I was recently contacted anonymously by a parent who asked if I would host a blog post for them. When this piece came through to me I felt obliged to post it. I suspect a lot of parents out there will be familiar with this scenario, as will countless teachers. The following entry has been supplied by the Secret Parent.
Let me introduce myself – I’m one of the “nice” parents. I support and trust teachers, and there are teachers in my family, one of the reasons why I know I could never do the job myself. I’m involved with the school, and do what I can to support it. So how could I possibly be part of the problem? Well, it’s like this.
A while back, our school had a big Ofsted inspection. The report said lots encouraging things, and we were very pleased with it in general. One passage in particular immediately jumped out at me when I read it – a glowing report of one specific lesson. Knowing that class as I do, my instant reaction was to laugh – it was abundantly clear that the ridiculously bright child in that class had “just happened” to be participating a lot under the inspector’s nose, and impressing him with his advanced development.
The blatant nature of this event encouraged me to share the anecdote, both for humour and because it supported my long-standing belief that flying inspections don’t tell you the full story about a school, and are open to manipulation and prejudicial distortion. My epiphany came when my amusing Ofsted anecdote bombed with a couple of friends. Um yeah, they said, everyone does that. It’s just playing the system.
I had no idea! I know teachers are under a stupid amount of pressure, and inspected to within an inch of their life, but I naively assumed that inspections wouldn’t be easily swayed just by a single child’s precocity. I certainly hadn’t expected that something like this would be any more than a desperate measure in extremis. To discover that anyone would consider it routine was more than a little unsettling.
Following that uncomfortable taste of the red pill, I started to look deeper – what else could I do? I read accounts by teachers explaining how the treadmill of inspection and evaluation was dragging them, their teaching and their whole class down. I became more aware of pressures to produce “acceptable” data and discovered the concept of “up levelling” children in order to meet arbitrary performance targets. I was horrified. And then I started to think about it.
When my eldest was starting school, I was a little worried by his first report. Once I’d got my head around the strange alphabet soup of letters and numbers which looked as if it had been deliberately encrypted to ensure that no one of school age would be able to understand it, I read that he was around average for his age, maybe slightly below. I was surprised and slightly concerned – he’d always seemed very bright. Was something going wrong? Why was he “only” average? I raised it with his teacher the next day.
Fast forward a year or two, and he was doing much better. Clearly bright and ahead of the curve, I was happy to see this improvement and made no effort to discuss it with anyone. His teacher remained unmolested, but what had objectively changed? Nothing to do with the quality of teaching – my inclination to ask difficult questions was entirely dependent on a subjective assessment of his abilities, and whether it was higher or lower than my own finger-in-the-air judgement.
Looking back from a distance, it seems blindingly obvious – his teachers are in the best position to know how he’s doing, but the lower their assessment, the more queries, hassle and even outright hostility they’re likely to get from parents. I’ve even heard parents talk about moving to another school, purely based on a teacher’s evaluation of their child’s progress. We want the best for our kids, so we obsess over every data point. In that context, who wouldn’t bump the odd child up where there’s any doubt?
The uncomfortable truth is that the overbearing and unsustainable inspection regime being inflicted on teachers and schools is giving parents what we want. We want data – we love data. All parents, supportive of teachers or not, want to know that our children are doing well. We even choose schools based on their previous exam results, as if that magically makes our children brighter. We are all part of the problem.
Let me be clear – I despise everything Gove and countless generations of education secretaries before him have done to education in this country, but I’m afraid that as parents, voraciously devouring every last scrap of data, we’ve got the regime we deserve. By questioning teachers who don’t share our belief in our children’s brilliance, choosing schools by their results, or even constantly demanding better performance, we are feeding the monster.
So I’m trying to fight back – the least I can do for all those hassled, frazzled teachers. My only question is, how? I want to be involved, and I want to help if my children aren’t meeting their apparent potential. Does it help to be pushing just as hard when they’re doing well? Do I really want to become “that pushy parent” always making demands on teachers’ already overstretched time? Do teachers want that? And if I don’t, doesn’t it continue to reward that pernicious “up levelling” approach?
Please, tell me what I can do. I’m heartbroken at what’s happened to our education system, but I don’t know how to break the cycle and make life easier for those hardy souls who continue to stick at it. What can be done so that parents can be interested and involved in their children’s education without supporting this destructive obsession with holding teachers responsible for children’s performance?
Any suggestions are very welcome.