January can be a very dismal month: dark in the morning and dark in the evening, icy roads, a chill in the air and in the corridors, and bureaucracy and data collection rearing their heads.
Some data collection is closely related to learning and teaching. Mock GCSE examinations are happening in many schools and these are a good opportunity for students and teachers to review progress, identify strengths and weaknesses, and think about what needs to be done to ensure that potential is fulfilled.
But January also brings the joy of two census documents. It is at times like this that being an independent school can seem less advantageous.
We have to fill in the SLASC for the Department for Education (DfE) and a separate census for the Independent Schools Council. The questions are not the same and accuracy is essential.
Moreover, as the DfE does not have a direct electronic link to data in independent schools we have to ensure it is all in the right format and then upload it ourselves.
By January 17, schools had to account for their staffing in all areas and work out who has left and who has joined since census day last year, and what their full names and previous names are and all sorts of other detail. We also had to declare all our pupil numbers and changes since last year.
However, if you are an independent school the DfE has absolutely no interest in whether you have students who speak English as an additional language or whether you have students on free school meals (who have full bursaries) or any other socio-economic or ethnic data.
Facts can get in the way of theories, so it is best not to cloud the issue with them. In 2013 “independent school” is equated firmly in many people’s minds with privileged, White, British, middle-class or wealthy, living in isolation from the rest of society – and Eton has become the proxy word for any independent school. So, we toil away filling in endless boxes but never being allowed to give a true picture of our schools to the DfE.
Meanwhile, the independent sector also had the good fortune to receive a new set of Independent Schools Standards Regulations. These came into force on January 1, we were alerted to them on December 21 and compliance is obligatory. It is true that regulations have been relaxed in some areas such as the precise number of toilets and washbasins required, but other new things have crept in.
I have found it hard to locate exactly where the government has laid down regulations on spiritual, moral, social and cultural development for maintained schools, but for independent schools this standard and its requirements have almost doubled in length.
Much of it involves guidance about not allowing staff to promote partisan political views, and ensuring throughout all areas of extra-curricular activities, off-site lectures and courses and such like that there is balance in the political views presented to pupils. It is hard to argue against a desire to prevent young people from becoming politically indoctrinated and I am sure we all want our students to learn to look at arguments and doctrines from all sides and to be ready to question and challenge them.
Yet, when this all appears in print as a lengthy piece of official regulation, it seems that once again schools and teachers are not being trusted. Interestingly, it is only partisan political views which are mentioned, other forms of extremist views are not. Religious fundamentalism can present a significant impediment to students developing a balanced view.
Currently, the violent opposition to girls’ education in some countries, on religious grounds, is often in the news; one would not wish such discrimination to be promoted. But I must take care; I would not want to be guilty of suggesting yet another area for regulation and compliance!
Marion Gibbs is head of James Allen’s Girls’ School in south London.