From the moment you attend that first job interview, you can often find yourself participating in an elaborate and bizarre form of performance art. 'Why do you want the job?' - they ask. For most people, the answer is relatively simple - 'because I have bills to pay, kids to feed, etc...'
And yet, anybody who proffers that kind of response is likely to find the dole queue as their next destination. What is required is something else. With a rictus grimace of enthusiasm locked onto your face, you have to try and manufacture the semblance of conviction from thin air - 'I have always so passionately believed in the high quality paper your company produces, and feel it will go on to change the very face of the paper-making industry, and I would really be excited to be a part of that...'
The enactment of a forced and manufactured social etiquette provides the prosaic processes of bureaucracy, people-management and labour exploitation with a human gloss. It is a charade more and more of us are compelled to partake in. Consider the dilemma faced by teachers in this country today. The government body Ofsted is tasked with making visits to secondary schools with the aim of providing feedback supposedly to raise 'the quality of teaching'. They are there, it is claimed, to aid the teachers and schools in terms of their professional development, to help them improve and refine their techniques. As such the Ofsted teams are to be treated with a special sense of etiquette and gratitude - as one teacher observes, they are provided 'with cordoned off car parking spaces, flowers, cakes and special china along with many an obsequious smile.'
But how do the teachers really feel about the inspections? As a burnt-out former teacher of eleven years, my lessons were observed on many an occasion, and toward the end of my career, I was more and more subject to 'surprise' observations where someone would simply drop in out of the blue. Sometimes the criticisms I was given were genuinely helpful, and I would like to think they made me a little better at a job I was none too great at in the first place.
But these positives were far outweighed by the negative aspects; the whole process was nerve-wracking and hateful, because it was drummed into us that we could be inspected at any time - as if we were perpetually inadequate or forever underprepared and needed, therefore, to be caught out. And that, in turn, meant working in an environment where the fundamental attitude was one of suspicion and distrust rather than confidence and support in the staff and their work.
But when the first Ofsted inspections took place, back in 1992, schools were given notice of one year. That eventually went down to two weeks, then two days, and now the inspections will take place unannounced. As Brian Lightman, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, notes - this represents a shift from the premise of 'mutual trust and respect' to one where the 'schools are trying to 'cheat' and need to be caught out.'
What explains this change in tack?
Perhaps it is best understood as part of a broader underlying process of cuts to the education budget, cuts which have been intensified in the last three years. According to research by The Independent, six form colleges alone claim to have lost more than £100 million in funds during this period. This has been supplemented by more intensive regulations and proposals to extend working hours for secondary school teachers - this last set of plans being particularly myopic, for it doesn't take account of the significant sum of hours teachers put in at home doing lesson preparation in the first place.
Ultimately, this sets the basis for an over-wrought, over-worked, frayed and fearful working existence from which all the joy has been drained. And if the working conditions of teachers are to be experienced thus - isn't it inevitable that the only way to increase their productivity is through the use of external discipline, measure and regimentation? After all, it's not as if any of them are actually going to want to be there.
And this, in the main, is what the 'unannounced' inspections of Ofsted are really all about; not an attempt to raise the quality of lesson delivery but rather the need to worry and pressure schools and teachers so as to extract every last particle of time and energy from their already overburdened efforts.
This is evidenced, perhaps, by some of the recommendations the body has instituted.
Recommendations delivered from on high by people who are more suited to ticking off boxes in a human resources file, than dealing with the organic flow and complexity of classroom life. So one such stipulation reads - 'each child must exhibit progress every 20 minutes'. Nothing advertises more clearly the attempt to transfigure teaching from a living process into the mechanics of the production line, churning out knowledge to order in parcellated gobbets, and rendering the crucible of education prosaic, lifeless and forced.