Online Education Must Be Inspected

No teacher likes to be inspected. In my career, my school was inspected four times – one was horrible and three were fine. The last one was an unfiltered joy carried out by three dedicated, kind, intelligent people, but still we were all glad when it was over. After all, teachers are generally only used to having their work scrutinised by their pupils who tend, in the main, to be a fairly uncritical audience; the presence of another adult in the room, particularly one in a position of power, tends to spook them. I don’t remember much about individual lessons I taught back then, but I remember in precise detail every class where I had an inspector in the room, including one, many years back, where a clever bunch of young people were, in their entirety, struck dumb by one inspector’s chilly presence. ‘They seemed a bit intimidated by you,’ she said afterwards, with not a hint of irony.

Anyway, we are living in strange times, and the teaching unions, in complaining last week about the Scottish Government’s proposal that online classes should be inspected are surely missing the point. This is not about the inspectorate coming to conclusions about the excellence or otherwise of one teacher or one department or one school. It’s about the clear necessity for those in authority in education to be able to judge to what extent online teaching is working, and for this to then be part of John Swinney’s thinking as he ponders the crucial question of when the schools are going to go back. No one is pretending that online teaching is the ideal, given that it inevitably precludes much that makes schools purposeful and enjoyable places to be, but it matters that the public – particularly young people and their parents – knows whether, over the piece, online teaching can be said to work as a holding mechanism while we wait to be vaccinated, or whether it’s not working at all. 

Inspectors would say that they are there to be positive and helpful in all circumstances, but, in any case, they can scarcely be critical of the individual performance of teachers and schools in this situation. Indeed, the general public – and in this they should be led by government – should have nothing but admiration for the teaching profession just now. Teachers have, after all, been asked – for months – to do something for which they have received little, if any, training, and something which is profoundly different to what they were trained to do. Let’s imagine that the Government decided to recruit teachers to help with the vaccination programme  – a little bit of remote training, and then just get jabbing away, chaps! My guess is that some teachers – say teachers of Biology and PE – might be rather good at this (understanding anatomy and muscles) and others – maybe English teachers or Art teachers, might be less so (too squeamish). But to accuse any of them of failing in their duty would be 

ridiculous. It seems to me that teachers are rising with the occasion, but for many of them, inevitably, the spirit may be willing, but the flesh is weak. I have friends who are brilliant classroom teachers but who are finding the whole business of sitting at their computers for hours attempting to construct creative, stimulating lessons over and over again tedious and depressing, and a large part of that is to do with technical knowhow. Remember that teaching is, in part, a performance – a good analogy might be that we have suddenly asked the cast of ‘The Archers’ to perform it live on stage. 

All this, of course, is being done for young people who are themselves beset by feelings of isolation and anomie, and who are living in an uncertain world where the key destination of the SQA exams has been replaced by worries over how exactly their final grades will be assessed – for many, incidentally, this will be by exams, held in big halls, almost as soon as schools go back, exams previously known as ‘prelims’.  Additionally, there is a background noise of parental dissatisfaction – a recurrent meme on Facebook shows desperate parents turning to drink as a consequence of too many hours spent trying to do work that neither they nor their child understands. The cheery teacher, looking over Fiona or Jimmy’s shoulder, simply isn’t there to help. 

If the inspectors do inspect, my guess is they will find that online teaching inevitably works better in primary rather than secondary education (parents will be much more able to help and children less able to opt out) and, at secondary level, works better in some subjects rather than others : Maths teachers will have greater chances of success than Chemistry teachers, Health and Safety precluding too many experiments being done on the kitchen table. Such inspections should also include data gleaned from teachers – on an anonymous basis – about the effects of online teaching on their physical and mental well-being (yes, they like getting up a bit later, but no, they hate the physical inactivity and miss the kids). Crucially, though, inspection now would tell us about the experiences of the young people themselves. It would also be very telling to find out what the educational offer is like for those young people – the children of key workers, and vulnerable children – who are actually in school.

The bottom line is that this, like many things during this nasty pandemic, comes down to a balance of risks. That balancing act must be informed by evidence as to the efficacy of online teaching, and, in gathering that evidence, inspectors will, I am sure, applaud the tremendous efforts of the teaching profession to do something for which teacher training did not prepare them.


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