The Venerable Organ this morning has one of its twisted-blood headlines: “Bunscoil minister’s kids attended ‘flawed’: report”. You got that first time, I expect. I still don’t know what it’s trying to say, apart from the Education Correspondent believing it’s a good idea to use the same word for ‘children’ and ‘young goats’.
But if you can be bothered burrowing further into the story, you’ll find that Bunscoil an Iuir in Newry recently got a stinker report from the school inspectors: ”The inspection has identified significant areas for improvement in standards, in learning and teaching, and in leadership and management, which need to be addressed urgently”. You’re maybe wondering why the VO should get so sweaty in its leather that it devotes a full page to this school report? Ah. Well you see, Caitriona Ruane’s children used to attend this school, and she’s the education minister. Oh, and she’s a leading member of Sinn Féin.
As usually happens after a critical inspectors’ report, the people running the school have responded meekly. The chairperson of the board of governors says "[We’re] required to improve our practice in the areas identified in the report and this is what we intend to do”. A case of a-fair-cop-guv, right? The school was weak in a number of areas, the inspectors came in and identified what needs improving, the school is now set to improve.
Except that underneath the meekness the school is clearly seething. Elsewhere in the VO article the chair of the board of governors says the report’s findings don’t truly reflect the standard of learning and teaching in the school. Put more bluntly: the inspectorate don’t know what they’re talking about but since they’ve a gun to our heads, we’ll do what they tell us.
Sounds familiar. I’ve known and worked with a lot of teachers over the years. I’ve watched and listened as they prepared for a visit by department inspectors, I’ve watched and listened as they responded to the inspectors’ report. Not once in all those years did I hear a teacher speak of the visit and/or the report in positive terms. What happened was, the school staff went into a frantic, months-long attempt to get the window-dressing in place. Hundreds of hours were spent trying to assemble a picture of the school that they hoped would be viewed favourably. Not, you understand, a school where real teaching and learning were happening; rather a school where all the dozens of boxes that the department insisted on having ticked, were ticked.
Sometimes it worked, the report was favourable and teachers collapsed, exhausted but relieved. Sometimes it didn’t work and teachers collapsed, exhausted and distraught. But never, whether cheered or deflated, did a teacher indicate to me her/his belief that the visit and report had been helpful. Inspectors, you see, don’t tell schools what to do in order to get better, they just point out the flaws. Problems, yes. Solutions, oh no no no. Bunscoil an Iuir in Newry may be riddled with inadequacies. Or may be a brilliant school, judged by other criteria than those used by the inspectors. But one thing’s sure: the inspectors’ visit won’t have helped.
I’ve always been full of admiration for the people who work in schools, particularly front-line teachers. Theirs is a job shot through with stress, modest pay and umpteen hours of preparation and marking. Faced with the inspectorate, my admiration screeches to a halt. Their school visits encourage deception, hypocrisy and nervous exhaustion. As educationalists, they know you get the best out of people when you work with them co-operatively to locate solutions, not problems. But they act as if they'd never heard of such a concept.
Right now, for Bunscoil an Iuir and other schools, the inspectorate are a giant poo on the path to improvement in our schools. It’s time a power-hose was taken to them.