Let’s take the good news first.
The Carter Review of Initial Teacher Training, set up by Michael Gove in May 2014, has worked quickly and well, and reported last week. This is the best official report on an educational topic that I’ve ever read – informed, clear, concise, balanced and practical. It puts the outcome for pupils first, with everything else a means to making this as good as it can be.
Teaching is comprehensively and succinctly described – teachers need not just to know their subjects, but patterns of progress within them, common misconceptions, links between subjects, and ways of teaching them to pupils of different ages and abilities. The role of universities is extended beyond their education departments to include subject researchers who are routinely shut out of teacher training by territorially-minded education departments. Trainees should not just know about special educational needs, but about how to ensure that pupils with them make progress. There is even a long-overdue section on children’s mental health.
Nothing important that has been left out, and my only quibbles are with the description of teaching as “clinical” – calling it pedagogy is bad enough – and with the idea that “the sector” should be asked to draw up key standards for teacher training. You could predict the outcome of that as soon as you knew who from “the sector” was on the panel. A revised list of standards for headteachers appeared at the same time.
These reports are two steps forward, and compensate to a degree for the recent steps backward. Nicky Morgan’s recent points about detail get to the heart of the bad news. During the whole of my time in education, I’ve found that both our political opponents and people who would subvert education for their own purposes have been better at detail than we have been, and they do not feel obliged to inform us of their intentions.
The earliest example was HM Staff Inspector for English in the early seventies, one of the moving spirits behind the National Association for the Teaching of English, who carefully and deliberately packed the Bullock committee on literacy with people whose views were diametrically opposed to those of the Minister (Margaret Thatcher) who had set it up.
They took the sensible – from their point of view – step of abolishing the test that for 11 year olds had provided the evidence, and we still have no reliable replacement. I only got to see the test myself – it has the spooky title NS6 – because a friendly psychologist leaked it to me. It’s a perfectly sensible way of finding out if children can read and understand the words before them. Its trendy replacements focus too much on whether or not children can read between the lines and, as they change each year, give us no idea at all whether reading standards are rising, falling or standing still.
Detail is equally important to Ofsted. Sir Michael Wilshaw is right to take inspection out of the hands of unreliable contractors – though I have always found SERCO’s inspection services to be run to a high standard – but more needs to be done to ensure that all judgements are fully rooted in evidence. This means more attention to subjects, as set out in the Carter Review, to the training of inspectors – particularly to get rid of the idea that anyone can inspect anything – and to the basis of the small number of highly critical reports that close schools and wreck careers.
Progressives hate subjects, and Labour removed them from inspection reports in 2005. The result is that reports contain no reliable and informed judgements on the quality of work across the curriculum, so that inspectors can pick and choose evidence to suit their judgements. They are not required to produce a balanced and accurate report, but can take one issue that may well need attention – such as the playground arrangements at Sir John Cass in London – and fail a whole school because of it.
Such unfairness brings the credibility of even soundly-based judgements into question, as we have no clear idea of the evidence on which they are based. For example, shortly after the World Trade Centre atrocity, I read an essay in praise of Osama Bin Laden written by a seven year old in a London primary school. It was graphic and shocking, but it did not cross my mind that the pupil’s opinions were the fault of the school. Inspectors, under the guise of promoting “British Values” have failed schools on precisely this basis.
There are, it seems, correct and incorrect views of a range of social and religious issues that are, or are not, British, and the school is now responsible for the views of its pupils.
Leaving aside the apparently intrusive questioning by some inspectors – some of which may not have been appropriate to the age of the pupils who were being interviewed, to put it politely – this is a gross imposition of political correctness in a areas where children are entitled to make up their own minds. Blair, for example, has recently stated that “a significant, and not a marginal” minority of Muslims support terrorism, and the French government reported 200 incidents in schools, including threats to kill, during its national day of remembrance for the victims of the Charlie Hebdo massacre. Speaking personally, I will continue to make up my own mind on the basis of the best available evidence on all matters, and will not be told what to think by people who see the purpose of education as social engineering rather than the development of the intellect and character.