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Charlotte Simpson is a writer and radio producer.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Michael Gove Appoints New Chief Inspector of Poets

I had the pleasure of speaking to John Burnside this week – who’s won both the T.S Eliot Prize and the Forward Poetry Prize for his latest poetry collection Black Cat Bone. He has a most unusual method of writing: he doesn’t. He goes out for long walks and composes his poems – many of which extend over several pages – entirely in his head. Lots of writers talk about writing as being really the process of rewriting. The published text might well be the 43rd draft. Not so for John. He says making poetry is akin to working with hot metal. He holds the nascent poem in his head, shaping and turning the words until they are a perfect fit. If they’re right there’s no danger he’ll forget them. When he writes his poems down to send to his publisher that’s it: first and final draft. The metal has gone cold and hard.

And today I talked to a former music teacher. She told me about the Ofsted inspection she failed. Anyone who’s ever taught will surely remember the lessons that didn’t work – the times when no-one was listening, when even the keenest student couldn’t quite see the point of it all and the insurgents could barely muster the motivation to revolt. This wasn’t one of those lessons. She knew it was good. Her bottom-set year eights were belting out gospel songs in three-part harmonies. But her teaching was ‘unsatisfactory’ because the inspector noticed she wasn’t using a lesson plan. She was unprofessional enough to focus her attention on the people she was educating rather than a script. ‘No lesson plan! You wouldn’t cook a meal without a recipe, would you?’ exclaimed the head afterwards. Er… yes actually.

So, based on my skeletal and one-sided knowledge of the story, I can see that the inspector had to fail her. Anyone working under the auspices of Ofsted should know what’s expected of them and if they don’t meet the requirements then they’ll be penalised. If I break a rule I shouldn’t complain when I’m punished – but I do have every right to question whether the rule is a good one.

It got me thinking about how glad I am that some kind of Ofsted equivalent hasn’t yet found its way into the studies and studios of other creative people. If a committee of illustrious arts professionals were to come up with a checklist of best practice for the writing of literature, I can imagine them instructing the writer to show evidence of the process of drafting and redrafting. And well they might – most good writers do it. But not John Burnside. Would his indelible compositions be deemed ‘unsatisfactory’? ‘It’s not that you can’t write, John. But we really need to see evidence of good practice.’ I hope the day never comes when John Burnside is made to provide the literary world with a paper trail.

Most creative people just don’t work like that. Now as someone who once worked as a surly administrator in an office of ‘creatives’ I certainly know that no-body’s incapable of booking their own train tickets or sending their own emails. Creativity is no excuse for laziness and of course there are wonderfully creative people who are also very organised. But more often than not the two don’t go together. 

We need people who are great at rules – people who help to build and sustain order in their jobs and in society and who know where to find the receipt for a faulty cheese grater they bought five and a half months ago. Institutions can’t thrive in a climate of chaos and good corporate compliance helps them to treat people fairly, make sure everyone gets paid when they should, and ensure that poor performance is challenged. But we also need people who are spontaneous, anarchic and visionary. So far, thank goodness, we seem to have accepted that artists are allowed to be just that. But there are few other professions left which haven’t already been subdued by excessive regulation.

Even the superb childminder who sometimes looks after my 19-month-old daughter is burdened with reams of Ofsted form-filling. Fine, give her a CRB check for what it’s worth. But beyond the most basic steps of child protection, I don’t want it. I’ll take my chances that I can decide who best can care for my toddler. If childminders want to buy into an Ofsted inspection system to give themselves extra credibility with parents then let them – on a voluntary basis. But don’t drive away those warm, energetic, surrogate-granny figures who give children the most excellent and attentive care but, through lack of confidence, ability or a filing cabinet, don’t do paperwork well.

But it’s in schooling that the crisis is really looming. What could be more important than educating our children? And what is more creative than capturing a child’s imagination; making your passions grow blossom in the mind of another? There are wonderful teachers who manage to excel within the constraints of the compliance culture that Ofsted has bred but there are many others who’ve given up and found something else to do. And more still – including me – who would love to teach but just don’t want to do a job in which so large a proportion of the workload is about proving to an external regulatory framework that you’re doing a good job.

Whatever I work as, I don’t think it should be my job to prove I’m doing what I’m meant to do. That’s a distraction from actually doing it. It’s my boss’s job to monitor my performance. Does Ofsted think that heads don’t know which teachers are worth keeping? (A clue: they’re often the ones who end up leaving because they can’t bear the system any longer.)

My greatest fear is that schools will become dominated by the rule followers –they’ll lose the diversity in their teaching staff and turn into homogeneous institutions where everyone is good at paperwork; places where you’ll seldom find the boldest and most exciting thinkers because they don’t feel welcome there. Schools need to support all types of children – those who will one day become the followers and enforces of rules: police officers, actuaries, Ofsted inspectors – but also those who will never flourish in education until their imaginations are ablaze. I believe that teaching is a truly creative art that can’t always be formulated into a one-size-fits all ‘best practice’ by a committee.

I want teachers to know their subject, love it, inspire and enthuse their pupils and to do all that without allowing any child to come to any physical or emotional harm. That’s it. A tall order but also a simple one. Great organisation, well-structured schemes of work and clear lesson plans are probably useful for most teachers but some people like to do things their own way. Let’s let them.

1 comment:

  1. Very well said, Charlotte. I know at least two superb teachers who left the profession for the reasons you describe.