Here is a strange phenomenon – well, strange at first glance. I have noticed that whenever I am behind someone who clearly cannot handle their car very well, or get "cut up" by someone whose driving technique is about as subtle as a brick, when they apply the brakes they have only one brake light working. At a rough "guestimate", I would say that this holds true around 90 to 95% of the time.
In fact, having just one brake light working is such a good predictor of poor driving that if I find myself behind someone with just one brake light working I hold well back.
A few days ago I saw a car sort of dither at a junction, then lurch forward in front of me, then weave from side to side as he turned right (a task which he seemed to find inordinately difficult). I predicted that he would have only one brake light working. As it turned out, I was wrong. But one of his brake lights showed as white, rather than red – and his car had a dent in the side and a dent at the rear. In other words, even though my prediction was not 100% accurate, it was pretty close.
Now, let's turn our attention to schools. Here in the UK, the self-evaluation form (SEF) recommended by the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) consists of 25 pages for primary or elementary schools, and 27 pages for secondary or high schools. For Local Authorities, the guidance for the Comprehensive Performance Assessment (CPA) consists of 45 pages of guidance and dozens of measurements covering all walks of life. For example, one measurement is the tonnage of waste per head of population, with the accompanying notes: In consultation with DEFRA, the thresholds for this PI have been calculated as averages plus or minus one standard deviation (approximately 50), rather than as lower and upper quartiles. Lower threshold: 455kg/ head (collection only authorities) 575kg/ head (disposal only authorities) 555kg/ head (joint collection/ disposal authorities).
Upper threshold: 355kg/ head (collection only authorities) 485kg/ head (disposal only authorities) 455kg/ head (joint collection/ disposal authorities). No change.
In my view, this kind of minute tick-boxing is ludicrous, because everyone knows what a good school looks like, and everyone knows what a good Local Authority feels like. What needs to happen is that someone should devise a set of meta metrics: measures that almost invariably enable you to make accurate judgements and predictions, like the single brake light.
Starting with schools, there are a number of virtually infallible predictors of whether a school is good or bad:
The attitude of the receptionist: tone of voice, form of greeting, how long you are kept waiting before being seen to etc. The plushness of the reception area: huge potted plants, expensive-looking paintings on the walls and notices reading "No children allowed beyond this point" are all indicators of a school that has forgotten what its reason for existence is. Attitude of staff towards children: aggressive posturing, shouting, finger-wagging or just plain curtness, by several staff, all suggest a school that has lost control and, again, has forgotten what it's there for. Old, tatty or lack of children's work on walls indicates either the same, or that the school was built through a Private Finance Initiative which stipulated that nothing must ever be put up on walls. Based on these suggestions, an inspection team should walk into a school completely unannounced, walk around for 10 minutes, and then come to an initial professional evaluation (IPE). The rest of the day (it shouldn't take longer than that) should be spent gathering data to prove or disprove the IPE, before arriving at a Final Professional Evaluation (FPE).
Moving on to Local Authorities, once again there are extremely accurate predictors of overall effectiveness:
- Phone calls which are answered within 5 rings, after which you are put on hold for 20 minutes, is indicative of an LA that has set performance targets whilst losing sight of the fact that targets should only be a means to an end, not ends in themselves.
- Phone calls in which you are taken through a long and complicated menu system, at the end of which a voice says "Sorry, we are closed, please try again tomorrow between 10 and 12:30" are indicative of an LA that has never come across the idea of customer-focused.
- If different parts of the LA don't communicate with each other, you will find yourself giving your name and address 5 times to different departments. That should tell you a lot about the LA's likely ability to ensure that nobody, eg children at risk, fall through the gaps between services.
- If the streets of the LA are knee deep in rubbish, shops are derelict, and there is a general pall of depression, either there is a severe economic decline or the LA's spending priorities are somewhat suspect.
Based on these suggestions, inspectors of Local Authorities could conduct the inspection fairly accurately over the telephone. In fact, phoning the LA pretending to be new in the area and a parent looking for a suitable school will enable an assessment to be made straight away against criteria 1 – 3.
Now, clearly these suggestions are rather sweeping and made tongue-in-cheek. However, one or more of these sets of characteristics is often found in a poor school or a poor Local Authority. Like the missing brake light, they are not causal factors, but their existence should cause us to be on our guard.
About the author: Terry Freedman has been in education for 30 years. For more articles, and to subscribe to a free newsletter called Computers in Classrooms, please see www.ictineducation.org