I was pretty excited, it was an outstanding school and one that sounded great on paper. It talked about how it built character and valued young people. I was excited to see this in action; excited at the prospect of witnessing the shift in education over the last decade or so. Surely, an outstanding school would look different to the schools I had taught in over 17 years ago. In the last couple of decades we have seen the social media revolution, the birth of iPads and iPhones, 3D printing of human organs, cars that park for you and central heating that your smart phone can control, smart this and smart that. The world is a different place to the one I grew up and not in a bad way….it’s different and it’s exciting, worrying, promising and scary all rolled into one.
A lovely lady showed me round, eager to show the school at its best. She proudly pointed out in classroom after classroom, the perfectly behaved young people, glued to their seats, soaking up the words of wisdom from their teachers. Row after row of desks, facing the front of perfectly controlled learning. There was a nod to the need to communicate from the English department classrooms that dared to radically group the tables, inviting a bit of conversation. Clearly, spaces had been defined, teachers stand at the front and young people sit at the back, teachers talk and young people listen; teachers are the leaders and young people seek permission to speak and answer the questions they are asked.
“Make sure you underline your title with a ruler!” Do they STILL say that? Do they still need to say that in April, in year 10? Seventeen years later.
Everybody is working hard and getting nowhere fast. Everybody is desperately trying to fit in and make this work. Everybody is losing. ‘Awe’, ‘curiosity’, ‘discovery’, ‘enlightenment’ are merely words in a lesser used dictionary tucked away in the front of the classroom where you need permission to go.
An ordinary day, an outstanding school. Time has stood still. I’m sad.
I’m sad not because this is every school, I know it isn’t. I have been lucky enough through my work with UFA to have worked with so many schools that aren’t like this; that have been brave enough to step away from the past and look to the future to see young people as more than just empty vessels to be filled with knowledge, that see the potential of young people to step up and lead them into the future. What I wanted to see was young people at the front of the classroom, young people in deep discussions with each other and with the adults around them, young people solving problems in collaboration with each other, corridors buzzing with the purposeful strides of young people taking charge, because the learning meant more than just passing the end of year exam. I wanted to see teachers that felt skilled enough, comfortable enough to step back so young people could step forward; teachers willing to take a risk with how they taught because their own professional learning was as important as the learning of young people and, more importantly, because they had faith in themselves and young people alike.
I’m sad because this is the only school that those young people go to and because it hasn’t yet seen that it could ‘stand out’ instead of just being ‘outstanding’.