Best Days of Your Life?

Published, in full, The Herald, Thursday 14th August 2014

Do you remember the old adage about your school experience as being ‘the best days of your life’? I do, and they were. What I remember about school is teachers who inspired, friendships I made, problems I resolved, and individual moments where something ‘odd’ or ‘different’ occurred both inside and outside the classroom. What I don’t really remember is the content of what was being taught. And that leads me on to a question that has long occupied my mind. Are today’s pupils experiencing the best days of their lives? Personally, I sincerely doubt it. I walk into schools that have become little more than qualification factories, where learning has become a task to be endured, where the outcome or purpose of school is further or higher education. We have become caught up in a system that is no longer fit for purpose and I’m not sure how it happened. We have become, in some deluded way, a workplace. Schools should be fun and engaging, they should be about taking pupils on voyages of discovery, they should be places which seek to inspire, motivate, support and encourage. Actually, it’s exactly what every teacher in Scotland wants for their pupils. Instead, schools have become managed by higher authorities and we’ve now got it hopelessly wrong.

Schools are drowning in data; data which serves very little useful purpose and yet we’re all guilty of being caught up in the ritual of ‘information gathering’. We have school development plans, teacher forward plans, lesson plans, evaluations, reviews and whole school self-evaluations. We have performance indicators, quality assurance or improvement mechanisms, assessment vehicles, individual pupil tracking systems, benchmarking, national standards, target and goal setting, learning themes, policies, measurement, capacities for improvement, dimensions of excellence – I’ll stop there. And then, added to this, is the utter lunacy of the new GTCS ‘Professional Update’ for teachers, where self-evaluation against professional standards are reflected upon continuously and whereby teachers provide a portfolio of evidence of impact. Bureaucracy gone mad. As a learned friend once said to me, ‘Compliance creates nothing more than mediocrity’. We have become obsessed with measurement and data and, to be perfectly frank, it’s educationally ignorant. We are actually suffocating in the stuff and, what is worse, it is making schools miserable places both in which to work and study.

So, on a personal level, I have deregistered from the GTCS. Of course, I am in the very fortunate position of being the Head of an independent school where I am free (largely) of the bureaucracy that surrounds my colleagues in the maintained sector. As a result, I’m going to take a momentous decision. I’m going to do away with practically all data-gathering in my school. I’m going to remind my teachers why they came into the profession – primarily because they want to make a difference. I’m going to remove the shackles of paperwork and I’m going to ask them to go to their classrooms and teach the way they want.

We have a school where teachers are trusted, where they do not need to provide evidence of impact, where they don’t need to convert everything into a percentage or relate it to a teaching benchmark. What HMIe, GTCS and Government have forgotten is that schools are about relationships. They are about doing what is right for each individual child and leading them into pathways of success.

My school’s ‘development plan’ for next year has one statement only: ‘teachers will engage pupils in dialogue outside of the classroom at every opportunity’. Now that’s a target worth achieving.