Pioneer of Lego Phonics® (‘Why make worlds when you can make words?’), Michael Benzine is making a few final adjustments to a series of lessons that could make or break his career. Bracewell Primary – outstanding with satisfactory ICT features – has got ‘the call’ and is due to be visited by the UK’s Office for Standards in Educations (often abbreviated to OFSTEDS in everyday teacher conversations in staffrooms and Greggs bakeries across England and the British Isles).
“So, what time do you expect OFSTEDS to arrive?” I ask Michael, as he places another transparent Lego block into his Crystal Grapheme Maze. Glynnis, Michael’s teaching assistant, is busily preparing a wall display featuring head shots of his Year 5/6s, each with a speech bubble explaining what they like to do if they encounter a problem when reading a text.
“OFSTED,” mutters Ursula, looking up from her place value diorama – a dramatized equation or ‘nuteracy tableau’ as Michael calls them.
“Could be anytime,” says Michael breathlessly. “The thing with OFSTED is you never know when they might pop up.”
“Like that Welsh witch in Chorlton and the Wheelies,” says Glynnis, as she pins up a large banner that reads ‘Perseverence Vox Pops‘.
“Precisely!” beams Michael, “One minute you’re happily marching a class of kids around the caretaker’s hut, looking for Pokemons. The next? Mrs Garbutt’s got you marking all your copybooks because OFSTED are coming ‘tomorrow’.” Michael makes bunny rabbits with his fingers to accentuate that last word and then rubs his bleary eyes.
“What lessons have you got in store for OFSTEDS today?” I ask. “These ‘nuteracy tableaux’ look like the type of innovation that would spark their interest.”
“You have to be careful when it comes to innovation,” says Michael, adjusting the chin strap of his 360 degree headcam, “It’s sometimes not appreciated in the way you’d expect.”
“The last inspection report referred to Michael as ‘gratuitously innovative’.” frowns Glynnis. Michael nods.
“They weren’t ready for my HydroPhonic Garden,” he says.
“Or your ‘Wake and Primal Scream’,” Callum says, snapping the hand off a Lego representation of the Crystal Maze’s Richard O’Brien.
“HydroPhonics might’ve been a bit illegal,” says Glynnis. “Soothing, yes. But illegal.” Michael shakes his head.
Later that day, the inspectors have arrived and are being shown around the school by Mrs Garbutt accompanied by two student councillors. They are two doors away from Michael’s classroom and Michael is in the middle of teaching complex sentences using what he calls ‘augmented horses’.
Each student is wearing an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset. On the interactive whiteboard, Michael can switch between headsets so that we can see what the children are seeing.
“This one’s Kevin.” says Michael, as we watch a first-person view of someone charging around on horseback around a medieval landscape. “And look, he’s almost caught up with Ursula!” We can see another rider wearing a tabard with a comma painted on it in blood red. Kevin gallops towards Ursula and whacks her with the flat of his blade. In the real world, Ursula picks herself up off the number square carpet and is dusting herself off, mouthing obscenities at where she thinks Kevin is standing, cantering on the spot.
At this point, the inspectors – two of them – enter the classroom, both smiling broadly. Several children are slapping one another blindly and one child, Callum, comes running up to an inspector and shouts “You’re a bloody connective!”
The inspector arches one eyebrow and makes a note on his Ipad. Michael sidles up to him: “Pro: 12.9 inch, wifi + cellular?” he asks.
“Yes,” replies the inspector, “space grey with a foldaway smart keyboard and…”
“Don’t tell me.” Michael gingerly raises his index finger, almost to the inspector’s lips, “And a silicon sheath.”
They smile at one another. Between them, on the wall, is a head shot of Callum with a speech bubble rising from his smiling face.
“I just stop!” it says.
And Glynnis smiles at the inspector and Michael, as their gazes drop sheepishly to the tablet’s screen – and they marvel together.