“The more boxes you tick, the more cash I get paid.”
- Don King, Lunar ltd.
Before I was a teacher, I worked as an administrator for a large manufacturing company. The office at Lunar ltd headquarters was a very strange place indeed: an unpleasant mish mash of sights, sounds and smells. The boisterous noise, the overt (and unashamedly sexist) banter, the room-filling egos and coffee-stained paperwork did not make for the most glamorous working environment. On the contrary, I used to liken my 9-5 existence to that of a life spent sitting in a cave, staring at a wall, watching condensation drip from the ceiling as my soul eroded away, piece by piece. Not very glamorous at all.
Don was a rather rotund gentleman with halitosis and an unpredictable temper. Every morning, I would try to gauge his mood as he strode over towards my desk, never quite sure how he would speak to me until he opened his stinking mouth. Some days (I called them ‘sunshine days’,) he would beam at me and ask me nicely how long it would take me to do x number of tasks. Other days (I called them ‘stormy days’) he would simply bark orders at me whilst I cowered behind a pile of unprocessed invoices.
Despite his erratic mood swings and obvious distaste for toothpaste, Don was a fierce businessman. He got the job done, even if he had to get two or three people fired along the way, he would do it. Everyone hated him, but they admired his conviction and audacity. One sunshine day, I made the very bold (and in retrospect, naïve) decision to ask what he credited his success to. His initial answer sounded like the usual boardroom word-vomit you might hear on The Apprentice: the typical ‘vision’, ‘drive’, and ‘inspiration’ nonsense. However, he then made an unusual addition, one that I have a much deeper understanding of now, a few years older and with (a bit) more experience behind me. Apparently, ‘ticking boxes’, or getting others to tick boxes for you, can turn you into a big shot in business. Who would have thought?
So, fast-forward a few years and here we are. I’ve been working at Galaxy High long enough to know that box ticking is part of the job. We all have to do it: whether it is for Ofsted, for SLT or to please examiners, boxes have become part of the school culture. Although most SLTs aren’t (I would hope) as lucrative as Don, and aren’t driven by profit, there does seem to be the distinct impression that if you tick certain boxes, your school will become more successful. It’s the same in middle leadership, too: tick this box; get a pat on the back from SLT. And of course, those of us at the bottom of the food chain, even we are compelled to tick a box here and there, even if it’s just for a lesson obs.
But the problem is, as has been discussed at length throughout the twitterblogiverse, a lot of the boxes we are made to tick are the wrong boxes.
We know they’re wrong. We have little faith that most of the boxes we are forced to tick are actually helping us to do our very best for our kids, and yet we continue ticking.
This week, I sat in a meeting where a new list of boxes was presented. It was possibly the most depressing list of boxes I have ever come across.
“I don’t like it, either.”
The new emphasis on APS (Average Point Score) has proved to be just the proverbial rocket that the Galaxy High leaders needed to shoot them off, once again, in the wrong direction. Of course, to extend the Galaxy metaphor further (I’m getting a lot of mileage out of it today), it would seem that they have settled on yet another orbit around the planet Ofsted, rather than the planet Pupil.
Apparently, the new way to tickle Ofsted’s fancy is to improve APS by putting all our kids through an entirely vacuous and banal ‘Level 1’ course before they sit their GCSEs, just in case they fail. Because at least that way they have something, right? Wrong. I shan’t name the course in question: I just can’t bring myself to do it. But let’s just say that this makes the Unit 1 AQA English Language exam look extremely rigorous by comparison, which is really saying something.
We were presented with the sample papers, and I looked through, desperately searching for a single text. Supposedly, posters and leaflets now constitute works of literature, and we now need to spend AN ENTIRE YEAR teaching kids to analyse how a film company made their movie look ‘funny’ in the poster.
“This is a complete disaster!” I declared, explaining why I thought this was an utter waste of time and that it was a travesty that our students won’t get to study a single novel, poem or Shakespeare play throughout the whole of year 9, all in the name of progress.
But, the thing is, all my colleagues agreed with me. They got it; I was preaching to the converted. The fact was, they didn’t like the course either, but felt absolutely powerless to do anything about it. It wasn’t through a lack of desire to do things properly, or because they are lazy or don’t care about the job; rather, it was because they have seen too many changes, and know the consequences of refusing to acknowledge them.
SLT are firmly focused on what they think Ofsted want. They have managed to hide behind ‘5 A*-C including English and maths’ for long enough. They have learned the rules of that game perfectly and are now being forced to regroup, to come up with a new plan of attack in the face of a new obstacle standing in the path of their success. Those of us at the bottom of the chain of command feel that we have little choice when we are up against the powers that be. We feel restricted and constrained by what SLT tell us, and they feel restricted and constrained by what they think Ofsted is telling them.
Do we have to be restricted in this way? If teachers don’t like what they think they are being made to do, why are they doing it? Shouldn’t we start challenging the view that is set by school leaders and the higher powers if we feel in our heart of hearts that it is right to do so?
We live in fear of the boxes; we are worried about what might happen if we simply refuse to keep ticking them. Perhaps if we did stop ticking the wrong boxes, we might not have to keep going back to the drawing board to devise the next battle strategy. Perhaps, we might even stand a chance at winning the war against the restrictive powers that cast a huge shadow over our system.
Courtesy of Tessa Matthews at Tabula Rasa