Tony Parkin: Is ‘cut and paste’ so ‘cut and dried’?

Tony Parkin

Now I have to confess this ‘use of cut and paste in Ofsted reports’ story cheered me up somewhat, and not only because I spend so much of my time firmly amongst an insignificant minority that this seemed a step up. No, the reasons to be cheerful were in part, three, as Mr Dury might have suggested were he still with us.

One, it demonstrated that at least one Ofsted inspector had realised that we now have digital technologies, which allow certain affordances, a state of play of which many of his colleagues appear to be entirely unaware.

Secondly, it demonstrated that this half computer-literate individual had somehow failed to notice the controversy over plagiarism that has riven education for a decade or two, and was clearly unaware of tools like Turnitin, a technology that can spot repetition even faster than Nicholas Parsons (Just a minute… what is he on about?)

Thirdly, it gave considerable wry amusement at the indignant comments from outraged educators shouting there was no place for this sort of thing before returning to their marking. Didn’t he realise that each school was a rare and precious individual entity, with a unique set of attributes, which merited full individual consideration? Even if he was only allowed 20 minutes to produce a detailed 84 page account whose every word would be pored over (I probably exaggerate, but I come from a golden era when inspections were inspections, and you had leisurely consultations with crack teams of HMIs who knew what they were talking about, gave advice, and would descend on you in numbers for several days).

Of course, as we near the end of term, many of these self-same educators will be converting their marking into reports, using the convenient ‘comment banks’ that their kind employer has provided to save them some of the bureaucratic tedium. Oh dear, hang on just another minute – aren’t those reporting tools using comment banks only an elegant and ludicrously expensive version of the ‘cut and paste’ used by the repetitive Mr Marshall, to whom Ofsted took great exception? Suddenly these teachers may look guiltily across the room at their nobler colleagues, who were opposed to the introduction of this repetitive reporting software, on the very same grounds. Surely each child can’t really be as individual as each school, can it?

Now I cheerfully admit to having been one of those teachers who struggled to come up with pithy epithets appropriate to each individual child as I wrote reports. Nor was I like the other, more famous Mr Marshall from pre-Ofsted times, one Arthur Marshall of Oundle School, whose renowned wit led to his famous report entry “Geography: he does very well to find his way to school”. I was far too gentle and unimaginative for that sort of thing, generally writing the dullest and blandest reports. No, I would gleefully have pounced on comment banks and even cut and paste, had they been available in those analogue times, and in my blandness I doubt anyone would have noticed.

Standing back a little though, this does seem to highlight one of the paradoxes more generally of the introduction of technology into education. Much of its use stays firmly in the safe zone of replacing or automating what we have always done. Rather than using technology’s affordances to transform, we keep on doing what we have always done, and restrict technology to merely helping us do it a little more quickly and easily, so instead of creative online student profiling that allows interaction between pupil, teacher and parent, we merely automate the traditional reporting by buying comment banks.

With the creativity of full-blown school inspections by teams of knowledgeable HMIs replaced by the bureaucratisation of Ofsted, should we be surprised that the processes that emerge are somewhat dull, repetitive and bureaucratic?

Another colleague shared his frustration with me during the reporting controversy as his Ofsted inspector was being forced to rewrite his reports. It seems that the inspector had liked what he saw at the school, and had written comments accordingly. Comments that praised the school and made it sound like an outstanding place and a joy to attend. The problem was the data said the school was ‘Good’, but not ‘Outstanding’ so the inspector had to go back through the report and rephrase comments so that they were less fulsome. What emerged in the end had to be a ‘Good’ verdict. The initially glowing report took on an ever more vanilla flavour, and the individuality was gradually lost in a sea of the dull but worthy. In effect, he used an unofficial Ofsted comment bank to ensure consistency and conformity. It may even have involved ‘cut and paste’, who knows?

Is this approach really so very different to what Mr Marshall was accused of in duplicating report comments? If we use technology to automate, and bureaucratise, should we really be so surprised that the production of regulated and sanitised comments is the outcome?

Is it not time to perhaps try and introduce a little more creativity and rather less automation? Maybe adopt some transformative IT approaches that will take advantage of the affordances of the technology to really do things differently? Ah, we can all dream, can’t we…

Former head of ICT Development at SSAT, Tony Parkin is now a freelance educationalist, lecturer and writer. Follow Tony on Twitter here.