John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector and has written two books on the history of writing and spelling.
The Conservative Education Society reached a high point in its current revival with a meeting with Secretary of State, Justine Greening, last week at the House of Lords. Forty or so members attended, including councillors with education portfolios, headteachers, the occasional old-stager, and our talented young committee members. Chatham House rules do not prevent me from saying that Justine Greening gave detailed answers to each of our questions, and took notes. Tickets are available for the next meeting, on “Textbooks, why are they so dreadful and what can be done about it,”with Tim Oates of Cambridge Assessment, and Robert Peal, of West London Free School.
One obvious solution would be to follow the example of my colleague from the Teaching Schools Council working party on languages, Dr Rachel Hawkes, and of Ed Clarke, from the Conservative Education Society’s committee, and write better textbooks. Another would be for publishers to break their habit of following official guidance like lemmings, and employ writers who understand their subject well enough to explain it clearly to pupils, as the genuinely independent company, CGP, has managed to do.
In the meantime, both Justine Greening and the new chief inspector, Amanda Spielman, are using the time when education is away from centre stage to work on the big issues facing them. After last week’s posting, for example, I heard of a simple device used by a grammar school headteacher to ensure that all of his pupils meet all of their target grades at GCSE – staff are not allowed to submit any controlled assessment below the target. How they achieve this is not his concern.
The clarity of the head’s thinking is admirable – he has made it impossible for anyone to fail. A young teacher from another school told me last week that he had been encouraged to ignore time limits on controlled assessments, and to leave, accidentally on purpose, material on the board or on displays for pupils to copy. No-one, it seems, has the means to detect such practices, and I was saddened to hear, also last week, that one of the best heads of department in the country has had their worst results in ten years because so many people are cheating, and they are not. The challenge for Ms Spielman is to ensure that any grading of good or better in an Ofsted report is, from now on, based on reliable evidence and not fraud.
Justine Greening’s problem is more complex. Theresa May wants grammar schools, as a vehicle for social mobility. At present, because of the predominance of private coaching in aspects of the 11+ that are not taught in the state sector – eg, how to do IQ tests – they are not. At the same time, in many schools in areas where they have been eliminated, the grammar school’s emphasis on enabling the most able pupils to reach the highest possible academic standards has been deliberately abandoned. The London headteacher who told the Westminster forum that he wanted mixed ability teaching, because he did not want to give pupils the message that all that mattered was their attainment, spoke for many others. I had further evidence of this in discussions in a Cambridge college last week, where I was told that they were finding it difficult to meet their target of admitting 64% of pupils from state schools because they could not find candidates with A levels in languages.
A revival of grammar schools, even on a modest basis, therefore needs to hit several targets at once. Among the first should be sixth forms. Secondary schools fight tooth and nail to keep them as a symbol of prestige, but too few are able to provide an academic curriculum of high quality across the full range of subjects. Sixth forms in schools with weak academic records should be replaced by sixth form colleges at the fastest possible rate. It seems likely, and sensible, that any new grammar schools will be placed in areas that have low academic standards. Managing entry to these in the initial stages will be difficult – for example, do you start a new school with 11 year old pupils only and build it up, or do you admit older pupils who would otherwise be languishing in inadequate schools? The use of technology to enable pupils in other schools to take part in lessons in subjects that attract too few students to make a viable class should also be developed – programmes such as Webex allow classes of older pupils to be taught over the internet. This technology should be used in other areas, such as primary languages and advanced maths for younger pupils.
I attended a brilliantly successful German conference at Cambridge last week, in which undergraduates from other universities joined those from Cambridge in presenting academic papers of a very high standard, using modern media to communicate clearly and with a degree of confidence that few of my generation could have matched. The German department had opened the university to students from other universities in the UK and Ireland, extending opportunity and projecting its own values and standards. If new grammar schools are to work, and to gain wider acceptance, they need to do this too.