International Writers Magazine:Education
in the UK
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
whats left of my sanity.
Oh, not another whingeing teacher, I hear you cry, Whats
the problem now?
Heres the problem in a nutshell: The filling in of forms, the
ticking of boxes and the being seen to have justified ones existence
by the production of rainforest-decimating quantities of Printed Handouts
has become more important to OFSTED inspectors than the actual teaching
of ones 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 moments
notice and mangle whats 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 hed make it his business to save our schools from the
virus. Not likely!
As Im an English teacher, you might think it hardly needs mentioning
that Im 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
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 childs 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. Lets be
clear about this; marking, like teaching, is and always will be intuitive
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, Im not joking.
I suppose I should make it clear that Im not a Luddite. I know
that technology has its uses. I daresay its even possible for
a Power Point Presentation to be interesting and informative. Ive
just never experienced this myself.
I was trained at London Universitys 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
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 listeners 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 cant 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
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 dont know how to construct a grammatically
people are dangerous! Like Hitler, Stalin, Thatcher and Blair before
them they are absolutely certain that their ideas are right'.
members of the public, who dont 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 whats
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! Its the people steering the bloody thing who need sorting
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?
Im not a politician. Neither am I one of the new breed of pseudo-P.R.
executives who aspire to be school administrators. Im 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. Im not ambitious
for promotion. Im no good at spread sheets and graphs and other
such clerical drudgery. Im a teacher and Im 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 Id 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 whats 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 whats 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 (Im certainly not allowed to decide
for myself what I might fancy teaching). Im also having whats
left of my energy and enthusiasm sapped by the need to fill in endless
boring, irrelevant and paper-wasting forms, target sheets and lesson
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 Ive
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 Im 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 were
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
If OFSTED inspectors continue to get away with vandalising our education
system, well all be forced to neglect the literature which were
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
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 is currently teaching in southern England and will not reveal
where for fear of reprisals..
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