Tick Box Culture In Schools

Boy (9-11) with father and female teacher, sitting at desk in classroom
Boy (9-11) with father and female teacher, sitting at desk in classroom

We noticed it within weeks of our child starting primary school , at parents' evening in reception. We'd gone in expecting an insightful chat about what our daughter enjoyed doing all day and who she played with but instead were blinded by data and baseline assessment facts and figures.

Her capabilities had been depressingly distilled into a series of tick boxes, with something like 17 different areas for learning to be marked against.


It felt as if she was production line goods being quality checked before release for delivery. I could imagine the poor teacher walking wearily around class for much of the day with clipboard and pen in hand, instead of doing the inspiring of small children she'd signed up for.


At the end of the meeting, when we left, I wanted to run back in and get the bit we were missing - I wanted to shout "but how's she REALLY doing!?" Had I done so, I fear the teacher would have only replied "I'd love to but I'm not allowed."

It was our first taste of modern education's tick box culture but not our last - and it's a situation that seems to be frustrating parents and teachers across the land. Teachers feel they can't "just teach" as they're so over-loaded with procedures and bureaucracy. Parents merely want to know how their child is doing in vaguely plain English and to be treated, as much as is realistic, as individual families with individual needs rather than being asked to fill in forms every five minutes.

Take Sarah, a mum of three I know, who wanted a quiet and relatively quick word with her son's primary school teacher about a friendship issue. She called into the school office to arrange this, assuming the teacher would be around in the next day or two for the few minutes the chat might involve.

"I'm sorry Mrs X", she was told by school office staff, "you'll have to fill in a form requesting a meeting and explaining why you need one. We will reply to this by the following Wednesday".

Now, fortunately not all schools go to these bureaucratic lengths and many still allow an after school chat at the classroom door but it left my friend incredulous. The conversation was not urgent and she appreciated that teachers are busy but this was a five or 10 minute catch-up about something genuinely bothering her son.

Teachers are tearing their hair out stuck between their bosses on one side, that's the headteachers, who are having to show Ofsted they've met targets for progress and delivered on endless procedures, and the parents on the other.

Kate, a primary teacher explains: "There is so much form-filling and so much pressure and accountability from above. Teachers work ever longer hours to deal with it all - don't kid yourself that we go home at 3pm. We get very little freedom to be creative in ways that would inspire the children. A lot of the procedures are there to protect them but there seems to be no assumption that we might actually have the common sense to do that off our own backs."

Back to our own primary and daughter and after a few years of this (she's now in year 5), my expectations are pretty low when it's parents' evenings or report time. The staff are so bogged down in the bureaucracy that they don't have the time to take a step back and tell us what we really want to know instead of lists of levels and targets that are useful but not the big picture.

They don't tell us what kind of girl she is in class, whether she has creative flair in any subjects. Something I'd rather be told than whether she has the "achieved level 4b" box ticked.

Is this your experience too? Are you a teacher tasked with ticking boxes?