You know that feeling when you’re flying on a plane at that height somewhere in between the land and the clouds, and you look out of your window (or you lean silently over the sleeping man to the side of you in order to look out of the window) and you see the earth all peaceful below you. Maybe you’re close enough to see little cars, moving like ants, or houses all nestled in neat little rows. The organisation of it all seems so well structured, even the irregular fields seem to have a sense of order. As you look down, trying to ignore the snoring of the sleeping man, you bask in the serenity of it all. Everything is peaceful. Everything seems right with the world. None of the arguments, fights, wars or politics that cause so much stress, pain and heartache for so many people are evident. You wonder why the world doesn’t seem so peaceful when you’re actually on it, you wonder why people can’t appreciate the beauty of life on earth and just get along with everyone else. For such a big place, the little creatures that inhabit it sure do cause a lot of chaos.
At this point on the flight I usually recline back on my chair, often at the exact time the man has awoken, gasped and said ‘Excuse me, do you mind?’, and I think about my own life back on the ground. When I think about school I think of the messy, loud, chaotic place that I spend most of my life thinking and worrying about. It is a lovely place to be but it is not a serene place of calm. If you read my SEF you would be forgiven for thinking that it is a Buddhist temple – a mecca for learning and positivity that exudes a zen-like calm.
This is not what my school is like.
Don’t get me wrong. My SEF isn’t fictional. It’s just written from a distance. It is written from the luxury of 15,000 feet above playground level. It documents the school from a distance rather than from the runway. If you spent time in my school and then read my SEF you would see the correlation between the document and the building. If, however, you read the SEF during home time, or whilst you were on duty during wet play, or while you were trying to get a class on a coach about to go to the zoo, you would probably beg to differ. In fact, you probably wouldn’t even have the luxury of time to read it, which is a good thing, if I caught you reading something when you should be helping children alight a coach I’d bring you in for a disciplinary.
The SEF is a school’s tourist information centre that seeks to give valuable bits of information to the visitor. They are the air-travel equivalent of the captain announcing over the radio that, as long as the wind speed continues, the plane should make good progress and they may even arrive ahead of schedule. The problem of course is that a SEF immediately puts the school, as written on paper, in suspended animation. It is no longer representative of a living breathing organisation. As soon as the words of the SEF are written, they are trapped by their own static existence on the page.
For too long though, the only people interested in reading the SEF have been external visitors to schools. School tourists are mainly Ofsted inspectors, HMI and the local authority. And, just as holiday destinations will cater for the needs of the people that most commonly descend upon them during holiday season, so do school SEFs try to meet the wishes of their readers.
For example, an Ofsted inspector understands what words like ‘outstanding’, ‘good’, ‘requires improvement’ and ‘inadequate’ mean when they read them on a SEF. What’s ‘more an Ofsted inspector likes to read these words, we know they do. Ofsted inspectors are the equivalent of English tourists who upon going to Spain find the pub that serves Carling and shows episodes of ‘Only Fools and Horses’ on the telly. They find it comforting, they know where they stand and with any luck, everyone speaks the same language.
However, these words are rather limiting. If you’re not careful you can become enslaved by your SEF as a result of trying to crowbar in these ‘judgements’ at every turn. Heads become akin to frustrated sous chefs desperate to be let loose on an a la carte menu only to be told by the Head Chef that it’s a fixe prix menu or nothing. As soon as you type any of these words onto your SEF, you set in stone a judgement and you falsely elevate your school into the clouds – where everything is peaceful and life is not quite as we know it.
Well, I say no more.
I no longer want my SEF to be a view of my school from above. I want it to be a down and dirty vision of my school, as it is on the ground. I want my SEF to reflect what we actually do and what we want to do better. I am not concerned with using vocabulary that an external person can latch onto just so they can say ‘Yes I agree’ or ‘I wouldn’t use that word if I were you’. I want to go beyond the two sacred words that apparently mean everything’s ok (for now). I want to stretch the possibilities beyond outstanding and I want to tackle issues that are important to us rather than ones that are high ranking in the inspection framework. In short: I want my SEF to be more.
Real life is gritty and everyone has their own lives to lead and problems to overcome. Well so does my school. And so will my SEF. Judge me if you want, when you’re flying over my school and looking down from the clouds. But I’m changing flight paths. Because my school isn’t all neat and tidy. I’m refusing to read the safety instructions and I’ll be dammed if I’m helping you with your oxygen mask.
I’m going bigger. I’m getting messier. And I bet I’ll do better.