John Bald is a former teacher, educational adviser and Ofsted lead inspector. He now works as an independent consultant and offers free help to people with educational problems.
To know what Labour really think about education, we need to look at what they do for their own children. The Blairs were reported to employ a tutor from Westminster school to nip in through the back door to give history lessons. Diane Abbott, who sent her child to that school, showed a rare flash of consistency by endorsing Michael Gove’s approach in the commons, to the discomfiture of her colleagues.
To get an idea of how nasty our opponents can be over this issue, read this letter by Michael Rosen to Ms Abbot in Socialist Review. Tristram Hunt’s views are pretty close to Abbott’s and Blair’s. He has – credit where due – an excellent academic record himself, and has said he’d consider sending his child to a private school.
The trouble is that Labour’s leadership does not make Labour policy. Those who do are in the boss class in teacher education, universities, unions and politically-oriented “charities”, who take a view of equality that is diametrically opposed to ours.
Their view is typified by the headteacher I quoted some months ago, from a “converter” academy, who said pupils from his school could “graduate”, as he put it, without any qualifications at all if they had the right attitudes in terms of citizenship.
Our view was succinctly expressed by Nicky Morgan earlier this year when she spoke of a refusal to accept that educational attainment must be correlated to the wealth of your parents, that your future life chances are determined not by talent or effort, but by the circumstances of your birth.
To the progressive Left, this emphasis on attainment – aka standards – is the basis of inequality in society, and should be got rid of. Hence mixed ability teaching, fake “vocational” qualifications to pump up GCSE equivalence for everyone, and opposition to tests and examinations that really do indentify the Mary Beards, Mitchells, Whittles and Turings of the next generation.
The difference between our approach to this progressive castle and Labour’s is that we have been prepared to take action against it, to take flak and to accept casualties. Sir James Rose recommended a return to phonics as the basis of reading teaching under Labour, but we put in place a check to make sure that children were receiving this teaching and not being taught to read by various forms of guesswork, as well as a well-designed spelling, punctuation and grammar check for eleven year olds.
We have tackled the progressive maths teaching, which has left children without the calculation skills they need, by expecting multiplication tables to be known by the time children are eight, and insisting that they learn the most effective calculation techniques.
We have started an essential programme of examination reform and, in a brave decision by Nicky Morgan, prevented the advisory body set up to oversee A levels from turning into yet another quango. The National Curriculum has been rewritten and improved, the fake qualifications thrown out, and very nearly all of the quangos shut down, driving the progressives back into their stronghold in pseudo-charities, where like-minded people serve as trustees.
I had an example of the nonsense this week in a foreign languages project funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation. Entitled Language Futures, it aims to let pupils study any language they want, whether or not the school has anyone who can teach it, or who even knows a word of it. The goal is to promote “learner autonomy” rather than proficiency in the language, and one of the presenters admitted that it was “a challenge” to promote speaking and listening skills under these circumstances – no great surprise if the teacher knew no more than the pupils.
The one example of progress she presented was a piece of extended written French, which was the language that she herself knew well enough to teach. This is the educational equivalent of the Portsmouth Sinphonia – whose players were selected for their inability to play their instruments. Here is a sample.
In the meantime, the Foreign Office can’t keep pace with the situation in Ukraine because we don’t have enough Russian speakers, and the latest A-level figures show a further catastrophic decline in languages with a 20 per cent fall in French in one year alone. At this rate, even the supply of teachers is threatened.
The educational choices in this election go to the heart of the purposes of schools. All of our Conservative ministers have done their utmost to return them to their proper purpose of promoting the knowledge, skills and understanding that lead to progress, high standards, and personal satisfaction – in a word, to fulfilment of each person’s potential. The alternative is Cromwellian mediocrity, propaganda and Hobson’s Choice.