John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector and has written two books on the history of writing and spelling.
First, some very good news. The Government’s Mandarin Excellence Project appears to be working. It is certainly working at Ingatestone Anglo-European school, four of whose pupils, with their teacher, Miriam Williams, presented their work at the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Languages. After just one term, these 11-year-olds had all written five or six lines of sentences about themselves, their families and interests, and read them to the group in fluent and accurate Chinese.
The teaching approach – essentially, teaching the spoken and written language together, and practising – was almost exactly the same as that put forward by the Teaching Schools Council at the group’s previous meeting. An 11-year-old neighbour has been learning Spanish for a term, and could not begin to do what these pupils could do, even though she is learning a language with a regular pronunciation system and alphabetic script – in Mandarin, fluent writing depends on making the strokes of each character in the correct order, and fluent speech on producing, in real time, the correct tone for each voice sound.
For cross-bench peer, Baroness Coussins, who has sustained this group despite a marked lack of support from some members who never turn up, this presentation was a triumph. For Mandarin teachers, much of whose work has been wasted through lack of support from senior management in schools, it was a vindication. For Nick Gibb and all of us who have been trying to bring about a reform of language teaching after 50 years of systematic misguidance from progressives, it was a vindication. If this can be done in Mandarin, it can, and must, be done in other languages, and the knowledge-based curriculum that it exemplifies must be used in other subjects.
George Osborne’s proposals for education, as part of the Northern Powerhouse, are contained in a report he commissioned with Nicky Morgan as education secretary, published in December. The author, Sir Nick Weller, CEO of Dixons Academies, offers a wide-ranging analysis of the relative underperformance of Northern Schools, and his full recommendations are well worth reading. Alongside improved teaching and leadership, he wants schools to adopt “an academic curriculum and high status qualifications”.
This is the essence of the Mandarin project, and a key element in the lower examination results in northern comprehensive schools. Put simply, they and the academies are trying to do different things. The head in Educating Yorkshire, for example, responded to a suggestion that he might be paying too much attention to his pupils’ social development by saying that he wanted to do even more. As the worst cases he had to deal with are a visit to the lower depths – a boy watching his half-brother die after choking on his own vomit – his view is understandable, but it is also wrong.
For example, he expected staff to put up with abuse from pupils until complaints from other pupils’ parents forced him to take action, and he expected pupils to put up with bullying without retaliation. When one did retaliate, he was suspended and the bully was not. The price of this type of “inclusion” is paid by the main body of pupils in the school, and it is too high. As I said in a recent posting, it is not inclusion at all, but institutionalised disruption.
The ideas behind Educating Yorkshire are deeply rooted in the comprehensive system, and a major cause of its failure. John Paul Flintoff’s “Comp” – the underside of Holland Park School in the eighties and nineties, shows that much of London was until recently no better. Removing such attitudes takes a long time, and progress has been hampered by the long process of removing gaming and corruption from the examination system. Closely linked to this, and equally urgent, is the reform of Ofsted. If data are faked and gamed, it follows that an inspection based on the data cannot be reliable. We therefore need more attention to what is actually going on in a school, and an end to so-called “limiting judgements” that effectively give priority to data over what is actually happening.
A recent report on the Lord Derby Academy in Knowsley, for example, judged leadership and management as “requiring improvement”, even though they have established a strong pattern of improvement since the school was opened in February, 2014. Leaders are criticised for “basing their evaluation on how far the school has come, rather than on national benchmarks. ” This might have been fair if the school, like Mossbourne, had had a fresh start. It did not, and pupils taking GCSE last year had only had two years in the school, having spent the first three years of secondary education in a school rated “inadequate”.
The judgement on teaching is also less than transparent – the report does not detail the lessons that were seen, or how many. It uses the fudge “variable” to avoid saying whether most lessons are good or not, and even criticises the teaching for not allowing pupils to make “sufficient progress over time,” when the inspectors do not have evidence on which to base such a judgement. Small wonder that teachers in difficult schools do not respect inspection – there is no reason why they should.
One insight into Lord Derby’s values is the report on its website that eight pupils have been accepted into Mensa, the high IQ society. Most comprehensive headteachers would be shot before they allowed that organisation across their threshold.