I was working with some teachers in a school the other day when the conversation turned to inspection and evidence. The new UK school inspection regime is based much more clearly on teachers’ and managers’ assessments of how they think they are doing – they have to fill in what is called a SEF, or self-evaluation form – which is then offered to incoming inspectors as the primary basis for their inspection. According to the Department for Education, evidence has to be rigorous, has to be written down and has to demonstrate ‘impact’. The inspectors then judge not just the quality of teaching and learning in school, but also the quality of the SEF. The idea is that the inspection becomes an assessment of teachers’ ability to assess themselves in the given form of the SEF.
Since I have taken a long-term interest in encouraging reflection and reflexivity in the posts in this blog , I was interested to note my own resistance not to the idea of self-evaluation but to the way it was being put forward and the ideology of relentless improvement and scrutiny that it implies.
Firstly the idea strikes me as performative, in the sense that the instrument of the SEF helps bring about the environment of testing and examination that forms the basis on the current British government’s understanding of what the education process should be about. Since 1997 children in school have been relentlessly tested: now it is the turn of teachers and managers. They have to sit their own equivalent of an A level exam, where they are obliged to answer the questions as well as comment on their ability to answer the questions. In a way one has to admire the symmetry of this, since it is now the case that both teachers and students have an experience of education which is rooted in being good at passing exams. Just as students in private schools are coached early on in how to get top marks in exams, no doubt teachers in the most aspirational schools will become more and more adept at completing SEFs.
My second locus of resistance was that it reminded me of Jeremy Bentham’s idea for the building of a prison using the idea of a Panopticon, a device for observing prisoners without them knowing when and how they were being observed. He described it as “a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example.” Bentham was concerned to cut the costs of running prisons, which he thought would be possible if prisoners so internalised the idea that they were being watched that they policed themselves, thus reducing the need for guards. Michel Foucault took up the idea of the Panopticon in Discipline and Punish as a metaphor for the way that contemporary societies discipline and normalise their citizens. Just as students may experience school as being a stagger from one set of anxiety-provoking tests to the next, so teachers must always be on the alert for the unannounced inspection which will judge how they have been judging themselves.
My third difficulty is the way that the SEF revolves around the usual dualisms of successful/unsuccessful, positive/negative, strengths and weaknesses, broken/fixed within a context in which evidence is considered to be largely unproblematic. However, much of school life, like life in general, revolves around experience that is neither positive nor negative, but needs interpreting since it is quite likely to be an amalgam of both, depending on what you hold to be of value. As Wittgenstein observed, the meaning of the world does not lie in the world.
Finally, and related to the last point, the last thing that the SEF can call into question is the point of filling in the SEF itself and the assumptions that it makes about how to demonstrate improvement. Even if one were to accept the SEF as a useful process, there is still a great deal of judgement involved which is contestable, not just the judgement of teachers filling in the SEF, but also involving the inspectors’ judgement about the teachers’ judgement. This would be fine if inspectors were interested in the process of contestation and argument. My suspicion is that they are not or are severely constrained from being so interested: they do not want to engage in arguments but want to know whether something happening in school is successful or not in ways which the government has already made very explicit. There is little room to question whether schools can improve their results year on year, whether the exclusive focus on success in passing exams squeezes out other important characteristics of belonging to a learning community, and whether it is possible to entertain pluralistic discussions in schools which are open-ended, leading simply to more discussion, rather than terminating prematurely in a judgement about whether something is successful or not. Perhaps, as Zhou En Lai, the Chinese foreign minister said when he was asked for his assessment of the French Revolution: ‘It’s too early to say.’
There was an example of what I am pointing to in terms of the contestability of judgement which arose in the same discussion where teachers were telling me about an examiner who came to judge a group of students for a group drama performance. According to the two school teachers present, one of whom is herself an examiner, the performance was worthy of an A. According to the outside examiner, who was also a senior figure in the examination board, the performance was worth a C. Although his judgement was challenged after the results came out, there was no second-guessing such a senior figure in the examination board. The judgement stood. This was the only module in which the students received a C, since their other modules received much higher grades. Of course, the examiner may have been right. Alternatively, exams are not always fair. However, since so much depends on the inspection and the examination process the ability to question has to be a key part of the process.
I am not suggesting that teachers and school managers should not be encouraged to reflect on what it is they are doing and think about how they might do it differently. In my experience good teachers are doing this all the time anyway. What interests me about this particular manifestation of school inspection is the way that it mirrors the overall approach to education during the last two decades. It consists in hyper-vigilant scrutiny, an ideological obsession with ‘improvement’ and a predilection for written documentation as a primary form of evidence.