John Bald is a former Ofsted Inspector, and has written two books on the teaching of reading and spelling.
In most years, the Budget is mostly concerned with the economy and personal taxation. This year, its focus was on two spending departments, with results that could not be more different. Nicky Morgan, unusually for an Education Secretary, led for the Government in the budget debate, while Iain Duncan Smith resigned in the most explosive way he could think up. Morgan, however, may be sitting on a bomb of her own – albeit with a slightly longer fuse.
To begin at the beginning. The 1944 Education Act’s “national system, locally administered,” lasted until 1965, when Crosland imposed comprehensive education on most of the country. Our public education service has been in a state of civil war ever since. Labour’s abolition of the Education Department, and its legislation of 2005-6, summed up the cause of war. Every Child Matters listed achievement as one-half of its five educational goals, half-way down the list. Most of us would put it at the top. A child who is not achieving is not a happy child, and this affects his or her whole family. As children will never achieve equally, the collision between this and the Left’s goal of equality is inevitable. Every Child Matters is education’s Little Red Book.
Local Authorities were and remain overwhelmingly on the Leftist side of the argument.
When I joined one in 1980, fondly believing that a Conservative authority would be interested in tackling illiteracy and raising standards, I felt as if I’d walked into a brick wall. At my first meeting, colleagues made it clear that they were not interested in grammar, phonics or reading schemes, and could not care less whether children punctuated their work or not.
The primary inspectors were worse – “We learn to read by reading” was their mantra, along with undifferentiated mixed ability teaching and first-hand experience, so that literacy was no longer the basis of education. Towards the end of my time, a neighbour’s child was so miserable in her primary school, and her parents so distraught at the prospect of sending her to a comprehensive that thought that a C was a top grade, that I coached her for the 11+, which she passed.
It was the first of a series of small victories against a bad system, and there have been bigger ones since. First, the Learning Trust turned Hackney from a corrupt Labour den into the fastest-improving authority in the country, then Mossbourne Community Academy showed that a regime of good behaviour, focused teaching, and hard work could open the doors of top universities to poor children. Our governments since 2010 have put in place measures that will restore schools to their proper purpose of teaching people rather than moulding society, both through examination reform and drastically reducing the influence of activists – correctly described by Michael Gove as “Trots” – on governing bodies.
So why am I worried?
First, the proposal to abolish parent governors is a very bad idea indeed. It sends a message to parents that they and their views do not matter, and gives academy chains and authorities too much control over governing bodies or boards. Both of these are important. Some academy chains are run on the model of a family business rather than a public company. We have already had too many examples of abuse for comfort, and opportunities for sharp practice, whether or not it extends to corruption. This can only increase if all of the governors are on the payroll. Parent governors can be political activists, but the main route for Trots and the like is via local authorities. One or two parents on a governing body do not constitute an avenue for entryism, and provide a degree of transparency that is not so much desirable as essential. This proposal must be quietly removed.
The second question is whether the academy model provides a basis for a national education service. One effect of Mossbourne has been to energise the other secondary schools in the area to compete with it. “We got more A*s than Mossbourne,” was the boast of one local head of department a couple of years ago, showing that her school is now chasing top grades rather than Cs. On the other hand, a senior figure in the academies movement once expressed the fear to me that “we don’t have enough good people”, and Sir Michael Wilshaw’s comments on the shortage of good leaders across the country suggest that this is still the case. My offer of help with educational problems is as often taken up by pupils from academies as from other types of school, and I have seen at first hand exactly the kind of poor performance and excuses that Sir Michael listed in his letter to the Secretary of State.
So, a national system of academies is a very high risk, not least because each failure will be laid straight at the door of the Secretary of State. The suggestion of a 30-month amnesty from Ofsted would make matters worse, and bring into play the timing of the next election.
Since Margaret Thatcher, Conservative majorities have been built on giving people good reasons to vote for us, most importantly through home ownership, but also through other economic and social benefits. The Budget has left me thinking that too many people will not have such good reasons to vote for us in the future.