Ministers of State rarely get much credit, so well done to Schools Minister Nick Gibb for having brought together the people and organisations who produced the phonics catalogue. Nick is also tackling the broken subjects of maths and modern languages, setting up seminars and working parties to establish exactly where we are, followed by policy changes to stop the rot. To declare an interest, I'm taking part.
The maths cause got a big boost last week from HMI. Their report brings together all of the weaknesses that have been identified in recent discussion in maths – constant resits to get to grade C, early entry that cuts down on the number of pupils reaching higher grades, reduced exam content (dumbing down is much too crude an expression for HMI) and the primary weaknesses – not understanding or recalling basic facts, such as tables, and devising complicated intermediate calculation systems that "grow a life of their own" and delay or deny access to the more efficient standard methods, aka algorithms.
Some secondary pupils are still reliant on multiple addition because they don't know tables. We all know this, but it's very useful to hear HMI say it. The comment on the previous government's numeracy strategy for primary schools is polite, but devastating – it has focused teachers' attention on the topics prescribed for the year rather than on mathematical progression (paragraph 25). Schools wishing to construct a proper programme of work have had to make their own, just as Ruth Miskin had to defy New Labour's literacy strategy to write proper schemes for phonics.
The combination of ignorance and power that was the basis of New Labour's educational strategies is still well represented in the educational establishment, and we are suffering the consequences. I was at a meeting at the Royal Society a couple of months ago when the chief HMI for maths had to withstand barbed comments and questions for giving aid and comfort to the government.
HMI have not always kept away from partisanship in the past – for example, they got much too close to the progressive Plowden reforms that purported to reform primary education while in fact wrecking it. On this occasion, they are simply telling the truth, and offer a good range of examples of the right way to do things alongside their criticisms. These need to be followed up and published, and the report made the basis of teacher training. It is, incidentally, some distance from Carol Vorderman'sreport last year, which went too far towards endorsing alternative calculation methods.
Inspectors on no-notice inspections will need to change their ways, and to observe what is in front of them rather than the school's statistics. Skilled inspectors can do this, but many inspectors recruited since 2005 have not been trained to do it. They need to restore Tomlinson's approach to lesson observation – and to assessment, where it forms the basis of Woodberry Down's system of stickers.