The timing is ironic. The University of Birmingham, just down the road from me, is investigating the nature of time. It is a major study involving academics in America, Germany, the Netherlands, Turkey and Australia. Physicists talk about “closed time-like curves” where time travel won’t involve blue police boxes but might use portals that act as gateways to a specific location.
Why ironic then? Well, this is my last article for SecEd and I have struggled to find material that was apposite. So when I read about this study on time it reminded me of the portal that exists at my local. Oh, the gaps in time I’ve encountered there...
So for research purposes I visited it again, to discover the impact of the myriad education reforms undertaken in the last five years. I decided to travel the same period of time into the future, to the year 2020, and visit nearby schools.
I chose to enter the school in the guise of an Ofsted inspector. In 2020 they soar over the land, to descend on a school without warning, rather like martial eagles attacking meerkats.
My arrival sent staff scurrying in all directions to their bolt-holes, to retrieve spreadsheet data that might counter the ordained view of the inspector.
On their return they stared at me, blankly, as I explained I merely wanted to look and learn, not judge. Their Chief Executive Officer, (I almost blew my cover by calling her a headteacher), kept shaking her head in bewilderment as she took me on a personal tour of her Learning Institution.
We travelled along silent corridors until we entered a Learning Zone where instructees tapped on tablet computers in hushed and fervent concentration, while the instructor monitored their activity on her own computer.
I was observing, I was told hastily when I commented on the lack of any interaction, the weekly controlled assessment in English. The young instructor preened as he explained how each of the 40 instructees in his group worked on personalised tasks which identified their normative position.
He pointed to five of his brood who, he boasted, were in the 95th percentile. None of them, he continued, were below the 75th percentile. I moved along the rows of single tables to glance over hunched shoulders as busy fingers tapped at answers, spotting a non-restrictive clause here, identifying a present subjunctive statement there. From one who’d completed her task, I discovered much of the week was spent practising for these assessments: “The more we practise, the faster we get,” she said. When I asked what she was learning she looked up at me, forehead furrowed in confusion. “I’m learning the correct answers and how to record them efficiently.” I thanked her and moved on, my own forehead similarly furrowed.
Back in the corridor, the CEO explained how their practice had been informed by extended visits to observe instruction in the Pacific Asian countries. She proudly pointed to a computer screen above my head which proclaimed her Learning Institution’s live position on the English PISA League Table. “Parents can see at a glance how successful we are against other Learning Institutions across the country because we’re measured by the same criteria on the same tests.
“Parents access their child’s progress online weekly, after all the controlled assessments are complete. They can compare that performance against others within that percentile nationally in each subject. It’s very simple.”
“And how often do parents get to meet their child’s teach..., er, instructors?” I asked.
She gave me a smile just short of patronising: “I didn’t think anyone did that any longer. What’s the point?”
“To discuss the child’s development? Any difficulties they might experience? If they’re happy?”
The smile froze. “Happy?”
Her heels clicked on the tiled floor in staccato consternation as she spouted statistics illustrating value-for-money education.
“What do you provide in the form of staff development?” I asked after leaving another silent Learning Zone.
A perfectly formed raised eyebrow. “Our most successful instructors demonstrate how they raise achievement, it is shared and copied.”
“What if an instructor experiences some difficulties? Are there courses available? Mentoring? Team-teaching?”
“Such methods are not cost-effective. If instruction falls below this institution’s declared minimum threshold of achievement, the instructor is released.”
“Tell me,” she said, her tone as cold as her stare, “how recent is your experience?”
It was the moment for me to make good my escape. I made my way back in time feeling depressed. I suppose it is a good thing the time portal is in my local, I could consume enough alcohol to forget what I’d seen.
Phil Parker, an ex-senior leader, is now a director of Student Coaching Ltd which works with schools eager to develop rounded young people by transforming the way teachers and students learn. Visit www.studentcoaching.co.uk or tweet him @PhilPfromSC