A couple of weeks ago, I hit 65. When this happens, you look back at your work. If you’re in education, you hope to leave children with something better than you had yourself, whether you attended Eton or Bash Street.
There have been two improvements in education since I started in 1973.
The first is that we have substantially fewer people who cannot read at all. I’ve written previously about my Damascus moment, when a boy truanted from my English lesson, and the Deputy Head told me that, of course, he couldn’t read, but that neither could a lot of pupils in the first year. I became a reading teacher. We have weak readers still, but, thanks to the tests at 11 and now the phonics check, complete non-readers are rare.
The other improvement is in the education of children in care, for which credit goes to Labour. In the seventies and eighties, these children received no extra support, and trod a sorry path of failure, disruption and exclusion that often ended in jail. Socially, these children’s lot has not improved, because the emphasis on their rights, including the right to run off, leads them into grave danger of sexual exploitation. Educationally, though, local authorities have support teams and virtual schools, some of them of very high quality, and these need to be developed rather than cut.
Elsewhere, things are worse. The government has been trying to stop the rot by reforming the curriculum and examinations, chopping up the progressive octopus, and returning schools to their proper purpose of maximising the potential of each individual. Our opponents have responded by pretending that the reforms are an attack on teachers rather than themselves, and are waiting for Labour to hand back the reins.
Their view has been accurately expressed in two papers by Professors Geoff Whitty and Peter Mortimore, both former directors of the London Institute of Education, and the latter former chief of Ken Livingstone’s Inner London Education Authority. Whitty defended the right of educational researchers not to focus on “what works”, and Mortimore attacked the idea of improving schools, as it was likely to benefit those who were already doing well. I am not making this up.
I don’t know when was the last time either of these two actually taught anyone anything, but that, from their point of view, is irrelevant. Education, for them, is a means of moulding society, and not, as it is for most of us, the means of liberating each person to make their own decisions. Labour have said that they would dump A level reforms, and it isn’t yet clear whether they would also restore the grind of coursework and resits.
We know from New Labour stealth taxes that what they say they will do indicates only the broad direction of their intentions, and not their extent. In Scotland and Wales, ruling nationalists have installed progressivism by borrowing the label of excellence – Wales has just hired the author of the Scottish programme to write their version – so that the well-documented decline of education in Wales is set to continue. There could not be a clearer contrast between Conservatives and our opponents, and the whole of the work of the last five years is in the balance.
The Independent, which now sees itself more as a rival to the Guardian than to the Times, weighed in on Labour’s side in conjunction with the with an attack on arrangements for newly qualified teachers, in conjunction with the Association for Teachers and Lecturers, which is moving sharply to the Left under its radical general secretary, Dr Mary Bousted, whose speech to her conference is here.
Nearly four in ten newly qualified teachers, it says, “quit the classroom” in their first year. Not quite. Dr Bousted bases her figures on those for 2011 – a distortion to start with, as none of the government’s reforms were in place at that time. According to Professor Alan Smithers, complete data are only available for 2012, downloadable here, and presumably the origin of Dr Bousted’s calculations.
The report repays careful reading, but I’ve tried to pick out the most important shortcuts and distortions on the part of the union and Independent. To begin with, the starting point is not newly qualified teachers, but final year students, about ten per cent of whom do not complete their courses. That takes the drop out rate from 40 per cent to around 28 per cent.
Then, Dr Bousted’s idea of “the teaching service” excludes the private sector, which takes around 5 per cent, and other forms of teaching, which also account for around five per cent. So those teaching a year after qualification amount to around 80 per cent. Some take a gap year, and the proportion of university graduates teaching after two years is actually higher than after one year.
In short, the story is propaganda with facts. One fact that could have been brought out is that those entering traditional teacher training courses in the primary sector had lower qualifications and a higher rate of dropout than those entering with an academic degree and post graduate certificate, or those entering from the new work based training schemes such as Teach First and the Graduate Teacher programme.
Teach First had 60 per cent of its young graduates still in teaching a year after their two-year commitment to the scheme, and a minimal rate of withdrawal prior to that. Incidentally, the problem of dropout from teacher training is not new – the Mail reported a 40 per cent dropout rate in 2009, which I suppose the Left would blame on Margaret Thatcher.
A final nail in the coffin of this deception is in the additional table at this link, from the year after Dr Bousted’s figures. Table C2 from this download shows that the number of teachers leaving after their first year is around nine per cent, and has been within one percentage point of this figure since 1996. It’s not the easiest item of data to find, but the union and Independent should surely have managed it between them.
The one area on which everyone in teaching seems to agree on is the need to cut bureaucracy and micromanagement harder and faster than either we or Labour have been prepared to do. Labour sees this as a means of enforcing equality, and some on our side as a means of ensuring accountability, by giving headteachers an immediate view of what is going on throughout the school. Both are wrong. Heads and senior staff need to be about their schools, and monitoring pupils’ work rather than teachers’ paperwork. This is one aspect of teaching I’m heartily glad to have escaped.