The Dead Hand strikes again

Coinciding with my post on pupil appraisal of teachers, The Daily Telegraph ran this article. The idea seems to be catching on – except, as with all such things, official appropriation would kill it stone dead. The proposal is for a long list of questions for pupils to answer – in other words another tick-list in place of (or more likely as well as) the existing ones. The problem, as usual, is that The System (be that in schools or higher up the chain) seems utterly incapable of ceding control of anything whatsoever, and just trusting people to get on with it.

This proposal immediately hijacks the idea with a list of questions that cannot help but impose a certain agenda on the process; this in turn removes the autonomy upon which basis a review relies to work best. It asks too many questions (which some pupils may not understand), the real purpose being to make teachers conform to official expectations, rather than to judge whether they are really supporting their pupils.

I don’t think that pupils’ subjectivity is necessarily a problem – the reality is that in a job like teaching, ultimately all judgments are subjective. Responses may need to be taken with the proverbial pinch; that’s easily done – but less so by people further-removed from the classroom. The real problem with subjectivity comes when people are deluded about it – when they start treating opinion as fact. Pretending that one is t’other does not change the fundamental reality.

Exam results can of course tell us something, but they are not the be-all-and-and-all either. I come across many children who have very good exam results but still seem unable to think independently, or to possess any curiosity or long-term knowledge base either. It is all too possible to hot-house children to achieve high exam results, relying on short-term memory and exam-gaming strategies without actually educating them well. In fact, that’s precisely what the system as presently constituted is best at.

Equally, there are many reasons why children under-achieve at exams that are not directly within the teacher’s control. Then there are the children who will not achieve highly in exams but who can still get a lot from a supportive teacher. It is not reasonable to hold people to account for things they cannot control – especially while ignoring valuable (but perhaps intangible) things that they can control; this is why the reliance on exam results as the sole judge of a teachers’ worth is highly dubitable.

In fact, the only way to appraise a teacher’s effectiveness in the round is through summative comment. Structure should be kept to a minimum necessary for guidance, and it should allow respondents the space to make their own comments. This would also allow for recognition of attributes that official structures overlook, such as the impact of extra-curricular activities or trips, and the real value of the support and relationships built.

I occasionally ask my pupils anonymously to rate their experiences with me; I do it across the age-range, though I lend most weight to the older students, who know me better, are less likely to make superficial judgements and have more at stake for making fair, but if necessary critical comments. This can be a bit nerve-jangling but also very reassuring.

The important thing, which the official plan ignores, however, is that the process is all the more effective for my retaining control of it. I am perfectly capable of constructing a representative set of questions that will cover the main issues (why would it do it if I didn’t want that?) but in a suitably concise way.  I am also quite capable of collating the results and reflecting on what they show; the nerves are moderated by knowing that the stakes involved are for the most part only my own. I reflect on the results, but also interpret them in the light of my specific situation, rather than as a set of decontextualised statistics. I keep the comments, so that they are available for inspection if needs be.

In my view, none of the foregoing need challenge a professional person unduly – the real difficulty comes when one fears it is going to be taken out of one’s hands, potentially to become yet another beating-stick. I’m not so naïve as not to realise there needs to be some oversight in the system – but how much micro-management is really necessary unless there are wider concerns?

This is born of the same fundamental problem that is afflicting so much of current professional life – the complete lack of trust in individuals professionally to regulate their own practice.

Yet again, the Dead Hand of Bureaucracy would kill at birth an otherwise potentially valuable process.


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