Chris Malone’s novella will be familiar – and infuriating- to anyone who has endured an OFSTED inspection
Chris Malone brings all of her considerable experience of school leadership and inspection to bear in her latest novella, “A School Inspector Calls”. The book deals with two very different primary schools that sit on opposite sides of the river in town. The first, St Drogo’s, is the archetypal glossy academy: new buildings, well-resourced, well-connected, high achieving, but with no room for “challenging students”. One such student, Ayiesha Medosa, has escaped from her hellish experience at St Drogo’s and found refuge in its shabby neighbour, Marsh Street Primary. She observes the unannounced OFSTED inspection of Marsh Street from her unofficial bolt hole, the little room where she does most of her school work when the noise and hard-to -understand dynamics of a busy classroom get too much for her.
While there, she observes the malpractice of the inspection, pre-designed to fail a school that is too child-centred to fit the current model of excellence, through a spy hole in the wall. Does her testimony overturn the inspection outcome? I’ll leave that for you to discover.
For anyone familiar with the current landscape of English education, this book will either be a reassurance or a provocation, depending on where you sit in the array of characters the book presents. If you’re open to different points of view, then this little book will be a delightful amuse bouche. It’s brevity is part of its charm, adding to its impact, rather than detracting. Malone skilfully lays out the oppositions, using the surprise inspection as the catalyst to a drama that will be all too familiar to anyone who has undergone the ridiculous palaver of OFSTED. To her credit, she does not simply present the inspectors as pantomime villains, but explores the institutional pressures that are brought to bear on Margaret, the lead inspector, who like the teachers she is scrutinising, has a family and a mortgage to support and has to make some difficult choices between her career and doing the right thing.
The portrayal of the impossibility of the job, leading a school with limited and further shrinking budgets, staffing gaps, crumbling buildings, needy children and relentless, myopic accountability pressures, is both authentic and sympathetic. This is not a job for the faint-hearted. The miracle is that, in such a context, there are any headteachers like the saintly Jill Grimly left at all, notwithstanding her naivety and muddle. The fear is that the oily, superficial charm of corporate yes man, Dominic Major, head of St Drogo’s, (surely destined for life as a government appointee to some ghastly hybrid quango/private sector “think tank” before assuming his place in the Lords with the other authoritarian populists) will become the de rigeur model of effective school leadership and the Jill Grimlys of this world will be set for early retirement and disparagement as beached dinosaurs, left by the tides of history. What am I saying? It’s already happened.
Regardless of where you stand, this little book is definitely worth a read for anyone interested in education and those that believe that all children, the challenged and the capable, deserve the best chance in life to succeed. It’s available from the excellent Burton Mayers books.
If you enjoy Chris’ book, you may want to have a go at my satire on the current insanities of the English education system, Zero Tolerance, available from the link below. It’s also of interest to anyone with any concern for the treatment of Syrian refugees in this country.
Phil Beadle’s latest book is a must-read for anyone serious about going beyond OFSTED’s hopeless misunderstanding of cultural capital and its place in the curriculum
Phil Beadle’s latest book is a timely contribution to the current debate about cultural capital and its place in UK schools. It’s not a wishy-washy dispassionate overview of the terrain, with practical suggestions for how overworked school leaders can get that OFSTED box ticked, thank goodness. I was amused when reading it at the thought that some people may have bought it expecting just that, scrolling through edu-books on Twitter and Amazon, desperately looking for inspiration in advance of writing the proposal for SLT the next day. Anyone who does mistakenly buy it thinking they were about to get a how-to guide to cultural capital is in for a shock. It’s too much to hope, I suppose, that anyone in that situation would actually pause to consider whether the pursuit of cultural capital provision in school was worth a candle, but it’s a nice thought nonetheless. I’ve been there myself. You are charged with rolling out an initiative that you have real misgivings about, but your half-hearted, timorously voiced objections are steamrollered, and the institutional imperative takes over. Careers are built on championing the new, fashioning current buzzwords into practical and procedural systems. And jobs are lost, or opportunities missed, for anyone who is lukewarm. The only show in town these days is evangelical zeal, so reluctant turd polishing is not enough. The turd must be buffed with pride and passion.
If you are an agnostic, or you are a fully paid up member of the non-believer wing of the profession (sometimes referred to as “Progs”) you’ll find much to admire and enjoy in this book. It comprehensively demolishes the nonsense that is OFSTED’s understanding of cultural capital, and along the way many of the other sacred cows of The New Brutalists (I particularly enjoyed the withering critique of Doug Lemov’s ideas in general and SLANT in particular. This will almost immediately cause sceptical readers devoted to “Teach Like a Champion” to harrumph, stop reading and unfollow, but woah there! Take a breath. As Educationalists, let’s at least give ideas we don’t like an airing and disagree politely. No need for no-platforming here)
In OFSTED’s view, cultural capital is what working class kids lack. Familiarity with “the best that has been thought and said” becomes an inspectable thread in schools’ provision and so schools are scrambling around trying to design a crash course in high culture. Beadle, with his scalpel- like analysis, shows that the adoption of the ideas of Matthew Arnold, are simply yet another incarnation of the rubbishing of working class culture as second class and inauthentic. It is an unquestioning espousal of ideas rooted in a racist, violent, homophobic and upper class superiority, all transmitted from generation to generation via model public schools, right down to Mr Michael Gove. These are the views, courtesy of Mr Gove (assisted by the lovely Dominic) and the last ten years of Tory Government, that have left teachers and students with a barren educational wasteland to inhabit, a world where students are subjected to a coercive and joyless trudge through a slurry of facts. It would be a disservice to Beadle to leave the impression that all it amounts to is Dave Spart class warrior polemics. That’s the tone of my review, but not of the book.
First and foremost, this is a scholarly work, built on a rock solid foundation of sociological theory and analysis. Beadle is a clever guy and a very good writer who has bothered to do the work. He’s read Phillipe Bourdieu extensively and it shows. Each chapter is shored up with a mountain of foot notes. But interestingly, the foot notes reveal the dichotomy at the heart of the book ( and the author, I suspect) Because as well as showing the scholarly heft of the work, they are also very funny. Beadle doesn’t take himself too seriously. He is self-deprecating, sarcastic and barbed by turns. But every time you think the book is going to descend into a political piss-take (welcome and justified though that would be) he then veers back into serious academic and pedagogic considerations.
In that sense, the book takes no prisoners. It makes a lot of demands on the reader. Some of the sociological stuff is heavy duty Marxism and can be like wading through treacle at times, but it’s worth persisting with that, because it’s always leavened by an anecdote or a well-chosen, apposite cultural comparison. My take on this was that, whenever the book got to be hard going, well, that was my fault not Beadle’s. Ultimately, it’s refreshing to read a book where the author pays you the respect of treating you seriously as a sentient, intelligent adult. The idea of persistence is important in the context of resilience, another fashionable shibboleth that Beadle examines. He is at his best when skewering the idea that a teenager from a single parent family in temporary accommodation, using food banks and with no access to IT, a quiet space or books might benefit from “Resilience Lessons”. Patronising doesn’t even begin to cover it.
The same thought comes to mind when thinking about giving the same kid a dollop of High Culture at discrete weekly sessions (the whole year group in the hall in front of a powerpoint and a harassed member of SLT, no doubt). It’s like a teaspoon of cod liver oil on your bowl of thin gruel doled out by do-gooder in the workhouse. This is another strength of Beadle’s analysis – his reclamation of the idea that working class culture is real and vibrant and powerful. It’s not second class, a pale substitute for the real thing. It is the real thing. These children do not need to know about Mozart or Shakespeare or the latest Stoppard so that they can hold an intelligent conversation at a posh dinner in the West End with rich clients (I think that was the gist of a recent tweet on cultural capital from Ms Birbalsingh). They need to know about Mozart and Shakespeare and Stoppard because they are good and interesting and make life a little bit more worth living. Just like the other cultural products that they consume.
And this is where Beadle’s book turns from being interesting and thought provoking into being useful and inspiring. At the end, he addresses the notion of what schools could usefully do in terms of promoting culture. He affirms the positive value to individuals of experiencing all forms of truth and beauty, and puts forward the idea of a programme of cultural experience woven into the everyday life of schools. Culture, in this programme, is all forms of culture not just the upper class approved versions of high culture. Teaching high and low together in a dialectical comparison would produce a synergy of deeper understanding. Integral to his approach would be the explicit teaching of the provenance of cultural artefacts. Where are they from? Who are they produced by, how and why? How are they perceived? All of these are powerful questions that illuminate and empower. So far from rejecting high culture as belonging to the rich and powerful and privileged, he reasserts its value and leaves the reader with a genuinely exciting idea of a curriculum entirely designed around culture. So, duh, of course it’s not Stormzy or Mozart, it’s Stormzy and Mozart, and much , much more.
No doubt the defenders of traditional approaches to culture will be up in arms at this pinko threat to standards, but that is the ultimate proof that Beadle is genuinely on to something here. Whether you agree with its thesis or not, this is a great book that deserves to be widely read, and you may enjoy being outraged. Give it a go – all you have to lose is your prejudices. You can buy it using the link below.