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.
Our opponents have the benefit of certainty in their beliefs. Professor Becky Francis, director of the London Institute of Education, for example, believes that grouping children according to their learning needs and abilities (setting) is “symbolically violent…pernicious…incompatible with social justice… contra-evidential…doxa.” The OED tells me that the last word is a popular conception unsupported by evidence, which is a pretty good description of Professor Francis’ own position. The latest study of setting and mixed ability in the UK, published as long ago as 1999, found that setting did indeed bring benefits in maths and English, though not, in that sample on science. The effects of grouping on performance have not been investigated since.
Professor Francis has been appointed to lead a research group on the issue by the Education Endowment Foundation, the foundation of which was the biggest educational error of the Coalition. Having rooted out the quangos that had inserted Labour policies into the mainstream of education, we set up another one, with £100m of funding, put a former Labour strategy director in charge of it, and a former Labour SPAD in charge of communication. The foundation has duly recycled the outdated research on setting – key issue, all of it predates Mossbourne – and appointed the splendidly impartial Professor Francis to investigate the issue. I do not trust a word the Educational Endowment Foundation says without checking the evidence behind it, and strongly recommend others to do likewise. I would certainly not give it any more public money.
Mossbourne, and the free schools and academies that have extended its vision of hard work and good behaviour, use setting extensively to ensure that work is matched to children’s needs. The results, in terms of improved examination performance and Ofsted evaluations, have spurred our opponents to new heights of ingenuity. The approach works in London, they tell us, because parents are “aspirational” and have not been ground down by years of oppression like those in the forgotten areas of the North and southern coastal towns.
Enter Mr Barry Smith, newly appointed headteacher of Great Yarmouth Charter Academy, about whose French teaching I wrote following my visit to Michaela School in London, where he was deputy to Katharine Birbalsingh. Mr Smith does not mince words, and his regime produced such a ferocious and sustained response from a group of parents that Amanda Spielman, quite rightly, ordered an unannounced inspection to see how behaviour was dealt with.
The report can be downloaded here, but the extent of the challenge faced by Mr Smith and his colleagues, and the breathtaking transformation they have achieved, are illustrated in these two paragraphs:
“A large number of pupils told inspectors that, prior to the introduction of the school’s revised behaviour policy at the beginning of the current academic year, they often felt unsafe at school. They described ‘dangerous’ behaviour in corridors and during breaks from lessons, including regular fights, and said that abusive language was very common. Pupils explained that, very often, serious disruption during lessons prevented them from learning anything at all. Some said that in the past, they had ‘dreaded’, and in consequence sometimes avoided, coming to school because of these fears. Teachers and other staff told inspectors that they often found it difficult to teach because behaviour was so poor, that they were frequently the target of verbal, and occasionally of physical abuse, and that at times they too felt unsafe.
“During this unannounced inspection, all of the large number of pupils who spoke with inspectors said that they now feel safe at school. Pupils moved around the school site in an orderly manner and behaved very politely and respectfully to their peers and to adults. They wore their uniform with pride, arrived at lessons promptly, and settled down to learning quickly. In all lessons visited, learning took place in a calm and orderly environment. Relationships between pupils and teachers were positive, and consequently pupils had the confidence to ask and to answer questions. Pupils behaved well, both when interacting with their teachers and when working on their own. As a result, they worked hard, completing tasks in a focused manner. During break periods, pupils socialised with each other amicably.”
Given the despair often expressed at improving education in these circumstances, this improvement ranks as one of the most important educational achievements in modern times. It is based on Conservative values and the Conservative innovation of academy chains, whatever the snags that have been encountered in their introduction. Lord Agnew and Dame Rachel De Souza, founder and CEO of the Inspiration Academies Trust, deserve full credit for making it possible. For even more good news, read this stunning Ofsted report on Harris Battersea Academy, where Dr David Moody’s brilliant leadership is now reflected in transformed examination results.