John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector who has written two books on the teaching of reading and spelling.
The Prime Minister’s grammar school proposals have, for the moment, blown the rest of the education debate out of the water. This may be no bad thing: the issue of academic excellence, and how best to foster it, is behind most day to day discussion, and it needed to be brought into the open.
Justine Greening’s handling of Labour’s “urgent” question on the topic was the best parliamentary performance I’ve seen from a Conservative Secretary of State, seeing off rants and handwringing with well-prepared equanimity. The Guardian is trying to organise the opposition, while lamenting the fact that “too many schools do not have an ethos of academic excellence.” The point, of course, is that these schools do not want such an ethos.
They believe that academic excellence is the main source of inequality in the developed world, and fight it through mixed-ability teaching and tolerance of anti-educational attitudes, for example, by not using their power of same-day detention. They detest Michael Wilshaw, the Chief Inspector of Schools, even more than they do the Conservatives, because the success he achieved at Mossbourne destroyed the ideas on which the whole of their work is based.
Back on the ground, I’m having to teach a 15 year old his two times table because successive schools have taken the shortcut of having him count in multiples instead, which meant that he couldn’t locate the items in the tables that he needed for multiplication and division, and so had no chance of understanding basic issues such as percentages and fractions. After two sessions, we are making good progress on the full range of tables, but the school’s lack of attention to basic skills is a scandal, and it could not care less. When he told a teacher last term that he didn’t understand something, the teacher replied, “I’m not surprised, ” and walked on.
This attitude and approach are behind the catastrophic 70 per cent failure rate among FE students resitting English and maths at GCSE. This affects roughly 150,000 young people each year, and fixing it is a good deal more urgent than Labour’s grandstanding. I led a training day in an FE college earlier this year, during which it was clear that most of the students had left school with such limited command of basic literacy and numeracy skills that they had no chance whatsoever of getting up to grade C in the time allocated. It was not their fault, or that of their lecturers, but the result of systematic mis-teaching for almost the whole of their school career.
During the coalition, the Liberal Democrats, and particularly Nick Clegg, prevented Michael Gove from introducing a parallel exam to GCSE that would have given these lower-attaining students some reasonable chance of success. Clegg’s insistence on GCSE or nothing was an act of gross incompetence that has left far too many students with the latter. This must change. The first section of next year’s examinations in English and maths should be a test of basic calculation and literacy skills that would give conscientious students a genuine certificate of competence, independently of the GCSE grade. We must not allow the Lib Dems’ dogma to leave hundreds of thousands of young people with no hope.