Nick Gibb’s return as Minister for School Reform after Liz Truss’ well-earned promotion is not just welcome, but essential. Coalition politics bring rough justice, and the 2012 reshuffle had nothing to do with education. Our partners wanted David Laws as a Minister of State, Sarah Teather was an embarrassment, and a career path was needed for capable women. Nick Gibb remained prominent in Conservative education circles, and received the highest praise from Michael Gove at last year’s party conference.
This was not the sack as we know it. Michael’s speech and the reaction to it are well worth reading. Michael set out, perhaps more clearly than ever before, the Conservative commitment to social justice, based on making academic achievement available to as many children as possible, and balanced by the development of social and personal skills from a young age – “Because eating together, talking together, using that knife and fork, learning how to be civilised, learning how to be courteous, learning how to be polite sets them on a course for success later in life.”
I’ve seen the truth of this in excellent Hackney nurseries, where lunch is part of the curriculum, and behaviour and manners were as good as at Wellington College. Hackney MP Diane Abbott saw the truth of it too, because she knows that she is where she is because of her educational success.
Ms Abbott, though, is not in the Labour mainstream, having failed her front bench apprenticeship by embarrassing her leader on the radio. As Michael pointed out, Ed Miliband has been saying nothing about schools at all, and the reason is that Labour’s mainstream has been outflanked by the Left.
I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that two former Directors of the London Institute of Education had argued against “what works” and even school improvement, as this was likely to benefit those who were succeeding already, and so increase inequality.
Responding to Michael’s speech in The Guardian, the radical Francis Gilbert said that, far from promoting social justice, his educational policies entrenched privilege and would result in “social segregation”.
It would be difficult to invent two such contrasting views of the same policy, but this is the way the Blob sees things. For those of us on the Conservative side who gave comprehensive education a fair wind in the sixties, the reasoning was consistent with that of Sir Michael Wilshaw – some people were not getting a fair chance because of the entry system. For the Left and its intellectual companions in the Blob, the goal was to get rid of attainment as the goal of education and promote equality through mixed ability teaching.
This is still current in too many schools – at a recent meeting of nearly 70 secondary languages teachers, 55 said that they were using mixed ability, and only five said they would do so if they had a choice. They are stuck with mixed ability because their progressive headteachers want it, chiefly because it spreads bad behaviour around the groups rather than concentrating it in one place. The idea that they should not have bad behaviour in their schools in the first place does not seem to occur.
Mr Mitchell’s approach, in Educating Yorkshire, was to have the staff put up with abuse until enough other parents complained about it to take the decision out of his hands.
That is the alternative to Conservative policy. Modern polling techniques, however, have brought us close to Robert Burns’ desire “to see ourselves as other see us”, and the picture is not good. We are unlikely to see Downing Street polls, but teachers’ views were reflected in a published NFER evaluation of last year’s phonics screening check.
The check itself has been validated by a recent academic paper by some of the most distinguished academics in the field of reading, including Professor Margaret Snowling, and the evaluation showed an increase, from 53 to 60 per cent, in the proportion of schools introducing phonics “first and fast” as the basis of learning to read.
However, while only three per cent of teachers responding disagreed with the value of phonics, only 10 per cent agreed that the check provided useful information for teachers, and only five per cent agreed that it provided useful information to parents. Even adding the “agree somewhat” category left support at under a third for teachers, and around a fifth for parents. The policy is successful, but teachers don’t see it that way.
Some, like Francis Gilbert and leftist academics, never will. Most teachers, though, are not supporters of the Blob, and not particularly interested in politics. They are interested in children, and in their development, they are thinking people, and they need to be influenced. Sir Keith Joseph once put it very clearly: “The influence we have depends on the sense of what we find to say.”
We need to make it clear to the teaching force that what we are saying makes sense, and that our principles of effective teaching and good discipline will make their work more effective and take away the stress that built up on them over the Labour years. We might start by making a really determined effort to cut the paperwork.