Instantly, the Head of Department reacted angrily saying it was an “inappropriate” thing for him to say and asking him to step outside the office to speak with her.

At the end of the school day, the Headteacher's secretary turned up at the office. She was visibly upset. She had to give each member of the department a letter which informed them that three of them were going to be made redundant. Each of them should begin to prepare to reinterview for their jobs.

The Head of Department wasn't there. The Headteacher didn't put in an appearance. Apparently, the original plan had been to send the letters home but the rumour had forced the school to act faster.

The redundancies were inevitable. The school's roll is shrinking and the smaller budget cannot support the current number of staff. And yet this is a painful process which should have been have been handled thoughtfully.

As an aside, this department must now spend the run-up to GCSEs working together while also competing with each other for their jobs.

The Ofsted Charade

Today we faked some more documents.

We've been worrying about Ofsted for a while. Our deputy head of department has begun altering the minutes from our previous department meetings. The aim is to show that we talk a lot about all the things that we should.

At the centre of this game is the legendary "Ofsted Folder". This is the vast pile of paperwork with which we will overwhelm the inspectors. Early on in the year, a comprehensive list was made of all the documents we needed and hours have been spent on compiling them.

This time wasted on beautiful paperwork creation should be spent on improving the education we provide. An example - all the time spent on crafting a beautiful Special Needs Policy could have been invested in actually improving our Special Needs provision. Certain paperwork is obviously necessary. Most of this, however, is paperwork for paperwork's sake.

No-one at school deserves the blame for this. The school's reputation depends on them playing the game.

Classroom Democracy

A version of this post was published on Liberal Conspiracy.

A combative response to this piece can be found at Scenes from the Battleground.

Imagine a system whose entire purpose is to serve a group of people. Imagine that this same system excludes that group of people from holding any power. Such is the relationship between the British Education System and its students.

No school in the UK has any obligation to listen to its students. The representative bodies which exist are rarely more than symbolic. A very small number of students are allowed to express their feelings on the running of the school but there is no process for using their feedback. The purpose is primarily to reward these students' good performance with an honorary title (prefect, monitor etc.) and give them extra material for university applications. Student power is not the aim.

It is inconceivable that any other public service or business would entirely ignore the views of their key stakeholders. This failure to listen is to waste countless opportunities to improve. It is also entirely at odds with the way our society has come to recognize and respect the rights of children. Michael Gove talks about enabling children to be “the authors of their own life story.” For that to be the case, they need a degree of influence over the place where that story begins.

Students should have the chance to feedback on the teaching they receive. While they may not have an in-depth understanding of pedagogy, they have a knowledge that no expert has; they know what works for them. At the end of each week, students could rate the activities that they had undertaken in class. Teachers would then be able to look through the responses and get a clear idea of the actual experience of those they teach. Some students would not take the process seriously or might base ratings on their personal opinions of that teacher rather than the merits of the activities. Yet the vast majority would respect this opportunity to have a say. Some teachers would be sceptical but most would find the information fascinating and useful.

Students should have input into what they study. Clearly there are core skills which students need to acquire, whether they wish to or not. Yet they could decide on how they gained these skills. In English, why not give students a vote on the texts that they are to study? Give them a brief introduction to each and then allow them to make the choice. In History, students could select the period they study. The fact that they made the decision is likely to boost their engagement with the subject.

Students should contribute to the code of discipline that they have to abide by. To many this notion seems irresponsible. Surely, if given the opportunity, students would seek to dismantle the rules that restrict them? It is well-established, however, that most students are content in a calm and well-structured environment. They dislike chaos and recognize that a clear system of well-enforced rules is the best way to achieve this. Students also have a very well-developed sense of fairness; even well-behaved students respond very badly to perceived injustice. By opening up a dialogue, school authorities would be able to gain an understanding about what is seen as unfair and then judge these concerns. More than anything else, it is inconsistency that undermines discipline. When one teacher enforces a rule and another doesn't, students are left confused and frustrated. Listening to students would give a precise picture of the consistency with which rules were being applied.

Such a transferral of power would improve the service that schools provide. As significantly, school would cease to be only a place students attend and become an institution that they own.

A minor act of arson

The lesson was going very smoothly.

Students were getting on with their work and I was moving around, offering help.

Then I heard a yelp. Two boys had leapt to their feet and were desperately jumping up and down. They were putting out a fire.

I was surprised by my calmness. Without raising my voice, I asked the two students to leave the classroom. Speaking to them outside it turned out that they had set fire to some string with a lighter. They admitted that the prank had been more explosive than they had expected. They accepted the inevitable trip to the headteacher's office with good grace.

Two teenage boys enjoying a mini-rebellion. I'd obviously rather they'd have chosen someone else's class.

Big Brother isn't really watching

It's understandable that teachers dislike lesson observations.

Being closely scrutinized in your workplace would be unappealing to most people. In addition, I think teachers value their independence; they like being left to teach in their own way.

But when the educational success of a large group of students depends on you, it's only right that you get checked up on.

A good teacher who prepares lessons with care has nothing to fear from observations. Actually, they should be enthusiastic. An experienced observer can give you ways to improve that you would not pick up on yourself. The only teachers who should be concerned are the idle or the useless and that's kind of the point.

At my school fully-qualified teachers get observed twice a term (that's less than 1% of their lessons). It's not enough. More observations would create more opportunities for development while leaving less room for bad teachers to hide.

I know such a proposal would be met with groans in every staffroom. Yet teachers should see it as a compliment - observations are an endorsement of the importance of the job teachers do.

How to beat the "rush it off" mentality

Most students seek to get work done as quickly as they can.

After all, they've done all the teacher asked of them. Teachers are often happy to settle for this as well. If all of a difficult set are completing the tasks you are setting, it's easy to feel like you're winning.

But is there any value in a page full of rushed and barely considered answers? Carried out in haste, even the perfectly designed learning activity becomes pointless.

The challenge therefore is not just to get students to complete work; it's to get them to produce their best. In asking for this, you are demanding a drastic shift in habits.

The answer comes in high expectations relentlessly applied. If a student rushes something off, make them do it again. They will be annoyed and many will do their best to talk themselves out of it it. But stick to your guns. Do this enough times and suddenly the message is out; mediocre will no longer do.

In your own small way, you are helping to give them an attitude which will serve them well.