First, a word about Clacton. I was based there for nearly ten years, running a reading and language development centre in an outpost of Essex Education Department. It gave me, shall we say, time to think.
In some ways, Clacton was wonderful – my centre was next door to the library of a redundant teacher training college, with a brilliant librarian whose collections saved me many a trip to London. In others, redundant summed it up. The town was regularly described as dying on its feet, surviving only because of low property prices – especially in Jaywick – and with little economic activity outside the remnant of a holiday trade and a small, better-off enclave to the East of the town, opposite the still excellent beach and promenade.
The local MP and politicians never seemed to do anything, and most of the schools – except for a couple of rebellious primaries – were poor – so poor, that one of them pulled out of a research project I was running on the grounds that the pupils involved were such low-achievers that I shouldn’t have expected them to make any progress.
This was the same establishment that complained when I got their bottom set in French to produce better writing than the top set. So, I’m not surprised at the election result. It would be very easy for people of all political persuasions in Clacton to think nobody gave a damn about them – and certainly not Labour.
Labour’s progressive education department, run under the nose of a Conservative council, effectively prevented any emphasis on raising standards in schools. For the moment, there are no safe seats.
And so to business. Nicky Morgan’s tough-minded conference speech did not give Labour an inch, smacking Tristram Hunt for not saying anything at all in his speech – his own side agree – and gave due credit to the Conservative ministers, Michael Gove and Nick Gibb, who have done so much of the work.
We have, despite the difficulties of coalition and the machinations of some civil servants, begun a process of change that is opening opportunities, and are rooting out Labour’s quangos, fake qualifications and corrupt statistics. We all know, though, that if everything was perfect, Nicky Morgan would not have been making the speech. It is time, therefore, for some family discussions.
First, Ofsted. Dominic Cumming’s memo of October 2013, leaked to The Guardian, shows that advisers were indeed after Sir Michael Wilshaw, though the memo does not say exactly why. The departure of both of them before Christmas suggests also, though we can’t be sure, that Michael Gove may have kept his word to Sir MW about getting rid of advisers if they had been tweeting against him.
I agree that much is wrong with Ofsted, but probably not for the same reasons. Back in 2005, Labour’s place-man, Sir David Bell moved inspection from first-hand observation to data, and introduced the idea that any trained inspector could inspect anything. A recent talk by an Ofsted senior manager, from a social services background, described this as “transferable skills”, which it is not. It is transferable authority, and, if not backed by knowledge and experience, transferable ignorance.
As a teacher, I have no confidence in any Ofsted judgement that I can’t verify from other sources. This stems from a description of my own work in French as “good” by an inspection team that had never even seen it. They were impressed, apparently, because the pupils spoke to them in French. I haven’t been able to find out how they replied, or indeed if they understood what the pupils were saying beyond “bonjour”.
Ofsted has had financial constraints, but senior officials still hold the view that the headmaster’s quick visit is all that is needed to inspect a lesson, and that expertise doesn’t matter. This contributes to the supposed 5-1 split among teachers against us in opinion polls, and needs to be put right. Inspectors should be experts, which means they need to know at least as much as the best people they’re inspecting. Serving inspectors tell me that they are still frequently stuck with teams containing no-one qualified to inspect science, maths, langauges, or sometimes even English. This has to change.
Sir Michael, however, is dangerously close to the position Sir Chris Woodhead got into, where he couldn’t win whatever he said. Ofsted’s report, two weeks ago, criticising headteachers’ failure to support colleagues over discipline, was wilfully misrepresented by the unions as an attack on teachers and a usurpation of government policy, even though the government has been giving heads the powers they need to begin to enforce discipline, notably through no-notice detentions.
The total lack of scruple of the defenders of progressive education, with their control of teacher training, makes them a powerful negative force, and they should not be underestimated. Remember that one of them actually has a PhD in ideology. Schools are not yet the orderly places we need them to be – if in doubt, see Channel 4’s latest documentary from the East End, which contains a warning about offensive language.
Ofqual’s brilliantly argued technical report on grading in A level languages adds to the regulator’s recent excellent work on GCSE reform – ok, my early view of the regulator has been proved wrong – but reveals a much deeper malaise. A senior languages teacher, who contributed to the review, told me that grading around the C level was fair enough, and that the weaknesses were in the marking for higher grades.
This is because the examining boards, through a combination of commercial pressure and the values of the previous government, don’t care about the highest grades and can’t or don’t want to find the people who can mark to that standard. As a result, able pupils even in private schools are not taking A level languages. A minor point, some contributors to the comments threads here will no doubt say, but the same issue exists in other subjects too. What Labour did to our examination system over thirteen years amounts to decapitation, and it is not an easy process to reverse.
What is taught and how children behave have always been more important to teachers, parents and children than who happens to run a school, or even what it’s called. Getting rid of the grind and corruption of endless coursework and slimming down the curriculum have been strongly in teachers’ interests, although it would have been better if academies had been made to take the NC as a minimum offering rather than being allowed to opt out of it. Strengthening school discipline will remove a blight from everyone’s life.
Developing modern examinations that meet Churchill’s criterion of showing what children can do, rather than what they can’t, is under way and succeeding. Our policies are in children’s and teachers’ interests, and we need to convince them of this by what we do rather than say.
Finally, sad news for me and British education. My friend and colleague, Tricia Okoruwa, director of education for Hackney, died last week of cancer and her funeral took place on Friday. Hackney was the fastest-improving education authority in the country, and Tricia did much to make it so. She disliked party politics, and I don’t know if she would have thanked me for mentioning her work on a political site. Nevertheless, The Learning Trust has served as a model of what a professional, rather than political, local authority can achieve. Its work deserves further study.