John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector and has written two books on the history of writing and spelling.
Justine Greening’s remodelling of the DfE’s budget to tackle the crisis in school funding is one of the most important consequences of the election. The issue crept up on us, but its extent is now understood. The Survation poll, published in The Times Educational Supplement suggested that as many as 750,000 votes may have been swayed by the issue, which had come to be seen as a real one rather than Labour whining. These votes came overwhelmingly from children’s families rather than our traditional opponents.
The problem stemmed from the national introduction of academies and free schools within a contracting budget, which was achieved by wholesale reorientation of the resources of the DfE towards this goal, often to the detriment of other areas.
For example, most people working on curriculum and examination reform did so voluntarily, while academisation consultants were paid exceptionally high fees. Inspection, the system’s only quality control, was cut by £45m, on top of Labour’s earlier cut of £55m, with further cuts to come. Ofsted’s budget for the current year is £145m, which is little more than one-tenth of one percent of the spending it is charged with monitoring.
The effect of this policy, and particularly of Labour’s cuts, has been to replace inspection with micro-management, excessive paperwork, and dodgy data, leading to the state of affairs described by Amanda Spielman in her talk to the Wellington Festival last month.
Cutting teachers’ excessive workload was the focus of a Conservative Education Society meeting two weeks ago, addressed by Hywel Jones, headteacher of West London Free School, and followed by a confidential report to the Secretary of State. Meetings run on Chatham House rules, but it can be said that this one was pretty frank and hard-hitting, with clear agreement on the need to stop wasting teachers’ time. Alongside poor enforcement of discipline, pointless paperwork, excessively detailed planning, and over-marking are driving teachers to distraction and burnout, and need to be addressed. Justine Greening might consider making teachers’ workload an issue for inspection.
Teresa Tinsley’s report to a packed meeting of the All-party parliamentary group for languages read like a damage report from the Titanic. The key problem is at A-level, where the free-fall in numbers taking the main European languages has become a threat to the supply of teachers and professional linguists. The introduction of Ebacc has steadied GCSE entries at just under half of the intake, but time for languages in the early years of secondary school continues to be cut, and an increasing number of schools are offering only two years of language teaching before allowing pupils to drop the subject. This does not allow them to make an informed choice, particularly as too many schools impose mixed ability on language teachers, whether they want it or not. Roughly half of state schools now offer no German, but the worst situation is in Wales, where the much-resented compulsory study of Welsh has come close to eliminating language study at A level.
Does it matter?
There are plenty of people who think it doesn’t, including most headteachers, who have generally had a bad experience of learning French at school, and see languages as a nuisance. A Cambridge university lecturer at the meeting took a different view – “I don’t want only to be teaching students from private schools.” After several years without a languages leader, Ofsted has appointed John Daniell, HMI, to the post. He did not demur from my suggestion that far more inspection of languages is needed, and I agree with his point that the national survey of provision for languages, which has not taken place since 2011, should be revived.