I have always taken the attitude that feedback offered to help improve performance is without a doubt an excellent personal development or CPD opportunity. I often quote from a story told about an interview with Boris Bekker the tennis player and champion who is pressed by the interviewer for the secret of his success. He says in the interview that talent is not enough by itself that it takes discipline and finally humility to listen to coaches and to take advice, and sums up this sentiment with the statement “Feedback is the breakfast of champions.” It was with this attitude that myself and another member of the Gemstones team took up the offer of feedback from the DfE regarding our Special Free School proposal.
The call took place at the appointed time with the DfE case-worker and the person who had chaired the interview panel. I had suggested we use Skype, but was told it would have to be a telephone call. We were first told that the decision was final and then asked if we intended to apply in the next round. I was a bit taken aback at this question as I couldn’t see why that was relevant, although the chair insisted that it would be helpful for them to know this first. I said something positive whilst not wholly committing ourselves to applying again. We were told that we had demonstrated “passion and commitment” and then asked if we would comment on the feedback provided in the letter particularly, “anything we did not agree with.” I was not prepared to do this and so we remained silent.
We were then prompted several times and told that it would be helpful to them for us to comment and give feedback as there was a lack of body language feedback to be gleaned over the phone and it was making it difficult for them. When I eventually made a comment about the experience of the group, the chair responded that it was good that they had, “needled” us into a response. At this point my colleague and I were both shocked at such a strange and yet revealing choice of words.
We were provided with a long list of details we had got wrong, the chief complaint of which was our choice of putting BESD and ASD groups of pupils together. We were told that the panel could not understand this selection, viewed it as inappropriate for both groups and this meant that they could not understand the provision proposed. It was this that was central to their view that our proposal lacked focus and coherence.
At interview I had outlined that the provision was for pupils with social, communication, emotional and behavioural difficulties who did not have significant learning disabilities that would be catered for by SLD or PMLD provision. I gave three clear, practical examples from accepted good practice with these groups taken from our educational plan section these included, nurture group curriculum, clear rules boundaries and routines that would be consistently maintained and use of a visual timetable. This had obviously not been convincing for the panel.
The chair spoke about this and went to say that an example of our lack of focus and coherence in the proposal was given in an answer I had provided at interview in which I said it would be possible in our school for a pupil to be working at a level 6 and another to be on p levels. This was quoted to us with an air of complete incredulity as an example of a range of ability for which it would be completely impossible for us to cater and therefore perfectly illustrative of their points about a lack of focus. The chair then went on to say that the panel had concluded that parents therefore would not understand our provision and neither would the local authority. Given that many of our fantastically gifted mainstream colleagues manage such a range as I have quoted in larger classes than we were proposing, that we had managed to get more parents wanting to register their children with us than we needed and that the local authority had told the DFE that they viewed our proposal as ‘very robust’, I question whether they are confusing opinion with fact.
It had been made clear to us from the outset of the feedback session that it was already game set and match and yet I had attempted to listen and learn from a ‘coach’, despite being prompted and finally ‘needled’ into commenting. This process was not, for us, either constructive or developmental. Even the first statement designed to be the sweetener about commitment and passion seemed rather lame and indeed patronising for a group that had managed to get all the way to the interview stage. I am left wondering if the purpose was to put us off applying again simply because the proposal was challenging of their accepted wisdom, too innovative or more particularly, “too ambitious” as their letter had so intriguingly stated. Suffice is to say that I won’t be adopting this approach as a coaching model as we found it wholly indigestible as a learning process.