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BALD John

Hats off to teaching assistant Geeta Paul, for ignoring Birmingham’s gagging order – aka “compromise agreement” – and saying what really went on inside Park View School. The Mail’s excellent report is here; Ms Paul’s section is at the foot of the page. No doubt the Mail will have offered to indemnify her against any legal action, but the use of these gagging orders is a matter for Labour. Birmingham City Council should quash all of them.

If it doesn’t, all dismissed staff should be summoned by the Select Committee and give the details there, under privilege. As Harry Phibbs pointed out last week, the council deserves some credit for commissioning its own report – even if the outcome was virtually the same as Michael Gove’s – but by maintaining these gagging orders it is continuing to cover things up. Birmingham’s failings are not due to bad apples, but to bad policy.

A message from a reader of my website sums up why we need Conservative reforms to continue:

“I hated every minute of that Hell Hole called Pimlico Comprehensive. One of the things you learned was that Bullies ran the school, and not just the children … Pimlico was finally bulldozed. Don’t want to sound pretentious but for me it was like watching the Berlin Wall come down. That school has left me with many scars.”

I had taught French to a Pimlico pupil who had not been entered for O-level by the school on the apparently reasonable grounds that he had failed to reach double figures in his mock. In fact, no French was being taught in his class as the pupils would not allow it. Three months later, with a little careful teaching, he had a B. In the same year, HMI produced their first report on languages in comprehensive schools, showing that the chaos in languages was a national scandal.

I was able to help one child from that school, and so it has continued for the bulk of my career, leading to a constant sense of frustration that hundreds of thousands of children were being failed by the system each year, while all I could do was help individuals.

Even Ofsted, the first major Conservative initiative to try to improve the system, was very limited in what it could achieve – as inspectors, we observed, praised the best work and pointed out what was wrong, but actually doing anything about it was against the rules. Local authorities did as they pleased, and guessing game theories of reading, “creative” maths – i.e. no tables – and mixed-ability teaching flourished. Our predecessors put the cherry on the cake by abolishing the Department for Education, an honest decision on their part, as they didn’t believe in it – what they did believe in was social moulding, summed up in their self-righteous wish list, “every child matters”.

As soon as I started to have contact with shadow ministers, I suggested they visit Mossbourne to see what could be achieved with good management, proper discipline and work carefully matched to children’s learning needs. Mossbourne broke the Pimlico mould as decisively as the bulldozers disposed of its building – incidentally, a crazy, award-winning structure with too much glass, designed to fry children rather than teach them.

Across London, and across the country, other academies and free schools sprang up, changing Labour’s rules by making achievement their central purpose and opening up new opportunities so that East End children with English as a second language were winning debating competitions, producing brilliant artwork from visits to Paris, and reciting Shakespeare as if they were born to it – as indeed they were, Michael Gove and their teachers having restored their birthright. In short, we once again have a Department for Education.

There is much more for it to do. A London Forum, shortly before the events of last week, showed up flaws in Labour’s vaunted success in London, in the form of very high levels of drop out at A level, the result of dumbed down GCSEs not preparing students for further study. Dale Bassett, head of public policy at the exam board AQA, said that London was only achieving well above average progress for pupils who started secondary school with low attainment, and not doing much better than elsewhere for the most able. GCSE and A level reform will redress this imbalance, and so our opponents are fighting them for all they’re worth.

At the same conference, the headteacher of a London school that had converted to an academy, said this:

“… you can graduate with distinction… and that’s entirely unrelated to your attainment. That is about whether in every attitudinal sense, and in terms of your progress and your effort and your contribution to the school and your development of good citizenship values you merit that, and aligned to that is the fact that we wouldn’t want to have all of our students in sets for every subject, because that does simply risk labelling a huge strata of the school as ones that will find it the most enormous challenge to progress beyond those sets. Of course we have them for maths, I mean I say of course, it’s pretty difficult I think, pretty challenging for teachers to teach maths in a mixed ability situation, so of course we do in certain areas, but we also ensure that we don’t over label our students, and that the way that the school recognises you is not dependent, at that age particularly, upon your attainment.”

This is entirely in line with the way our opponents think, and have thought since their errors of 2005.

The idea that the school has failed the children if it does not equip them with the skills they need, that it is the school that should feel bad about low attainment, does not come into the question.

This thinking is prevalent in the Blob, and surfaced even in the Education Endowment Foundations comments on mixed ability teaching, which I’ve written about here.

Apart from the totally inadequate evidence for the Foundation’s view that setting (which it conflates with streaming) has the overall effect of setting children back for a month each year, it presents a video in which a professor of education says, like this headteacher, that the most important thing is not to have children discouraged by being put in low sets.

The truth is that grouping children according to their learning needs, as at Mossbourne, Ark and Harris academies, allows teachers to focus on the skills they need to acquire, and so do something about the underlying problem. Mixed ability merely perpetuates it. The EEF cites the last major British paper on the issue from 1999, six years before Mossbourne opened, and using methodology that would not stand modern scrutiny.

It has started a study of its own, which includes comparison of mixed ability and setting, alongside what it calls “training in best practice in setting” – the inverted commas because I don’t know who would be equipped to provide such training – which is not due to report until 2018. In the meantime, it should remove this section from its toolkit, and should pay close attention to the use of setting in Ark and Harris Academies.

10 comments for: John Bald: Birmingham Council still using gagging orders to keep its failings secret

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