Last week’s Ofsted report on primary schools is the most positive HMI verdict on the sector since summary judgements began in the late seventies. It represents a major achievement on the part of hundreds of thousands of teachers, headteachers and assistants, and we may even, at long last, be seeing an end to the errors of the sixties. The levels of skill and thought that have brought this about deserve some recognition.
The most important is teachers’ use of language. In the early nineties, I worked with the late George Carman QC on the libel action, Bookbinder vs. Oppenheim. Sitting behind George was a revelation. He began as if his only care in the world was to get the judge through his morning’s work as easily and smoothly as possible, regretting that his time had to be taken up by the tedious matter of hearing the case. In the afternoon, he pounded his opponent’s head with a trip-hammer for a solid hour, and the judge warned what was left of that unfortunate that unless he found something better to say in the morning, the action was over. He didn’t.
A little while later, I observed a young teacher in an infant school, with a class of pupils whose speaking skills ranged from precocious to almost non-existent. Some could hold a pencil and form letters, others not. Her task was much more complex and demanding than George’s, and she approached it with consummate skill, weighing each word and intonation to keep all of the pupils focused and interested, building concentration and discipline and generally holding the line for civilisation, all the time with an eye on the clock.
She was on a temporary contract as her Australian teaching qualification was not recognised in the UK, and was earning less in a month than George in a morning.
A little earlier, Lord Baker, when secretary of state, had visited a conference of the United Kingdom Reading Association. Passing the stand of a project to develop “oracy”, he asked its occupiers what they were contributing to literacy. They were shocked, but didn’t
really have an answer. It was as obvious then as now that children with good spoken language tended to do well in school, and that those without it did poorly, but far less clear how oracy would produce any improvement. Talk for talk’s sake could just lead children round in a circle, or even become a substitute for doing any work.
The answer to Lord Baker’s question involves using spoken language to develop vocabulary and grammatical structures that can then be used as a basis for writing.
At the same time, reading, spelling, punctuation and handwriting are taught explicitly, with none of the progressive nonsense of expecting children to write without lines to guide them. I mentioned the most elaborated form of this work, Ros Wilson’s Big Writing, last week, and see it as the final, crucial, step in the quest to give all primary pupils the literacy skills they need to succeed in school.
Its great strength is that it takes account of all aspects of the problem, including the inhibition of boys who worry about getting things wrong and find it hard to know what to say – when the younger children write at length, everything possible is done to enable them to work in comfort and without stress.
Sir Michael Wilshaw chose to lead with the weaknesses of secondary schools, and former Labour secretary of state Lady Morris agrees that primary and secondary schools have the same pupils, and that secondary schools need to do better. This again is an old and complex problem. The most literate and capable pupils, taught in sets or in grammar schools, pick up on the challenge of secondary school and make accelerated progress. The others fall back, either because they don’t have the skills they need to do their work, or because they do, but are taught in mixed ability classes and not properly challenged.
This remains the elephant in the room, and I know of one Labour-controlled borough in London, in which all secondary heads have agreed to mixed ability in every first year class. In many other schools, only maths is set. The consequences of this approach are disastrous, and in languages, the impact is catastrophic. Not only are children not learning effectively, but languages are, overall, their least favourite subject.
Sir Michael’s comments on leadership need to be studied carefully. What he means by leadership is not team captaincy, but the ability to ensure consistency in the quality of teaching, behaviour – over 400,000 pupils’ education is affected by poor behaviour – and tracking pupils’ performance. “The leadership of teaching,” he says, “is more than twice as likely to be the cause of problems as the quality of teachers themselves”.
I’ve seen this at first hand, with a head saying, “We expect the world of these kids,” while the merest glance at their books showed that he was in fact expecting nothing. This type of school is one of the last refuges of progressivism – as the London academy head put it in at a Westminster Forum conference in the summer, “We don’t want to give children the message that all that matters is their attainment.” Unfortunately, it is a short step from this to telling them that attainment does not matter at all.
The waters continue to be muddied by the remnants of Labour’s destruction of the examination system, particularly in its fake vocational “equivalences” and the gaming of coursework. Westminster Forum last week featured an excellent series of presentations on the way Ofqual is putting this right.
Janet Holloway, Ofqual’s impressive Associate Director for qualifications, gave a lucid description of the new grading systems, designed to re-introduce rigour without treating current candidates unfairly. The system accepts judgement as well as data as an element in examining, and its use of numbers rather than letters avoids having to try to persuade people that grade F represents a pass.
Nine is the highest grade, making grade one an entry level, so that psychologically, each grade is a step forward. Grades seven, eight and nine broadly represent the current A and A*, grades five to six the current B and top of C, and grade four, the current C, leaving three grades below this rather than the current four, with an unclassified grade that, in practice, will usually indicate absence. Details of the government’s reform to vocational qualifications are here.