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.
The New Year started well, with OBEs for Jackie Hewitt-Main, about whose literacy work with offenders I wrote last month, and Katharine Carruthers, director of the DfE’s Mandarin Excellence project. Each has managed to cut through bureaucracy and dogma, and to change lives for the better. Amanda Spielman’s first annual report as chief inspector was similarly incisive, giving credit to good work – including basic skills work in further education – while pointing to serious weaknesses in the quality of apprenticeships – 48 per cent inadequate – and prison education. She had, no doubt, been asked to inspect this by Justine Greening.
The Ofsted report, Bold Beginnings, had also challenged the back-door leverage of progressive education in the early years, by pointing to the success of schools that combined play with focussed teaching. We have in Spielman something that we have lacked since Labour used the letter of the law to make Sir Mike Tomlinson retire in 2004 – a Chief Inspector who understands inspection.
And then Greening resigned rather than be moved – ie, was sacked. Ouch! She had been doing so well in those parts of her work that we could see, beginning to tackle unfair funding, encouraging fellow-Conservatives, and listening to what we said. She had been under threat following an attack by Nick Timothy on her plans for social mobility in the Daily Telegraph. He followed this by saying that she had blocked plans to review higher education and tuition fees. Jo Johnson, who was moved from his post as universities minister, said in a tweet that criticism of her was “so wrong” and that Greening had been entirely loyal – to him. Johnson had been writing articles suggesting that there had been nothing wrong with the system that could not be fixed by better quality control. He could not be more wrong himself. The combination of massive debt and high rents is leading too many young people to vote against us, even if this means voting for extremists like John McDonnell – of whom few will have heard. Perhaps “so wrong” did not mean “inaccurate”.
We have a mountain to climb, and are in a ditch. Greening was blamed for low public approval of our education policies, when in fact polls have been disastrous from the middle stages of the coalition – one in 2013 had parental approval of our policies as low as eight per cent. The scandal over abuses by a minority of academy chains, particularly the criminal investigation currently under way in Wakefield, is providing fodder for mainstream political cartoonists. Parents want their children to achieve well in school, and two-thirds would send their child to a grammar school if they passed the 11+. However, at the last election, they and their extended families reacted strongly against disguised cuts to school budgets, at a probable cost to us of over a million votes. Greening took an important step to mitigate this by diverting £1.3bn from the DfE’s resource to bolster school budgets. It was the first attempt to get out of the ditch.
Steve Mastin, Chairman of the Conservative Education Society, has shown us the next step in this article for Schools Week. The time teachers are wasting on paperwork and invented data is preventing them from working properly, and amounts to oppression. Exhortation, even from ministers, Ofsted and unions combined, has not worked. We need some statement of minimum rights for teachers, perhaps by way of a Department for Education circular or regulation that removes the right of heads to require teachers to submit planning except in disciplinary cases. It is nearly as damaging to have school management inspecting subjects they know nothing about – a languages teacher was recently criticised by one of these people for giving fourteen year olds work that they thought was too difficult, even though the pupils could clearly do it. This is management by ignorance, and needs to stop.
The Select Committee’s concerns about multiple academy trusts also need to be addressed. My 40-plus years’ experience of local authority education departments has led me to hold them in contempt – they cover their own back above all else, and have been dominated by progressive officials. Hackney was so corrupt in the late 1990s that it even Labour had to shut it down. But local authorities can’t just walk off the job in the way Wakefield has, taking public assets with them. Fat cat cases such as Perry Beeches, which had been praised to the skies at our party conference, are nearly as bad, and have led to a degree of hostility among teachers, whose pay has been frozen, that I’ve not experienced before. Academy chains as part of a mixed economy are a force for good, showing up the weaknesses in local authority provision and giving them an incentive to improve, as Mossbourne did in Hackney. As a series of unaccountable local monopolies they are bad, and should not be expanded further until current failings have been put right.
Finally, we face a huge test in this summer’s GCSE and A level examinations. These reforms were essential, as the coursework and school-based assessments they replaced had been corrupted over twenty years or so – in some cases, teachers wrote the assessment, often under coercion. However, one result of these wasted decades is that neither Ofqual nor the boards knows what would be a fair test for sixteen year-olds. Last year’s maths in particular was out of step with what candidates could do, with the result that the equivalent of Grade C was awarded for 15 per cent in one examining board. There are strong indications that similar problems will arise this year, particularly in modern languages but possibly in other subjects too. Ofqual needs to work closely with the examining boards to ensure that candidates are assessed fairly and transparently, and that it does not once again have to balance its books by lowering pass marks.