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The International Writers Magazine:Education in the UK

A Teacher's Lot
Trudie Hannah

There has been a lot of discussion lately, about the merits or otherwise of a return to the grammar school system. This seems to me to be about as relevant as a discussion about what colour to paint the Titanic. Surely the first thing to do is to alert the crew and passengers that the whole damned ship is in danger of sinking.

I am an English teacher, hanging on to my job by my ever-weakening fingertips, while mad-eyed, relentless, clip-board-wielding zealots do their best to erode what’s left of my sanity.
‘Oh, not another whingeing teacher,’ I hear you cry, ‘What’s the problem now?’
Here’s the problem in a nutshell: The filling in of forms, the ticking of boxes and the being seen to have justified one’s existence by the production of rainforest-decimating quantities of Printed Handouts has become more important to OFSTED inspectors than the actual teaching of one’s subject.

The virus of bureaucracy has taken hold in our schools and it is spreading throughout the system! Who is responsible for this terrible state of affairs? Why none other than that vile behemoth, OFSTED, the grisly creature which towers over us all, waiting to pounce at a moment’s notice and mangle what’s left of our professional pride in its cruel and monstrous teeth. When Gordon Brown took power and claimed to be ‘passionate’ about education, I allowed myself to wonder if perhaps he’d make it his business to save our schools from the virus. Not likely!

As I’m an English teacher, you might think it hardly needs mentioning that I’m a big fan of books or that I enjoy teaching kids how to get the best out of reading. But it does need mentioning. You see, in this respect, I seem to represent a dying breed. Increasing numbers of my colleagues are young people with no experience of the world beyond academia. In itself, this is not necessarily a problem, of course. The thing that worries me is that none of them appears to have the slightest interest in or experience of reading books. What have they been doing for all those years in school and college? Filling in spreadsheets and ticking multiple choice papers, I suspect! You can call me old fashioned if you like, but I consider this to be an alarming trend amongst English teachers. Books …… oh dear me, no! Power Point Presentations are much more in their line.

These people will sit around in English Department meetings, solemnly ‘moderating’ GCSE coursework papers, scrutinising the National Curriculum and pontificating about ‘level descriptors’ and how to interpret them. They will spend several hours trying to decide whether a child’s work has been written with ‘flair and insight’, thus warranting an A or with ‘innovation and style’ making it worthy only of a B. After several hours of this they will proceed to instruct their punch-drunk colleagues about the finer points of this insane system, helpfully pointing out perceived errors and misconstructions, as though such things as the marking of essays could ever be reduced to such an insultingly trite and meaningless formula. Let’s be clear about this; marking, like teaching, is and always will be intuitive and subjective.

Sometimes, during idle moments, an evangelical gleam will appear in the eyes of some passing Deputy Head or Head of Department and he or she will pounce and start to lecture any teacher not sufficiently nifty on his or her feet to run away, on the benefits of using interactive whiteboards in order to produce multi-coloured, ticker-taped ‘lesson objectives’ which will flash, at variable speeds and in a selection of fonts, across the top of said interactive whiteboard before, during and after your Power Point Presentation. Really, I’m not joking.

I suppose I should make it clear that I’m not a Luddite. I know that technology has its uses. I daresay it’s even possible for a Power Point Presentation to be interesting and informative. I’ve just never experienced this myself.

I was trained at London University’s Institute of Education. Before that I went to Q.M.C. London where I studied English Literature. My formal education took place over five years, at considerable public expense at a time when grants were still available for full time students. Why then, do the powers-that-be deem it necessary to torture me with the unwelcome attentions of OFSTED, (and its sycophantic acolytes, the Senior Management Team within my school)?

I have been teaching for just over ten years. During this time I have watched in horror as the bureaucrats have gained more and more power. Beware! The box-tickers are taking over! Like latter day versions of Mr Gradgrind, these people, many of whom begin their careers masquerading as English teachers, see their pupils as little more than minor encumbrances obstructing what would otherwise be the smooth progression of a rewarding and upwardly mobile career. For years they have been wheedling themselves into positions of power and spreading their spores throughout the system. No schools are immune. They are the educational equivalent of M.R.S.A. Unpleasant, virulent and seemingly impossible to stamp out, the new breed of ‘teachers’ spawned by the demands of OFSTED, is nothing more than a gang of public relations executives in disguise. They have no interest in anything beyond self-promotion (and, of course the corollary of this which is their own advancement).

I hasten to add, at this point, that the influence of these people has not yet reached a critical mass. For the time being at least they remain in the minority. Most state school teachers (including those who are newly-qualified) are sane, hard-working professionals who care very much about giving young people a decent and enjoyable education. But the virus will take over, if it is allowed to carry on proliferating at its present rate!

For obvious reasons it is particularly important fully to understand the nature of this virus if you are a parent with children currently undergoing (or about to embark upon) a state school education. With this in mind I have compiled a list of clues in order to help parents to recognise the clip-board-carrying impostors. I repeat, the education of the children in their care is, at best, incidental to these people, so you ignore this warning at your peril, not to mention that of your children.

1. When speaking to you, the clip-board-carrier will never fail to use an interrogative inflection at the end of every sentence. You will certainly be familiar with this relatively recent and apparently ubiquitous linguistic tick; it gives the impression that a question is being asked when in fact a statement is being made. Of course its purpose is to cast doubt upon the listener’s intellectual capacity to comprehend the utterly banal and/or fatuous point which is invariably being made by said clip-board-carrier.
2. In conversation, the clip-board-carrier will always try to obscure what he or she is saying by speaking, as far as is humanly possible, in acronyms.
3. All clip-board-carriers believe that the best type of English lesson takes the form of a Power Point Presentation.
4. Clip-board-carriers all have an unshakeable confidence in their own superior teaching skills. They justify this idea by flaunting their ‘four point lesson plans’, ‘schemes of work’, spreadsheets, data management systems, Power Point Presentations and other such administrative gobbledegook.
5. Clip-board-carriers have developed their own form of the English language. It is deliberately obscure and convoluted and is in a constant state of flux in order to create maximum obfuscation and minimum comprehension amongst those of us who can’t be bothered to keep up with it. This constant adaptation is a type of camouflage. It serves much the same purpose as, for example, the strategy employed by the HIV virus, which is said continually to change itself in subtle and almost indiscernible ways in order to prevent anyone from finding a cure for it. Woe betide the old-style teacher who inadvertently falls into the Venus fly-trap thus constructed by calling a child a child instead of referring to him or her as a ‘young person’. Or who uses the word ‘pupil’ instead of ‘learner’. Or who dares to mention the word ‘spontaneity’ in the same sentence as ‘teaching’ instead of blathering on about ‘formulating strategies to optimise classroom management’.
6. Clip-board-carriers have neither a sense of humour nor a sense of irony.
7. Traffic wardens and clip-board-carriers could all switch jobs with each other tomorrow and no-one would ever notice, unless the resultant increase in the number of parking tickets being issued and decrease in the number of children failing their GCSEs should happen to come to the attention of some other clip-board-carrier in the course of his or her ‘spread sheet analysis of prevailing trends’.
8. When they write, clip-board-carriers always use lists, similar to this one and/or bullet points in order to disguise the fact that they don’t know how to construct a grammatically accurate sentence

'These people are dangerous! Like Hitler, Stalin, Thatcher and Blair before them they are absolutely certain that their ideas are right'.

Unfortunately many members of the public, who don’t have access to the system and who therefore cannot be expected to know any better, are blaming ordinary teachers for the failings of the system. Blaming us for what’s going wrong in our schools makes about as much sense as blaming the crew in the engine room of the Titanic for sinking to the bottom of the ocean! It’s the people steering the bloody thing who need sorting out!

The teaching of English is a complex, challenging and endlessly fascinating vocation. If politicians really think it necessary to carry on forcing schools to jump through all these bureaucratic hoops, why not tell head-teachers to appoint specialists to perform them? Some people are actually quite good at such things, and even enjoy doing them. Filing clerks perhaps? Or school leavers with a C in Maths and English? Or moderately gifted and talented chimpanzees?

I’m not a politician. Neither am I one of the new breed of pseudo-P.R. executives who aspire to be school administrators. I’m just an ordinary person who happens to enjoy reading books and who also happens to enjoy working with teenagers. I think that this fortunate conjunction of interests makes me a pretty good English teacher. I’m not ambitious for promotion. I’m no good at spread sheets and graphs and other such clerical drudgery. I’m a teacher and I’m very happy to carry on being a teacher. At least I would be happy, if the clip-board-carriers would stop plaguing me with their incessant demands for ‘data’.

I know of at least one truly excellent teacher of English - an intellectual, with an encyclopaedic knowledge of her subject, a real flair for communication and a genuine love of children – who was squeezed out like some embarrassing pustule by the relentless box-tickers who governed her.

This is a very sad situation. Many newly-trained teachers (whose training establishments have, of course, also been infected by the afore-mentioned virus) are exceptionally hard-working, worthy and conscientious young people. But they have been tragically misguided. They spend their working lives running round and round in circles like psychotic, amphetamine-addled megalomaniacal chickens, insanely pecking at the fragile structure of the already sinking ship which is our education system.

If I were Gordon Brown I’d make up my mind to do a bit of covert research into the conditions in our state schools. Send in some moles to find out what’s really going on. Disguise them as supply teachers. Or, better still, put on a false beard and go in himself. As an ex-chancellor, he must be vaguely interested in finding out what’s happening to all the money that keeps being pumped into our schools. I could tell him, of course, but he might not believe me unless he saw it first hand; all that tax-payers’ money is being poured into the bottomless cess-pit of bureaucracy, by the clip-board wielding Power Point brigade for which he is ultimately responsible.

The criteria currently being used to judge teaching standards are fatally flawed. Because of this I am being prevented from doing my job. To illustrate the point, I shall quote from ‘Mr Mee’, by Andrew Crumey.

"In fact Proust, though he was my first love in literature, is a writer who, for a very long time, I had neglected. What I mean is that I knew him to the extent that I believed I need no longer think about him. Whatever thoughts I still had were like timbers of a ship, rotted with the passing of years, which had been replaced one by one with remarks and formulas bearing only a superficial resemblance to the genuine ideas they once expressed. Proust, in other words, had been superseded in my mind by that dulled imitation which represents the true state of our memories with regard to most things, and forms, incidentally, the basis of our whole educational system, which can be likened to a photocopier in which one merely makes copies of earlier copies, having left the originals on the bus a long time previously…….."

Not only am I being forced to regurgitate ‘poor copies of earlier copies’ year in year out (I’m certainly not allowed to decide for myself what I might fancy teaching). I’m also having what’s left of my energy and enthusiasm sapped by the need to fill in endless boring, irrelevant and paper-wasting forms, target sheets and ‘lesson plans’.

I realise, of course, that, if they were to read this letter, the clip-board wielding bureaucrats would be up in arms to discover that I’ve been reading novels (shock, horror) when I should have been brushing up on my interactive whiteboard skills, or some other such nonsense. However I think I’m fairly safe in saying that they never will read it, or indeed anything else, unless someone goes to the trouble of translating it into gobbledegook, arranging it into bullet points then presenting it on a Power Point. And even if that were to happen, in some parallel and even-more-dreadful universe than the one we’re already inhabiting, they would all be asleep within thirty seconds in any case; studies have shown that narcolepsy is the most serious side effect of even the most minimal exposure to the noxious influence of Power Point.

If OFSTED inspectors continue to get away with vandalising our education system, we’ll all be forced to neglect the literature which we’re supposed to be teaching, and reduced to delivering its ‘dulled imitation’ on an interactive whiteboard. The real stuff will have been crowded out and all our spontaneity will have been crushed and strangled.
If, as Helen Rumbelow claims, (Times Comment 21/5/07) people really are worried about a "rise in general ‘yobbishness’", the way to put this fear to rest is by giving our teenagers interesting lessons (not Power Point Presentations). Surely anyone can see that interesting lessons would reduce teenagers’ frustration and thus reduce anti-social behaviour.

I shall finish with a true story. A friend of mind (whose school was under threat of an OFSTED inspection) was being driven to distraction by the paper work she was required to produce. As luck would have it, her husband is a civil servant. He knows how to compose documents in bureaucratic jargon. He did all the paperwork for his wife, having browsed through a few government directives. Her department passed its inspection with flying colours. Her husband knew nothing about teaching; all he knew was how to produce the sort of extraneous gibberish required by the government inspectorate. I rest my case.
©
T.Hannah Jan 2008

T.Hannah is currently teaching in southern England and will not reveal where for fear of reprisals..

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