John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector and has written two books on the history of writing and spelling. He is a Vice-Chairman of the Conservative Education Society.
With the Party Conference just a few weeks away, this is a good time to assess the progress that we have made since 2010, alongside the setbacks that made education more prominent than usual in this year’s general election. I am taking the main goal of Conservative policy as the restoration of schools to their proper purpose of teaching and learning, alongside promotion of pupils’ personal development, which might be seen in terms of Mrs Thatcher’s fourth “R” – right and wrong, with an emphasis on doing what is right.
The most important development has been the replacement of Labour’s regime of fiddled school-based assessment with honest examinations, beginning with the phonics check for six year olds, and extending to GCSE (fully in place next year) and A level. It is hard to overstate the importance of this for all types of school.
I had six independent sources for dishonest procedures in school assessments in GCSE German alone this year, and a pupil taking English in an academy in the last year of the old system had all of his work rewritten by his teacher, leading to a completely fraudulent grade. The scandals at Eton and Winchester show that cheating will never be eliminated, but doing so in examinations is reckless. The suggestion that teachers should not be allowed to mark or set papers for the board they use themselves is a sensible precaution.
Next, we have a genuine breakthrough in the work of the best free schools, including Michaela and West London Free School, the latter achieving an above-average improvement in GCSE results this year. These schools have followed the example of ARK and the best Harris academies by shattering conventional expectations of pupils in inner cities, and showing that disrespect, poor behaviour, and failure are not the inevitable consequence of low income. They have given other schools in similar circumstances a strong incentive to improve their standards, a process that began with the effect of Mossbourne’s results on other schools in Hackney.
Third, we have had some progress in school curriculum and examination syllabuses, particularly in maths, computer science and modern languages, including the successful Mandarin Excellence Project. The limitation stems from allowing academies and free schools to ignore the National Curriculum, rather than allowing them to offer their pupils more, but not less, than its provisions. The failure to reverse Labour’s error of removing Ofsted’s responsibility to inspect subjects has made this situation worse, and has led to some serious abuse.
The downside begins with the handling of school funding before and during the campaign.
Two Conservative-supporting headteachers told me on the doorstep that their future budgets would not cover their current activities, and I got no reply when I tried to inform the Chairman’s office. There are still websites listing specific cuts in school budgets in Cambridgeshire and elsewhere, and this continues to do us damage, despite Justine Greening’s action to alleviate the issue. People will compare their own financial situation with whatever the government announces, and will believe their sums rather than government statements.
The same applies to student debt. Ministers may well say that the system is working, that more people from low-income families are going to university, and that graduates do better than non-graduates over the course of their working life. Projections based on past performance may or may not happen, while the debts are here and now, made worse by a patently unfair interest rate and an agency that pursues people with the zeal of a Labour council chasing a parking ticket.
One does not have to be an admirer of Nick Timothy to see that his Telegraph piece was right on the money, both in relation to the position of students and to the effect of loans that won’t be repaid on the national debt. If a person doesn’t earn enough to repay the loan, it’s hard to see what economic advantage there is to the degree. Any idea of increasing the fees should be dropped.
The flagship academies programme itself is having mixed success. The best are innovative and excellent, but the financial abuses and dubious performance of some others with high profiles, show that academies are not a complete solution to our problems. Bad as local authorities are, they do not have the option of simply walking out, as Wakefield City Academy Trust did last week. Some kind of mixed economy seems inevitable.
It’s impossible to say how many votes these issues cost us in June, but the TES estimate of as many as 750,000 on school funding, suggests a figure of well over a million in total. Jeremy Corbyn’s backtracking on loans will have lost him some of this support, but these young people still don’t see any good reasons to vote for us, particularly as they have high rents to pay as well.
The examination reforms have been effectively sustained by Ofqual’s pragmatism. We need a similar approach everywhere else.