John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector and has written two books on the history of writing and spelling.
This article on Conservative education policy is the first of two, and will focus on our achievements to date, and the Manifesto. Next week’s article will describe some of the practical problems schools, teachers and parents have to deal with, and steps Conservative ministers might consider in tackling them.
In 2010, Katharine Birbalsingh stood up and told the truth at our Conference. She was sacked. Seven years on, Katharine is head of Michaela Free School. It has clear priorities for learning and behaviour, and far higher standards than those prevailing in Labour’s secondary modern comprehensives. Parents and the public are welcome to visit to see for themselves.
We have seen similar sea-changes in Sir Michael Wilshaw’s Mossbourne, in the best primary schools, and in the small number of comprehensive schools whose headteachers have had the confidence to stand up to the pressures imposed on them by local authorities.
Passmores School in Harlow, site of the first of Channel 4’s “Educating” series, is now an Academy, with a new site, and free of the authoritarian, ideological influence that I experienced from Essex County Council’s Education Department.
Before the first wave of Conservative education reforms, in the late eighties, some Essex schools had as few as five per cent of pupils leaving with five or more C grades at GCSE. At worst, and in a school an inspector recommended as an example of good work, teachers could not even keep pupils in the classroom. HMI reports on Brent and Ken Livingstone’s Inner London Education Authority painted a similar picture of profligate spending, poor behaviour, and minimal achievement. Lives were being wrecked every day.
I’m currently teaching several pupils who have suffered from the fake qualifications and fraudulent examination systems established once New Labour got into its stride. Ed Balls abolished the Education Department to reflect his view that education was merely an element in the goal of moulding society. As a result of his folly, and that of Labour’s ill-informed “strategies”, I currently have to teach the 2x table to teenagers about to sit GCSE – and, in one case, to a young man who has already failed it twice. Our manifesto is absolutely right in insisting that all pupils should know their times tables off by heart by 11 – if they don’t, some of the simplest operations in other areas of maths take a huge effort.
Since 2010, Conservative Ministers, beginning with Michael Gove, with important contributions from Nick Gibb (especially, but not exclusively, on phonics) and Elizabeth Truss (maths, during her brief tenure) have restored education to its proper purpose. Faked coursework, rewritten by teachers and presented as “controlled assessment,” finishes this year, and the expensive, non-qualification of AS level, is now optional.
There is more to do on the design of tests and examinations, but these reforms will relieve teachers of pointless work and of threats to their integrity. Justine Greening has joined nearly every educational organisation in the country to produce excellent guidelines in this area.
The Manifesto’s proposals for education begin on page 48, and contain some pretty straight talking, beginning with the statement that, “For too many children, a good school remains out of reach.” I’ll discuss this next week, as a good school is not just one with a good inspection report, but one that is actually meeting the needs of its pupils. I quoted in an earlier article the headteacher of a large London comprehensive who told the Westminster Forum that he maintained mixed ability teaching because he did not want to tell pupils that all that mattered was their attainment. He and his colleagues are no different in their thinking from the Bennite Dick Copland, who “cut out” the grammar school founded by miners in Ryhope, near Sunderland.
This school, Robert Richardson, is the clearest example of a grammar school as a vehicle for social mobility that we have. One of its former pupils, Sir Thomas Allen, who has described his childhood as “something out of a Catherine Cookson novel”, is now Chancellor of Durham University.
The issue requires careful handling, and flexible entry must mean more than the 13+, but the Manifesto makes it clear that bright children from working families can close the attainment gap more easily in grammar schools than in comprehensives.
The proposals for technical education, including the new T Levels, are almost as tricky. Labour endowed its vocational courses with GCSE equivalents – 4 for each subject – that were transparently dishonest. T levels, with the participation from employers and FE colleges, are in a better position to succeed, particularly if those taking them can see clear paths to careers as well as just employment.
Finally, I like the idea of free breakfasts for primary children. It will take pressure off working parents in the morning, improve punctuality, and ensure that children don’t start the day on an empty stomach. Getting to school early could even make more time for reading. As a teacher, I would never call the register. My pupils would come in, sit down and read, and I marked them present as I saw them. It made an enjoyable start to the day.