Diary of a subject leader
Real issues in the life of a fictional Subject Leader
A theme current in our political debate, and perhaps not always thought of as an issue to debate, is the expectation that service users should have increasing control over the service they use. I think I have heard it called the ‘consumerisation of state services’. I can’t quote a source, probably because my brain is already full of school stuff and to-do lists, but also because I find the whole thing boring and annoying. I don’t particularly want to have to spend ages investigating which hospital and which surgeon is the best to operate on my slightly ingrown toenail (apologies to any ingrown toenail sufferers. I once played hockey with a goalkeeper who had an ingrown toenail, and the lengths he would go to in order to avoid kicking the ball were indicative of the pain he was in).
Similarly, the release of Schools Adjudicator Ian Craig’s report, in which he estimated 3 500 parents lied on school application forms each year, indicates the lengths parents go to in order to get into ‘good’ schools. I want my local hospital to be able to operate on my toe expertly, and hopefully at a time that is in some way convenient to me. I’m not too worried about how well it would be done in Aberdeen. I also want my school to be the best it can be, regardless of the quaintly-titled, ‘Historic-Roman-name-of-city Academy for Learning’ that is ten minutes down the road. Generally speaking, when I buy something I want to pay a fair price for a good quality product. It would be much easier if I didn’t have to look up on the Which? website before I bought.
I think I can understand the idea that competition can raise performance. And that is fine, so long as there is an understanding that alongside the winners, there are inevitably losers. And even more importantly, that the difference between first and last place may be very small. The problem I have is that those in the losing institution can too easily expect to be a poorer version of the winning, when in fact this may not be the case.
Previously, I taught in a school that was just a few percentage points above the local competition. I would often hear senior staff admonishing behaviour and ‘recalcitrant’ attitudes. The parting shot would so often be: “You do as you wish, because if we decide we don’t want you we can easily arrange for you to go to ‘Just-2%-less, shockingly-awful-normal-school-down-the-road’ – we will even buy you the new uniform so there is no hassle for you.” It had an effect way beyond that it deserved or should have had. We could not have arranged the move. We could have bought the uniform and to be honest, for many of the cases, a whip-round the staff room would have easily covered the cost. I am embarrassed to have to admit to using the line a few times myself, but I knew colleagues at ‘Just-2%-less, shockingly-awful-normal-school-down-the-road’ and their teaching was at least equal to mine. I felt a bit uneasy about it.
I now teach down the road from a thriving, soon-to-expand-with-sixth-form, historic Roman name of city Academy for Learning. I am at ‘Sizeable-15%-less, shockingly-awful-normal-school-down-the-road’. The hardest bit of my job is keeping heads up. Our students expect to do worse. In some subjects, more of our students met their FFT targets than students at ‘Historic-Roman-name-of-city Academy for Learning’. However, the perception among students and their parents is that we do not do a good job. The only grounds they have for this is that ‘Historic-Roman-name-of-city Academy for Learning’ gets better results. They do not have time to properly investigate the difference; they use the simple headline figure. Yes, they want a good education for their offspring, but the fact we are lower than ‘them down the road’ means we must be worse, and thereby not good enough.
From this stems so many issues in our school. Our parents constantly look for the smallest error; openly chastise teachers in front of their children, and then expect us to earn back the respect. But worst of all, is that students genuinely believe that the reason they will not do well is because it is a bad school, so there is absolutely no point in them trying to better themselves.
Having to work within this context is very draining and I regularly watch able students underachieve just because they have an excuse. They are sucked into the self-perpetuating myth that we are a bad school. As teachers, we argue that they are able to succeed in our school. But... we would say that wouldn’t we. Well, that’s what the kids say.