Paperwork: fairly predictable, controversial and perennial grumble for teachers, and a word which is almost always spoken with a disgusted spin. I’m not going to add my voice to that grumbling here though, because that’s a) too easy, and b) more than a little tedious. Instead, I wondered about where the unhappiness comes from, and why it exists, and, as is often the case in my job, how we can work with all these things,.

By my reckoning, an ESOL class potentially generates the following: scheme of work, lesson plans, ILPs, a register, class profile, often some sort of tracker sheet or assessment record, some kind of document explaining the context of your class, exam entry forms, enrolment forms, forms to fill in to transfer or change a learners’ details, initial and diagnostic assessments, copies of formative assessments, screening and enquiry forms and documents, photocopies of learner funding evidence (benefits, passports, etc.) and probably a whole bunch of stuff which I’ve forgotten.

That’s a lot of paper, particularly when you think of how many of those are kept per student, rather than for the whole class. A lot of trees get cut down. You can divide that list into two broad groups, I suppose: teaching and learning stuff generated for and by the teachers (schemes, ILPs, etc,) and support stuff generated as part of wider procedures (enrolment forms, exam entry forms, etc.) This latter group is probably just “one of those things”, after all, ESOL in any large FE college is just one subject in many, and therefore administration documents need to fit the requirements of all these contexts. My experience of working in a dedicated ELT context is that these things are usually much reduced, probably because they are usually smaller institutions with only one purpose.

And because I can tell that you are itching for me to say it, I won’t say which I consider to be essential, or not. For one, most of those documents I can do little or nothing to change or get rid of, so whinging about it, frankly, isn’t going to make the blindest bit of difference to whether or not they exist. And of those documents that could change, I have generally had a hand in changing in some way or another. This is usually with mixed results, because I’m one of many in my department, and not the only one with strong opinions.

Could I manage without any of teaching documents? With the single exception of writing a lesson plan (by which I don’t necessarily mean filling in the proforma), I could (just) manage without all of them. I suspect that some items would develop retrospectively: the scheme of work being the obvious one, simply as a means of recording what has happened, and actually, at some point I would want to write some sort of record of discussions I have had with learners.

Why do these things exist? Some of them apply to classroom practice and are used to directly support that: schemes, lesson plans, and ILPs spring to mind there. OK, so there are some flaws, perhaps, but they are useful bits of paper. Yes, even ILPs. I may have questions about the validity of SMART targets, but knowing what your learners aren’t very good at is a useful thing to know, and getting them to engage with that and help them to focus on those is again not a bad idea. There is a whole stack more to learning than setting and working towards goals, of course, but it’s a tool. Then there are lesson plans: by and large I do plan lessons. Not always in great detail, of course, and (whisper it) only rarely on the appropriate form, but I plan lessons. Schemes I do keep up to speed on, because I like to know what’s coming up next, not least because my Monday mornings are generally rushed and hectic, and I hate that feeling of dread when you have no idea what you are going to do; but also because a good scheme means that learners get linked, sequenced lessons which develop and build learning. However, in both cases, if any given lesson goes down a different course than the planned one, then both the scheme and the plan can go out of the window. But it’s nice to have them there. (For the record, my current scheme is now running about two weeks out of where I planned it).

Dammit! I said I wasn’t going to do this. Sorry. So, some bits of paper exist because they are directly useful for the teacher in the classroom. Other bits of paper exist not because they are useful to the teacher directly, but for one reason, and one reason alone: accountability. Publicly funded education is what I do, which means justifying and explaining to the powers that be how and why we should be given all that cash (it would, of course, be unkind of me to suggest that the amount the Coalition government spend on FE pales in comparison with the amount of money business and individuals “avoid” in tax). And while funding bodies may be a million miles from the reality of the classroom, they do want to see evidence that their money is being spent in the right way (again, should the tax office apply the same nasty penny pinching mentality to banks and big businesses….).

So there are quality assurance processes to make sure that its being spent well (hence schemes, plans, class records), and there is paperwork to ensure the money is being spent on the right people. It’s worth remembering that the funding agencies work for the government in implementing their policies, and so will be filtering whatever political trend their (and, don’t forget, my) paymasters are currently excited about, be that NEETs, adult basic skills, whatever. So we have to provide evidence to justify our existence as ESOL teachers, otherwise said existence would cease to be: no government, left or right, is about to sign off the spending of millions of funding pounds without some sort of evidence. This is why we generate so many extensive records, even though many of these are rarely looked at again after the initial flurry. What happens, for example, to all those copies of passports and benefit documents? They probably sit in a store room for a few years before being thrown away, just in case an auditor should come. There is a definite environmental case for scanning and storing electronically, but there’s a way to go before that becomes standard across the country.

The fact is that actually we could pretty much do all the paperwork online, up to and including ILPs. Indeed, electronic ILPs exist and are in use, but as is so often the case with forms and learner services, these are (perhaps inevitably) biased towards native speakers in a full time context who form the bulk of the learners at a college. Full digitisation is possible, but it would take a lot of investment in servers for the extra storage, access to IT in every room, effective wifi coverage, dynamic apps for smartphones and tablets (e-registers on an iPad, anyone?), but it could be done. My own very dark and cynical concern here is that while learners, colleges, and probably about 70% of teachers would be very much up for this, I suspect that the remaining 30% of teachers, as well as most auditors and inspectors would favour the paper-based over the computer-based on account of it being familiar and safe. I certainly don’t buy the whole “paper records are harder to falsify” rubbish, simply because if I can make a convincing mock up of a scan of a passport as a PDF file, then I can just as easily print it out for “evidence”. (If anything an electronic scan could be harder to falsify as one could encrypt and date the document, noting where and when it was scanned, who by and so on).

Certainly I only use paper copies of things which need paper copies: ILPs, admin forms requiring signatures, etc. The rest, by and large, sits in electronic format on a central college computer drive, printed only for purposes of inspection and observation. Let me make that clear: the documents exist, in varying degrees of up-to-dateness, just not necessarily on paper. Take a scheme of work, for example. Except for the purposes of external observers, I certainly don’t see the point of printing it out, as it sits on a shared drive which can be accessed by every single teacher in my department, and which changes and twists as the year progresses, on account of being, as the saying goes, “a working document”. It may not be physically scribbled on, dog eared and coffee stained, but it’s still changing and adapting. And should I phone in sick, all a teacher needs to do is look it up online and it’s there, rather than trying to make sense of my notes and comments which would almost certainly be illegible, if not entirely unintelligible.

Paperwork, then, is a bit of a necessity: it keeps the wolf from the door, covers our backs during inspections and observations, and can even actually help classroom practices. It’s always tempting, and very easy to slag it off, to say it’s not your job, or it’s not about teaching and learning, or it’s detrimental. I’ve heard, and made, many of these arguments before, but the reality of paperwork is fairly straightforward. It falls into three categories. There is that which is felt to be of use and value to the teacher and so is almost inevitably going to be done and done fairly well. Then there is that which is a requirement and functions as a means to an end, which again will almost certainly get done, even if its not always perfectly. The final category is that which is seen as neither useful nor necessary, which will almost certainly be left until someone else insists on seeing it.

You can decide for yourself which form goes in which category…


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