John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector and has written two books on the teaching of reading and spelling.
Theresa May’s approach to her new job struck an immediate chord with me and, clearly, also with my MP, Lucy Frazer, who delivered this cracking speech at the Party Conference, beginning at 21.13 in the broadcast . Having seen systematic mis-teaching of pupils across the ability range over almost half a century, combined with the die-hard attitudes of the self-styled progressives I can see how she and her team want grammar schools to be part of the mix, and how allowing existing academies and free schools to convert to grammar schools could provide a quick way of expanding the sector at little or no cost.
There remains the matter of Commons votes, and the power of Lib Dems in the Lords to impose a year’s delay under the Parliament Act, the use of which is self-evident. In the meantime, as selection will not work for everyone, here are some steps that can be taken immediately to improve provision for the whole population.
First, the coalition’s policy of running down sixth-form colleges needs to be reversed. Sixth form colleges, including that attended by Justine Greening, are the nearest thing the comprehensive system has to a grammar school sixth form. Almost all insist on entry qualifications, and they have the catchment area and academic capacity to offer a full range of A level subjects with viable groups.
Most comprehensive sixth forms can’t do this, because their pool of pupils is too small, and because they place little or no value on academic ability among their teachers, so that there is no clear career path for those with higher academic skills. Sixth form colleges are unpopular with progressives, who see them, quite rightly, as replacing the 11+ with selection at 16. The additional five years allows scope for late-developing pupils, and would allow the grammar school ethos to be extended immediately, without legislation.
Next, the damage done by mixed-ability teaching in the primary and secondary sectors needs to be more clearly identified, and reversed. Ofsted should be instructed to report specifically on provision for the highest-attaining in all schools, based on direct observation to see where they are marking time because of the excessive demands on teachers’ attention from pupils who in some cases can barely read. Inspectors should also be required to assess the reading and numeracy skills of pupils entering secondary schools, and to assess their progress, particularly in their first year. The relationship between mixed ability and progress towards the highest grades should be investigated using available data – the civil service could do this quickly.
Those who suffer most from mixed ability teaching are, however, at the bottom of the heap rather than the top. The award-winning progressive English teacher, Phil Beadle, has admitted on television that pupils who entered his class with a reading problem left with one, and this is not acceptable. A child who can’t read can’t do the rest of their work, and many of the behaviour problems among white working-class boys stem from this fact.
As an inspector, I set off a volcano in a school in the Midlands by giving fourteen year-old pupils who couldn’t read, but who were not being taught to read, the same reading test that the school had used to decide they no longer needed help. The fact that the test showed reading ages of seven or eight was less important to the school than my use of their own test to show up their failings and indifference.
My report was upheld, but I have sympathy for the lead inspector who had, albeit reluctantly, to weather the storm. Ofsted inspectors should hear secondary children read, and hammer the school if they can’t and the school is doing nothing about it. A very experienced HMI told me on my second or third inspection that “very few people deserve hammer.” She was right, but people who ignore reading difficulties in secondary school are among that group.
Next, Ofsted’s practice of blaming teachers for misbehaviour over which they have no control, and the penalties imposed on schools that exclude pupils, almost always for impossible behaviour, need to be reviewed. Almost all schools now operate a system of internal exclusion for pupils who prevent others from learning – sometimes known as “nurture groups” – and I know of none that willingly put up with it.
A well-known Catholic headteacher in the East End would exclude such pupils without compunction, knowing that he had the support of the diocese in doing so. He advised the head of a local comprehensive to do the same, taking no account of the fact that his colleague’s hands were tied by the “inclusive” policy of the local authority.
Ofsted should be asked to report specifically on pupils’ behaviour and attitudes, and the effectiveness of the school’s policy to improve them. This should not be combined with health and safety. Inspectors should reinstate the questionnaire for pupils on behaviour in their school, so that they are no longer presented with a cleaned-up picture during their visits. Ofsted should also encourage parents to complain about behaviour on a confidential basis, without requiring them to go through the school’s processes first, a practice that exposes them and their children to victimisation.
One school I inspected had weeded parents’ questionnaires for negative comments. They should be returned in standard, sealed envelopes. Schools that do not use same-day detention should have this noted on their report if behaviour is less than excellent.
Finally, the important changes introduced by the Conservative ministers Michael Gove, Elizabeth Truss (maths) and Nick Gibb, need to be carried through and developed further. They include improvements in reading teaching, the reforms to the school curriculum and examinations, and reversing the mis-training of teachers by the progressive octopus in university departments of education, almost all of whose work is based on the combination of mixed ability teaching and tolerance of poor behaviour that is at the heart of most of our problems.