School Report 1-25


Edition 3  

23 February 2001                         






   For as long as I can remember teachers have been complaining about low morale. It has become a familiar mantra at the annual conferences of their unions and in pay negotiations. So regular has been this plaintive refrain that over the years many people have understandably dismissed it as crying wolf syndrome.

   This time it is different. The wolf has arrived. It seems that in all too many staff rooms ordinary teachers, and not just union activists, are genuinely demoralised and dispirited. They are exhausted and under increasing stress and many would leave the profession if they could find a way out. Speaking with colleagues in the schools I visit I know this to be true.

   There are two principal causes for this gloomy picture. First, and most important, though too seldom acknowledged, is the unruly and disruptive behaviour of far too many pupils in our schools, from a very young age upwards. Constantly having to deal with badly behaved pupils is the most wearing and emotionally draining part of the job. Second, is the vast amount of totally unnecessary work, outside the normal business of the classroom, which is expected of teachers and which eats into their time, energy, enthusiasm and capacity to deliver learning of the highest quality. Too much management and too many meetings are the main contributory factors in this.

   It is small wonder that there is a recruitment crisis in the profession now that those who might like to become teachers realise the disaffection is genuine. The only way to prevent the situation becoming worse is, quite obviously, to address the fundamental problems of bad behaviour from too many of our pupils and the excessive workload presently imposed on our teachers.

   Increased salaries are not the solution although, for some, they may have a temporary soothing effect. Looking at some of the generous salary levels currently on offer - far too generous for heads and senior managers - it cannot be said, for most teachers, that the wolf is at the door. Far from it in many cases. More money is not the answer; it rarely is in the world of education. What is urgently required to avert an even more damaging situation is an honest recognition of the root causes of the current deep malaise and the collective will to do something about it.




   Here it is again: season of tests and shallow fruitlessness? Not really. There is too much national testing that is for sure and it is time to reduce this to a sensible level. However, tests are an effective and useful means of assessment and combined with on-going evaluation of pupils’ learning they are an important teaching tool. This week’s essay unravels the issues in the whole area of assessment and, in order to do justice to some of the complexities involved, is continued next week.





   I must apologise for staying with spelling again but it is a subject which fascinates people, young and old. Talking to a colleague about my difficulty with the word  “enemy” (Issue 2) she confessed to the blind spot which troubled her well into adulthood: “apology” and whether it had one “p” or two. Rather than elect for invasive cerebral surgery to cut through the chemical blockage which  prevented the correct spelling being imprinted on her memory circuits she wisely decided to opt for some alternative therapy to treat the problem. An aide-memoire was the answer. One  simple, cryptic and charming line finally put an end to years of annoyance: “Apology is not like an apple”.

   As testing is the subject of this week’s essay here’s a good old-fashioned spelling test to try:


  1. Full of skill: s________
  2. A black chewy sweet: l________
  3. Completing something: c_______ary
  4. Self-conscious feeling: emb________
  5. Close observation of a suspect: su________
  6. Talking with oneself: so________
  7. Skin disease with red patches: ________
  8. Very small dog from Mexico: c________ 


Section 1


State how you would organise a school if placed under your charge in one of the following cases - draw a plan, showing the arrangement of your classes -  and give a copy of your timetable.

  1. 60 children, mixed, with no pupil-teacher, but with a mistress who attends all day, and can teach reading and sewing.
  2. 80 children, mixed, with a pupil-teacher, and a mistress who attends in the afternoon to teach sewing.
  3. 120 boys in a town, with two pupil-teachers.


(From an exam paper on school management for trainee schoolmasters, 1852)






   No cheating, please, when you answer these questions. When did you last spend three hours, in silence, concentrating on reading, writing and thinking? When did you last concentrate on anything for three hours in total silence?  When was the last occasion  you wrote a story in forty-five minutes? Have you ever written a story in forty-five minutes? Not just any story, but one that is gripping, imaginative and flowing, packed with adventurous vocabulary and appropriately varied sentences, grammatical and well paragraphed, and with all “conflicts” neatly resolved by the final full stop.

   If you have never written a story so quickly and the challenge appeals to you, then all you need do is ask to join the thousands of eleven year olds who will be sitting their SAT’s this May and who are currently honing their skills in countless silent classrooms around the country. Many of them, I know, will produce some outstandingly good stories in their forty-five minutes of enforced creativity, better than anything I could manage. If this doesn’t appeal but you feel inclined to compete with the nation’s eleven year olds in other academic departments you will need to brush up on your spellings, ensure your mental arithmetic is razor sharp in speed and accuracy and know which forces are involved when a football is kicked.

   It is an unusual birthright which succeeding generations of parents pass on to their children, the endurance of an endless round of assessment, testing and examination in their formative years. If only all those reception children knew what was in store for them as they meet their smiling teacher for the first time they probably wouldn’t be quite so keen on starting the great adventure of school.

   The whole subject of assessment in education, of which tests and exams form a vital part, is vast and frequently controversial. It stirs passion and emotion, understandably, because for some people it can be unpleasant and life-changing. Its perceived significance has led to the growth of a sprawling empire, with colonies and a lingua franca in every corner of the educational world, where the quest for the holy grail of  perfect assessment proceeds unremittingly. Government quanqos, universities, local authorities and schools constantly come up with new ideas which are transmitted to teachers and pupils in classrooms. We must not complain. At least  the whole industry of new documents, examination boards, revision books, diagnostic tests, booster classes, marking and moderating is making a healthy contribution to economic activity in our country.

   Assessment is an important subject, and it can be complex, but it is not quantum physics. Weaving its threads together is not as demanding as some would have us believe. As for the holy grail of perfection, it doesn’t exist. No system will ever provide a complete evaluation of any one person’s capabilities in any sphere of learning or life.

   Whether we like it or not, we humans indulge in a huge amount of assessment. It is not just in schools, it is everywhere. It follows us around, often unobtrusively, sometimes not. It is in our homes, at our places of work and in our daily life. It is integral to our unconscious and conscious decision-making processes. We are forever assessing situations: when we are driving the car, when we go shopping, when we play tennis, when we climb mountains, when we do the washing up, when we do anything. Not only do we assess situations, and make judgements and decisions about what we do next, we often instinctively assess our performance in those situations and the performance of other people in them. We assess a situation and our role in it to see if we are doing something correctly, to learn from what we are doing, to plan a future course of action and sometimes to enable us to congratulate ourselves on what we have done. We assess other people’s performance for similar reasons and also because, for some reason, we just like making judgements about other members of the human race.

   There is clearly more to self-assessment than filling in the tax returns. This informal, ongoing evaluation of what we are doing and what we plan to do also happens in the workplace and is assumed to be a normal part of any job. Added to our own self-evaluation are the more formal assessment procedures of assessment, appraisal or inspection where other people decide how effectively we are performing our tasks. Although this can seem threatening it is actually perfectly reasonable for someone else to check on us to see that the bricks are laid properly, the machine is used safely,  the customers spoken to politely or the suspension bridge designed correctly. If  you happen to be a professional  footballer, of course, then you are not only assessed by your manager after every game but also by the viewing public at home or at the ground; one of the less private assessments in the workplace.

   The uneven flow of everyday life requires us constantly to make evaluations and judgements of one sort or another. Assessment is not something which is unique to schools and by reminding ourselves of that, and by widening the context of the subject, we can better understand its purpose and perhaps reduce the threatening aura which sometimes surrounds it.

    It would be disingenuous, though, to say that assessment in school mirrors that which occurs in life. There are not many employees who are going to return home, as our young people do, having spent hours silently glued to their desks, scribbling furiously while they answered questions about their work.  Nor, on the other hand, is it likely that mother is going to be given a grade for the quality of her cooking or ironing; it would be a brave offspring who tried doing this. But it is likely, however, that both pupil and parent will have been involved in plenty of ongoing self-evaluation during the course of the day and that process is as important in school as it is outside.

   This gives us a convenient starting point to look at the many different forms of assessment which are found in schools. Broadly they can be divided into informal and formal methods but, as is often the case, these categories overlap and are not mutually exclusive, a mistaken belief  which has done little to enhance the quality of debate on the issue.

   Although it comes in different forms the purpose of assessment in school, across all areas of the curriculum, is essentially to establish what has been, or is being learned, in order to decide whether desired goals have been reached, what strengths and weaknesses have been revealed and what should be the next stage of learning. On the whole there is general agreement about the purpose, and necessity, of assessment but not about the methods used. It is usually here that passions are ignited and opposing camps established, often along ideological lines. I cannot claim that my views on the subject are wholly dispassionate but the benefits and drawbacks of each system will be put.

   The most informal and the most natural type of assessment which takes place in schools is continuous self-evaluation which, as we have seen, is a part of everything we do. From a very early age children learn about their world by trying things out for themselves and deciding what works and what does not. In school this learning by trial and error happens all the time whether in mixing paint colours, sounding out words, checking numbers with counters or using the computer. As children grow older and meet greater demands in their learning they still retain this capacity to consider by themselves, or with a partner, whether what they are doing is achieving the desired results or not.

   Not surprisingly some children reflect more on their tasks than others. Some dash off their work in no time at all with hardly a backward glance, while others mull over their efforts interminably. Moving older children on from their instinctive ability to assess progress to a procedure which is more formalised is not too difficult. In most areas of the curriculum they can be taught to look at their work carefully and decide what improvements can be made to it. When they can do this they will be able to check their spellings, rewrite whole sentences, start their designs and pictures again and much more.

   A lot of what we learn in school and in life is dependent on self-evaluation. At its best this motivates us to succeed well at our tasks; at its worst  it takes us off in completely the wrong direction. We have all had that happen to us as well as see it happen to others. There comes a point when someone else’s observations are necessary and desirable.

   Enter the teacher. A teacher who can monitor pupils’ tasks sensitively, a teacher who is able to judge whether the tasks are being understood properly and a teacher who is experienced in the gentle art of individual assessment. This teacher knows that Sophie has been relying too heavily on Ben to help her with the confusing business of converting fractions to percentages. He spends a few minutes with Sophie and establishes just where the confusion lies, explains the concept and the process, gives her a few examples to do and returns shortly afterwards to check that she has managed them.

   This one to one learning situation is ideal for instant, informal assessment. It has great benefits. What an individual has learned or not learned, and understood or not understood can be established and the appropriate next stage for that pupil can then be decided. It does not matter at this moment what other pupils have achieved. What is important is the learning stage of one particular pupil.

   Individual tuition is probably the best way to teach most things, from milking a cow to driving a car. It is probably the best way to teach most school subjects especially in the early years of education. Reading, mathematics, swimming and learning a musical instrument are obvious areas of the curriculum which lend themselves to personal tutoring. When teachers work alongside individual pupils these days their comments are usually encouraging, non-threatening and motivating and children who are sensitive to criticism gain enormously from this. Knuckle tapping with rulers when mistakes are made is not considered, today, to be the most inspiring method of teaching.

   It is not a great secret but unfortunately schools and classrooms are not always an ideal environment for the delivery of high quality education. In classrooms as they are presently organised it is impossible to give all pupils effective personal tuition, to include individual, ongoing assessment. There is no mystery about this. Quite simply there is too much to do, too little time in which to do it and too many pupils.

   One way to give more time to assessing pupils’ work and monitoring progress is to do this out of school, by taking the work away with you and enjoying the fruits of your labours in the classroom for hours on end in the comfort of your own home. Tedious and time-consuming it can often be but marking books and folders thoroughly is a very effective means of assessment, too often neglected in the primary sector. All sorts of learning issues arise from a careful scrutiny of pupils’ set tasks: difficulties with sentence construction in their writing, confusion in their maths or science, lack of understanding in their history. Pupils who need extra help and those who need an extra challenge can often be identified in this way.

   The disadvantages of continuous assessment are well known. It does not assess all the work covered in a course and it may not indicate a true level of understanding or assimilation especially if the work has been completed with guidance from the teacher to the whole class or a group. It may not necessarily be the pupils’ own efforts which are assessed, and it may also be the case that routine lessons do not inspire all pupils to produce their best work. Fortunately the old dilemma of not being able to compare standards in one’s own school with standards in other schools has to a large extent been resolved with the coming of the national curriculum.

   The most formal means of continuous assessment is when it contributes to a final grade in a nationally recognised qualification. What percentage, if any, of the overall mark should be based on course work and what percentage, if any, should be based on final exams is constantly under review for GCSE’s, A-levels and first degrees. It is a debate which cannot be considered  here except to say that a combination of the two methods is now  widely used.


   And so to tests.


The second part of the essay will appear in the next edition.



Edition 4

9 March 2001






   Generally speaking our denominational schools have a good reputation in their communities. They often have high academic standards and parents associate them with traditional values in social, moral and spiritual matters. Parents also appear to like the connection with Christianity even when they would not claim to have strong beliefs themselves. It therefore seems reasonable to allow more Christian denominational schools, and since we live in a multi-faith society, also permit denominational schools for other faiths. This could be a way to raise standards and spread respect for traditional values.

   Establishing more schools which put an emphasis on spiritual and moral development would be welcome but not, however, if this were to lead to social divisiveness based on religion. This would be a disaster and would undermine the tolerance which broadly exists today.

   A better way to promote spiritual values, admittedly a way fraught with difficulties, would be to phase out all denominational schools and ensure that every school gave a much higher priority to a philosophical education which embraced spirituality, religion, morality and ethics. And if young people could somehow be encouraged to live out some of the great precepts they learn about then we could truly say that we have faith in our schools.




   David Blunkett’s term of office as Education Minister has been impressive. His guiding vision, based on deeply held principles, has been to provide better education for all children irrespective of their social background. To achieve this he has introduced literacy and numeracy programmes in primary schools, endorsed rigorous school inspections, developed the national curriculum and national assessments, supported the comparison of exam results between schools, encouraged an element of specialism in the secondary sector and introduced performance related payments for teachers. He has brought common sense and firm resolve to his job and our children are better educated because of him. We should all be grateful.






   Who remembers “Brick-up”, a simple but absorbing computer game from an earlier millennium? This piece of antiquity from the 1980’s, when BBCs were the period furniture, managed, uniquely, to combine practice in both spelling and target shooting.  It was so easy to use that every child could load it and become engrossed straight away, thus impressing any visitor on the look-out for independent, discovery-based learning where the classroom hummed and technology buzzed. Brick-up was thus the perfect computer cosmetic.

   What about the excellent Domesday Project?  There must be many teachers still around who took part in what has probably been the best use of computers there has ever been in the primary school. For those who don’t know of this enterprise it was devised to enable primary schools to commemorate the 900th anniversary of the Domesday Book in an exciting and educational way. The idea was to carry out a survey of the whole country, just as William the Conqueror had, and put the information into a huge computer database which would be similar to a modern Domesday Book.

   Each school was allocated a 4km x 3km block of the country to study and to gather information about its physical, social, economic and historical features. These miniature snapshots were then combined into one large picture for the whole country to give an impression of life in 1986. I remember running a Domesday Club for a group of interested children and it turned out to be some of the most rewarding teaching I’ve done. We made many visits to our block and looked at its physical geography, which included the sea, its housing development, its businesses, its amenities and its transport network. The children recorded interviews, took photographs, made sketches, did research, wrote descriptions and performed a play. Inevitably there was an over abundance of material to put into the computer, the culmination of our endeavours, but with discussion it was decided what went on and what was left out.

   The whole project was an enormous learning experience for all of us. Sadly we did not have the technology in school in future years to make use of the completed national survey which became a fascinating resource. Since the Domesday Project I have found information technology rather uninspiring, lacking direction and not doing a great deal to assist children’s learning. Things are beginning to improve with computer suites appearing in many primary schools but I wonder if we still need to treat computers more as our servants than our masters. That was the essence of Domesday computer work.


P.S. If you are one of the many teachers feeling aggrieved by the restriction on grants for computers why not write to your local M.P. and put your case.




Edition 7

20 April 2001






   Planning is now such an obsession with so many primary school teachers that one wonders if there are some who find it difficult to call the register or make a cup of tea in the staffroom without a planning sheet in front of them.  Planning is important but not everything needs to be written down in minute detail. Lessons rarely proceed according to plan.

   Teachers should be allowed to prepare their lessons in the way that suits them best provided they are following an agreed syllabus and  their pupils are learning what is required. Over- elaborate and repetitive planning sheets, mistakenly regarded as a sign of good management, are quite unnecessary and burdensome. Jotting down some ideas in a notebook is just as effective even if  it doesn’t look as pretty.

After all shouldn’t we  actually  know what we are trying to achieve and how we should put it over?  Isn’t that our job? So far I have not yet seen my doctor, my dentist, my car mechanic nor the girl at the till refer to a planning sheet while they have been doing their jobs. What is so different about teaching?



Edition 10

1 June 2001 






   In its first decisive strike against the entrenched forces of inertia and complacency in the world of education the newly elected ABCC government persuaded parliament to vote decisively in favour of its manifesto commitment  to abolish the five compulsory in-service training days for all teachers in the public sector. The vote took place on the 14th June exactly one week after the most invigorating  general election for decades when the A Bit of Common Sense Coalition Party swept to power on a tide of anti-establishment feeling.

   On the Monday of the week of this momentous piece of legislation the state opening of Parliament had been cancelled and replaced with a  simple welcome from the newly elected speaker; wigs, robes and ermine were decreed obsolete and interrupting, shouting, cheering and jeering were deemed to be immature and would not be tolerated.

   Consequently the only sound which accompanied the Abolition of Teachers’ In-serviceTraining Days Act came from two good humoured demonstrations on parliament square – one from a combined delegation of teachers’ associations who were disappointed to discover that the five days had not been added on to their holidays but had become extra teaching days, and the other from a combined delegation of parents associations who vociferously supported the proposal.

   The legislation allowed for one final in-service training day to be held in a month’s time, on the 14th July, to be called National Bastion Day. This day would officially mark the beginning of ABCC’s drive to implement its three election pledges on education clearly stated  in its best-selling manifesto: raising standards for all pupils in all schools, bringing a bit of common-sense to bear on discussions about education and listening to the concerns and aspirations of parents, teachers, pupils and society as a whole about the present and future direction of our school system.

   On Bastion Day all schools would have the same programme to follow in the morning, as laid down by parliament, with free choice for the afternoon session, provided there was no use of flip-charts, overheads, handouts or anything similar - a game of rounders or sketching the school building were suggested as suitable activities.

   Bastion Day was to be made a bank holiday so that as many parents and members of the public as possible could go into schools and contribute to this final in-service training day. Creche and child-minding facilities would be funded by the government and such was the importance attached to the day that a tax-free payment of £50.00 was to be made to all participants other than teachers.

   The aim of the day would be simplicity itself: to provide everyone with an opportunity to have their say about the future course of education. The morning programme would consist of forty minutes discussion about any issues which anyone wanted to raise followed by a twenty minute break. Two hours would then be allowed for everyone to produce, on their own, in silence, and written legibly, a ten point manifesto of proposals which they believed would lead to the best possible education which society could provide.

   The ten proposals would be their ten priorities and could include virtually anything that was reasonable and practical to implement: abolishing private schools, abolishing comprehensive schools, having compulsory early morning exercises for all pupils,  lengthening school days, shortening holidays,  sitting pupils at single desks rather than in groups, retaining the national curriculum or replacing it, having more discovery learning or less, more exams or fewer, raising the school leaving age or lowering it.

   Major policy initiatives could be included along with small reforms which schools could introduce themselves The scale of the proposals in the manifestos was not significant. What was of critical importance were the priorities as different people saw them. 




   On the morning of National Bastion Day millions of mini-manifestos were produced by millions of people who attended the in-service training day to end all in-service training days. Teachers were astonished at the turn-out and so was the government.

   Never in the history of humankind had there been such an overwhelming response to a government consultation exercise, far exceeding Mr Blunkett’s in 1997 and Mr Baker’s in 1987. Never had so many adults been so quiet and thoughtful together, or had done so much pondering and pen chewing. Never had the roads been so deserted on a bank holiday.

   The prime minister, who naturally had attended his own children’s school to take part in the proceedings, expressed his gratitude to the nation and reiterated his commitment to listening to all viewpoints. He had been shown a sample of the manifestos the day after the great event and had been deeply impressed with the concerns which people had, the vision they had shown and the quality of the arguments they had put forward.  “Clearly our teachers have been doing a splendid job which is reflected in these impressive arguments and it is equally clear that the people who have put forward these arguments wish to see many improvements in the system.”

   On the instructions of the prime minister the manifestos were immediately put on a web site so that everyone could read them. Just one example is shown below.





Written on National Bastion Day, 14th July, 2001 as part of the national consultation exercise on the future of schooling.





  • There should be a clearer vision, and much higher expectations, of education as the means by which society nurtures goodness and wisdom in all our children. If they are constantly taught, encouraged and reminded, in all that they do, to be good and wise the chances of their finding fulfilment and happiness in life will be much higher than if  schools simply pay lip-service to these aims. Schools, alongside parents, must be active in promoting the moral well-being of the young individuals who will become part of adult society.  
  • The stifling management culture which pervades every layer of educational provision and which has distracted everyone from the business of teaching and learning, must be abandoned. Excessive meetings, unnecessary paperwork, managerial initiatives and over-elaborate systems have sapped the time, energy and enthusiasm of committed teachers. Managerial efficiency, which at its best brings only modest benefits to pupils’ learning, has become an end in itself, unrelated to the true purpose of education. 
  • National guidance for expected standards of behaviour for all pupils in state schools  must be drawn up to replace existing behaviour policies. Every pupil should be expected to behave politely, sensibly and respectfully at all times to everyone else in school, including fellow pupils.  No disruption of any sort must be permitted in lessons and no anti-social behaviour tolerated on school premises. Schools must not be seen to collude in any undesirable aspects of youth culture and should set themselves apart from it. A much firmer approach must be taken with those pupils who are unable to meet the new national guidelines and alternative forms of education must be found for them. 
  • A national funding formula for schools must be introduced immediately to end the present, deeply inequitable system based on decisions made at local council level. Education is a national, not a local, obligation for society, and should be funded from national taxation in a way that is fair to all pupils throughout the country. The funding formula would take account of factors which affect particular schools and extra allowances paid accordingly. It is beyond belief that we still put up with the current anachronistic system. 
  • A scheme for educational vouchers should be made available for parents to provide their children with alternative forms of education if they wish. This would give all parents a realistic opportunity to opt out of the monopoly of state provision if they decided it was unsuited to their children’s needs. With vouchers equivalent to the current average cost of education, £3690.00 per pupil, they would be free to explore other possibilities for their children’s schooling such as home tuition or “small” schools. 
  • The National Curriculum should be retained and a greater emphasis placed on citizenship studies. A basic introduction to philosophy and political thought should be included in the citizenship programme and community service should be made a compulsory element of it. 
  • National testing should be reduced to an assessment of two stages of schooling: at the end of the primary stage, and at aged 15 which would mark the end of the secondary stage. Post 15 education would involve following a mix of vocational and academic courses of equal status with rigorous examinations and assessment at various stages during the course. Up to the age of 15 primary and secondary schools would be required to devise their own tests and forms of assessment which would be linked to national standards of attainment. 
  • The school leaving age should be lowered to 14 so that those young people who would prefer to find employment rather than continue their formal schooling can do so. Having a job to go to would be a condition of leaving school as would be attendance on a citizenship course for one day a week. In this way those pupils who genuinely feel that school has nothing more to offer them can begin to move into adult life and make a useful contribution to society. 
  • The over- elaborate system of school inspections used by OFSTED should be replaced by unannounced visits from individual inspectors who would be required to take classes and administer assessments in order to ascertain levels of progress. 
  • All headteachers, irrespective of the size of their schools, must be contractually bound to teach in classrooms for at least  40%  of a timetable. All management posts in schools, except for deputy headteachers, should be phased out and a salary structure introduced which properly rewards the job which matters most- teaching.



   Perhaps we really ought to be asking everyone for their school manifestos. Perhaps we do need to start with what ordinary, thoughtful people want for their children rather than what governments and politicians believe is good for them. Perhaps we could attempt to broaden and deepen discussions about educational policy by having a less partisan approach to the subject from our political parties.

   For the moment what we can all do, at the very least, is to ponder in our own minds where we would like to see our educational system going over the next few years and what are the priority issues which need addressing. A blank piece of paper and a few minutes to think is all we need to produce our very own school manifestos for 2001 and beyond.