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.
Behind most of our disputes with self-styled “progressive” educators are deep and bitter divisions over the purposes of education and its effects. They have their roots in the earliest days of civilisation, in a famous letter from an Egyptian scribe to his son, urging him to work hard at his writing in order to avoid unpleasant manual work, gain royal favour and swan about, “inspecting”.
Near the bone for me and my fellow-inspectors, but I heartily recommend reading this document, both because it is interesting, and to understand our opponents’ case. The high standards and literacy that we see as the goal of education are to them a simple route to exploiting the less capable and less literate while we live in luxury. All that has changed is the expansion of the literate from a tiny minority into the much larger group that they sneeringly term “the middle class.”
This conflict pervades education at every stage. The phonics screening test for six year olds, that we see as ensuring the basis of literacy, is to Michael Rosen a way of telling children that they’re not good enough, and have failed. To us, the new screening test for multiplication tables ensures a proper foundation for large areas of mathematics, identifying those who need further teaching, and exposing schools that neglect tables. To the progressives, it is oppression of those who need the teaching, and of the teachers who have made a professional decision to focus on other things. Social mobility only exacerbates the inherent inequality. A person born in slavery is born for slavery (Rousseau). Substitute “poverty” for “slavery” and you have modern British society. As I write, I notice a headline in the Daily Mail linking illiteracy to much lower life expectancy. For Conservatives, a spur to even greater efforts to eradicate illiteracy. For progressives, more evidence linking literacy to privilege. They simply don’t believe in it.
Wherever progressives have had, or still have, control, we have failure masquerading as equality. In examinations, where they had control until the abolition of school-based assessment this year, we had failure masked by fraud and fake certification. The keystone of progressivism in British education is not comprehensive schools, but mixed ability teaching within them. They have not succeeded in imposing it in maths, despite their best efforts, because most teachers found it impossible. Most schools now teach science in groups matched by ability too, but the progressives have had more success imposing their views in English and in modern languages, particularly in the early years of secondary school.
Results at 16 in both of these subjects begin to tell a story. Whereas in maths, 34 per cent of candidates had A or A* last year, in English and languages, the figures were 24 and 23 per cent respectively, and top grades in languages left many pupils well short of the standard required for A level. Progressives, including some leading national figures and the associations they dominate, put the blame on Michael Gove for insisting on tougher exams. The truth is that they have wasted children’s time for the first three years of secondary school, and then haven’t been able to catch up. The issue has been debated extensively on social media, where teachers of setted groups report that their top sets of 14-year-olds understand and use the grammar, including verb tenses, of their new language confidently, while those with mixed ability groups report that they avoid grammar because their less able pupils won’t understand it.
This is disastrous for German, whose grammar requires long and hard study even for children in German schools. German is, therefore, dying out in state schools, a development that is not in the national interest, and the situation for other languages is not much better. Mixed ability teaching, a hidden factor in Sir Michael Wilshaw’s “wasted years”, has come very close to killing language learning completely. It needs intensive care. The good news is that when it gets it, as in the Mandarin Excellence Project, it can revive quickly – pupils after one year of intensive teaching are already reaching standards consistent with genuinely good grades at GCSE, and set to outstrip current A level by the time they are sixteen.
I said that examination results “begin” to tell a story, because examinations themselves are a big part of the problem. Errors in teaching, more often the fault of progressive policies rather than teachers themselves, have left pupils unable to understand the most simple ideas in the new language. In French, some are thrown by the formal pronoun “vous”, and in German, some have not even heard of the case system that ties the language together. These pupils need a gentle slope to recovery, and Ofqual’s new exams have gone so far in the opposite direction that many are simply giving up, writing off their chances at GCSE to concentrate on other subjects and abandoning A level. There is a real chance that A level will die out in comprehensive schools in September, leaving only grammar schools and sixth form colleges as opportunities to learn a language in depth.
This is, for me, personal – today’s young people do not have the same chance I had to study languages in school, and up with that I will not put. In the meantime, I have also just noticed an advert on Facebook offering three sets of brand new copies of the best German textbook at half price. There is only one explanation – yet another school has given up teaching German.