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Primary Education News
News Secret Teacher: teaching is increasingly being built on a web of lies
Stop pretending our education system is about the students, it's all about manipulating data for survival, says The Secret Teacher
Do you ever feel that your main duty at work these days is to contribute to, or cover up, an intricate web of lies? Lies, which have become so pervasive and embedded, that they are now the norm. The system is propped up by them and we have all joined the party – headteachers, inspectors, senior leaders, teachers and assistants.
We have built an ugly house from our lies. Not a fragile house of cards that can be easily dismantled, but one bolted and cemented into the ground. Many of us might be unwilling participants or even oblivious. But if you open your eyes and ears, they are all around us.
Let's start with data. Isn't this where validation for the untruths stems from? While data is a useful tool, it should never be king. In schools, this seems to have become the case. For many teachers, more time is spent examining, discussing, inputting and presenting data than actually interacting with children. Headteachers don't seem to have much choice about this; data is the main focus for Ofsted. And Ofsted often seem to use data to make up their minds about a school before they've even stepped foot in it.
The pressure to achieve positive data is immense. Analysis of statistics decides whether an establishment and its staff are either crowned in glory or cloaked in shame. But should we be letting this happen? Are league tables meaningful or misleading? I'm no data expert, but I would appreciate the opportunity to follow a wider debate of these issues between those with more knowledge than me.
I am, however, a micro-data expert; I decide and input my children's levels. Sometimes I feel it is misleading to still call myself a teacher – 'assessor of small children' or 'child leveller' would more aptly describe the purpose of my job these days. The pressure of proving tangible academic progress is almost palpable in many schools. The paperwork, testing and time associated with this process is staggering. This is becoming the be all and end all for schools, serving as either the means to ascending the league tables or being annihilated by the dementors.
Apparently levels no longer exist but, with no proposed alternative, they're very much alive and kicking in my school. The bar for progress has been raised with an unfeasibly high percentage of our large classes (containing many needy children) supposed to meet this target. But who will want to teach in a low-attaining state school with this kind of pressure? And, with the advent of performance-related pay, you'd be a fool to if you had a choice. And how is such a rate of progress sustainable? Are children going to start having to do A-levels in year 6?
This is where data exaggeration starts. My school was traditionally very truthful with data. We gave the children well-considered and honest levels and, if there was any doubt, we would tend to down level the child. We were conscious of the next teacher and did not want to inflate our data at their expense. How naive we were.
These days, if in doubt, we up level children. It doesn't matter that we feel uncomfortable about doing this because our overall school data looks so much healthier. Our new headteacher says this increase in progress is accounted for by improved teaching and learning. Another untruth, but one I think he seriously believes. Either he's just another head under pressure, trying to survive by ticking boxes and speaking the lingo or perhaps he just has a big ego and wants to claim credit for a school's amazing transformation.
With all the ensuing special measures, chaos and pressure, many feel that our personal teaching has deteriorated. Oddly, we're being told that everything's turning round and we're all morphing into good teachers, but it sometimes it feels as if I've entered the twilight zone and don't recognise the world I live in. Just because learning objective grids are being routinely stuck into books, and everything is now becoming uniform throughout the school, we're all much better teachers for it. Individuality in teaching style is being slowly but surely ironed out. These changes are apparently accounting for the 'increase' in pupil attainment, but those of us who have been in the school for a while are more sceptical.
Data is the most powerful weapon in an image war. The competition that now exists between schools adds to the need to big up the image – publicity managers and PR companies are even hired by some schools. Ofsted seems to endorse this way of operating and the cycle continues. Lying, soft or hard, is justified by an outstanding status: the mantras that have to be learned, regurgitated and passed inspector should the need arise, the show lessons, the sleepless nights, the prepped children, the positively slanted reports and the immaculate displays.
We need to stop going along with this. Some would say that Ofsted is just pretending to be about raising standards for children. If this is really the case, then why are many of their recent recommendations focusing upon teachers' pay? Why do they apparently fail 'good' schools and constantly change the goalposts? Are all 'outstanding' schools and teachers really outstanding and all 'inadequate' schools and teachers really inadequate? Of course not.
But the biggest and baddest lie of all is the continued pretence that our education system is about children. Until education is removed from the control of politicians this is likely to always be the case. I hope that one day, before I retire, I will be teaching again in a profession that has integrity and where the ideology is truthfully child-centric. It's clinging onto that hope that is keeping me going.
This week's Secret Teacher works at a primary school in London.