Education Act anniversary: I was a robot, not a teacher

10 June 2009
The Daily Telegraph
link to original

For teachers like me, who have taught for nearly two decades in the state sector, the latest fiasco over Sats is as predictable as bad weather on an August Bank Holiday.

The same could be said for the action of Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, the man who won’t apologise for the fiasco: he joins a long line of former education ministers, including Kenneth Baker, John Patten, David Blunkett and Estelle Morris, who have meddled with the state system, with no positive results to speak of.

Results! The word is as incendiary today as it was when I received my first set of Sats results in the mid-1990s. Pupils who could not speak, let alone write, English had scored highly, while some very clever kids had performed poorly.

I was young and optimistic – and apoplectic with rage. "What’s going on?" I thundered at my head of department. "Ashraful is just off the boat from Bangladesh and he gets a Level 5, while Azizur, who’s very good at English, got a 4! It’s crazy!"

My head of department, John Dineen, replied: "Ashraful’s handwriting is probably neater than Azizur’s."
He was right. When we got the papers back, Ashraful, despite not understanding a word of the paper, had painstakingly copied out all of the questions in a clear, cursive script, while Azizur’s answers were messy but correct.

My faith in the system was jolted. Until then, I had, with some reservations, essentially believed in the central tenets of the 1988 Education Reform Act, which is widely regarded as the most important education legislation of the last 60 years and celebrates its 20th anniversary next week.
Trained at Cambridge University in 1989, I was part of the first cohort of teachers to be inducted into the brave new world of the National Curriculum, Local Management of Schools, Key Stage tests and, perhaps most controversially, league tables for schools.

Unfortunately, very few of the staff at the tough, inner-city comprehensive I joined as a rookie teacher in 1991 knew anything about the Act, and they persisted with the old ways. I nearly failed my probationary year because I followed suit. The local authority inspectors who supervised my first year were not happy: they observed me teach old-fashioned "unsatisfactory" lessons.

Perhaps most indicative of this old-school approach was my deployment of the "Island Project", in which children develop their own imaginary islands.  Pre-1988, it ticked all the boxes: it was cross-curricular, non-competitive and allowed children to work at their own pace.

The inspectors were not impressed, remarking that I was offering my pupils an "inadequate diet" that was not based upon the new remit of the National Curriculum. I was only saved from failing my probation because Dineen took the rap. His schemes of work for his department, scribbled on a single sheet of paper, got the blame.

At the end of the year it was apparent that my school was going to struggle. My head teacher, now in charge of her own funds, was having terrible problems fixing run-down buildings, and, even worse, dealing with the flak from the first league tables.

Our school was bottom in the whole of England, with only three per cent of pupils scoring five A-C grades at GCSE. Most of the staff were totally demoralised, but one bright spark slapped his fist into his palm, exclaiming, "We’re like Millwall! We’re bottom, but we’re hard!"

Using the new legislation, the Government set a date for an Ofsted inspection, as it is now known. Rumours flew around that the school might close. One staff member locked himself in a cupboard, and then, during the week the inspectors were in, went sick.

By then I was no longer a rookie. Having endured rioting classes, pupils throwing missiles and swearing and spitting at me, I was now a "tough guy". I drilled my classes to be prepared for the inspectors. Ignoring the schemes of work, I followed the Government guidelines. This time the inspectors gave me a glowing report. I looked forward to my pupils’ results.

To be rewarded, then, by seeing good kids – like Azizur – fail and some of the ignorant ones do inexplicably well was depressing. I believed in the National Curriculum, but it didn’t seem to be working.
During the next few years, as I moved between schools, I wised up. I cracked the set formula for getting the pupils to do well in the Sats: drilling, exam practice and, for me, a lot of marking. I became a bureaucrat’s dream. I religiously read the latest paperwork and amended my teaching accordingly.
I was swiftly promoted – and increasingly disillusioned. I became an intolerant and inflexible teacher. During Year 9, I would teach nothing but material relevant to the Sats. With Years 10 and 11 (ages 14 to 16), I never taught a lesson that wasn’t connected to the pupils’ GCSEs. All my lessons were structured around answering exam questions, reading and annotating set texts, completing coursework, revising for exams.

Then, in the late 1990s, the Labour government expanded upon the central tenets of the 1988 Act by introducing performance-related pay for teachers. Now my wage was dependent upon how well my kids did in exams. I became yet more obsessed by my results – until a year ago, when I read detailed research into the state of children’s education produced by Durham University.

I became convinced that exams were crushing children’s curiosity, stunting their intelligence and inhibiting their ability to problem-solve; I realised that my own teaching practices were to blame. But I had had enough of constantly analysing false statistics based on inadequate exams and sending back pupils’ scripts that had obviously been marked by someone’s blind great-aunt.

Something of the old-school creative teacher surfaced in me. I realised that my life would be a misery if I carried on with this role. But as head of department I was obliged, by law, to enforce the Government’s directives. That’s why, two months ago, I resigned from the position.

Freed from the shackles of having to set a shining example, and stepping down to become a normal teacher, I will be able to teach challenging texts which are not sure-fire exam winners, to do the bare minimum of exam practice, to teach lessons that have nothing to do with the interminable lesson objectives of the National Curriculum.

There’s one drawback: I can’t step down just yet, because candidates for my post are scarce. Surprise, surprise, being a department head at a large comprehensive isn’t the most popular of jobs!

Now, I wonder whether Mr Balls and the succession of lamentable politicians that have preceded him since 1988 have anything to do with that?

‘Parent Power – The Guide To Getting The Best Education For Your Child’ by Francis Gilbert (Piatkus) is available from Telegraph Books for £9.99 + £1.25p&p. To order, call 0870 428 4112 or go to

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