Page last updated at 23:50 GMT, Friday, 10 October 2008 00:50 UK

Do we ask too much of teachers?

By Mike Baker

Mike Baker

Schools in England are already amongst the most scrutinised and accountable in the world, yet now a whole new burden of responsibilities is being heaped on them.

First, schools were told they have a responsibility to look out for any indications that their pupils are falling into the grip of extremists and fanatics.

This involves teachers consulting a 47-page checklist of measures to help identify and counter signs that pupils have fallen under the influence of fanatical views.

These signs range from checking whether pupil graffiti betrays the influence of extremism to monitoring pupils' downloads from the internet. Each school is to have a nominated teacher to whom pupils can turn if they have concerns about the influence of extremist groups.

Teachers are also told they should be ready to counter extreme arguments and should encourage debates to challenge such views.

To be fair, the 'extremism toolkit' stresses it is 'guidance' to schools, not a new set of requirements. But read on and you find a whole list of 'school actions' and references to things that schools 'need' to do.

As with so many of these initiatives - from healthy eating to promoting citizenship - each is fine on its own but it is the collective burden on schools that can be overwhelming.

Data

And the government continues to pile them on. Following hard on the heels of the 'extremism toolkit' came a much bigger set of tick-lists for teachers.

These are the proposed 'indicators of a school's contribution to pupil well-being'.

They will apply to all state schools from primary to secondary, including special schools and academies.

The idea is that every school must collect data (yes, even more data!) to measure what they are doing to improve pupils' physical, moral and mental health.

Naturally, this data will be checked by the education inspectorate, Ofsted. This immediately makes it high-stakes data rather than just a self-evaluation checklist.

So what sort of things will schools now have to do?

Well, in addition to the extensive data on test and exam performance, and the statistics on attendance and exclusions, schools will now have to provide information on the percentage of pupils who are 'persistent absentees', that is those who have missed more than one lesson in five.

They will also have to count: the number of pupils doing at least two hours of PE and sport; the numbers taking school meals; and the numbers staying-on in education after age 16.

Alcohol and drugs

But that is only the half of it. Schools will now have to employ opinion surveys of pupils and parents to find out how they think the school is doing on a wide range of well-being measures.

These include: whether the school promotes healthy eating, exercise and a healthy lifestyle; whether it discourages smoking and the misuse of alcohol and drugs; whether it offers good sex education and relationship guidance; whether it fights discrimination, offers a good range of curriculum and extra-curricular activities and the extent to which it encourages community involvement.

There is more. Schools should use these surveys to find whether pupils feel safe and protected from bullying, enjoy school, feel they are listened to, and whether they feel they can influence decisions made in the school.

To be fair to the government, they have dropped some data measures that were in their earlier plans, such as counting how many pupils are obese. Presumably wiser counsel prevailed when the practical issues of checking the weight of every child were considered.

Again, to be fair, the government acknowledges that pupils' well-being is not entirely a matter for schools and teachers. It is shared by local authorities and, above all, by parents.

They add that the indicators are not judgements. A school may have a terrible set of indicators on attendance or school meal take-up, but there may be mitigating circumstances.

Crude measure

Yet you could forgive schools and teachers for being cynical about such caveats. They have heard them before. Exam results, they were told, were only raw data, not a final judgement. They would not be used on their own to determine whether or not a school was doing a good job.

Yet what do we find in practice? Yes, you guessed it: it is the headline measures, such as the percentage of pupils getting at least five A*-Cs at GCSE, that count, irrespective of more sophisticated data on value added, pupil progress, or pupils' home backgrounds.

The government's own list of schools told to improve or risk being closed was based on exactly this crude measure. All the other fine talk and caveats were ignored.

Of course, it is right for schools to consider all aspects of a child's development, including all five outcomes of the Every Child Matters policy (health, safety, educational achievement, contribution to society and economic well-being).

But to insist on measuring all the aspects of a school's contribution seems too mechanistic.

Ask anyone what were the biggest influences of school on their lives and they will not tell you about how many school meals they ate, how many times they ran round the school field or how many sex education lessons they sat through.

No, they will tell you about an inspirational teacher or a notable school trip, drama, or sports event.

Schools would say that if we try to measure everything - and hold teachers to account through so much data collection - we risk losing the spontaneity and individuality that should be part of teaching.



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SEE ALSO
Schools told to counter extremism
08 Oct 08 |  Education
Pupils' well-being to be measured
09 Oct 08 |  Education

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