The pleasure I take in watching Outnumbered is not simply the schadenfreude of the childless, sniggering as knackered parents pretend it was always part of The Grand Plan for their offspring to run rings around them. For, as well as being an object of pity/envy for fertile friends, who watch the programme through their fingers, I’m also a teacher. And in Outnumbered’s depiction of my profession, I think we have one of the most trenchant critiques of education policy around.
It all started innocuously enough in the first series, with Pete being forced to apologise (sorry, pen a “statement of regret”) for observing that a fat pupil was fat. A subplot that involves treading on linguistic eggsshells could be set in any number of professional environments. The asymmetry of power between young and less-young, however, is specific to schools, evoking a ‘safeguarding’ contract I and my colleagues were invited to sign, pledging to never, ever, use sarcasm – dark or otherwise – in the classroom. Unwilling to relinquish the key weapon in my disciplinary arsenal, I, for one, did not put my thumbprint on the dotted line.
The suspicion that Outnumbered’s writers were receiving secret dispatches from the interactive whiteboard was properly aroused by the next series, in which the headteacher (apologies again –“Senior Education Provider”) became an on-screen character, advocating “syllabus synchronicity” and “360 degree education”. Taking shots at the slavish mimicry of jargon is easy (mea culpa). It’s the programme’s willingness to poke its nose, while others pretend they can’t smell a thing, that has me snorting into the sofa cushions – at the school’s suggestion that young Ben take the day off school when the Ofsted inspectors were coming, for instance.
Cast your minds back to Pete’s interview for the Head of History post, at the end of which the Senior Education Provider invited him to demonstrate his commitment to the school, by removing “anomalous” (i.e. crap) Year 9 results from its prospectus. To the uninitiated viewer, this may have seemed like dramatic licence. But I can’t have been the only teacher to have seen in this a frighteningly accurate rendition of the smoke-and-mirrors tactics now practiced by schools cowering under relentless targets and league tabling. Not to mention headteacherly ambition. With courses available on (I quote) ‘Managing the Public Perception of Your School’, life is imitated by sit-com – not only its depiction of education’s creative accounting, but also the dark art of spin that has become an integral feature of school leadership.
Which brings me to the latest series’ revelations from the staffroom. We now find Pete sans travail, having: a) reported a junior colleague’s unprofessional conduct; b) issued the principal with a choice between Pete-brand integrity and the colleague’s lack thereof; and c) found that the colleague’s lack thereof was vastly preferable. And so, Pete’s resignation is requested and accepted with almost unseemly haste. Here the writers have hit a particularly rich seam – one potentially replete with nuggets of which most non-teachers are unaware, and with which politicians have been oddly reluctant to engage.
As Pete has found to his cost, teachers are ill-advised to take on less-experienced colleagues these days. Not because the latter occupy higher ground, morally or intellectually; nor because it would be a shame to blight their nascent careers. The crucial point is that, by dint of having less experience, recently-qualified staff are at lower points on the salary scale and, on the whole, more manipulable. Cheap and malleable is a devastatingly attractive combination to dangle before penny-wise-pound-foolish heads, under pressure to somehow produce continuous improvements in results, within increasingly limited budgets.. Hence the barely-reported phenomenon of teachers who are highly-qualified, highly experienced, highly professional… and virtually unemployable for the above reasons.
Take the case of Feroze, who used to head the Art department at a south London school. With an excellent track record, she was surprised to find that reporting a junior colleague, for passing off his own work as that of his students, resulted in her being placed on capability procedures by a senior education provider who was intensely relaxed with cheating his school to the top of the local league table. Promoting staff whose long, dark nights of the soul were similarly comparable to those in an Arctic summer was clearly the way to go. One cycle of capability procedures can be nerve-shredding; Feroze was subjected to four in succession. Broken by the experience, she resigned and was promptly replaced as departmental head by the junior colleague who thought ‘teach’ was an anagram. The kids get the grades, the school is praised and the head comes to the notice of whoever for presiding over its apparent transformation – and all at a rock-bottom price. What’s not to like?
The teachers needed to guide the recently-qualified, and be the steady hands steering the new breed of teaching schools Michael Gove favours, are precisely the experienced ones who have been left scrabbling around for morsels of supply work by such unscrupulous heads: teachers like Feroze and her sit-com counterpart, Pete Brockman. Meanwhile, the very green and noisily ambitious sail relatively untouched through the storms, rightly confident that they’ll be appointed to responsibility posts – including those requiring “substantial experience” – over their costlier competitors. If they graduate from the educational Sandhurst that is Teach First, they can expect to be fast-tracked to headship with minimal time having been spent at the front.
Forget Waterloo Road, which is about as penetrating of education policy as a sponge needle. Look instead, perhaps, to Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, in which J.K. Rowling lampoons New Labour’s obsession with centralised diktat through the odious Dolores Umbridge. But, most of all, look to Outnumbered which has, arguably, provided us with the opposition that The Opposition fails to provide.