John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector. He has written two books on the history of writing and spelling. He is a Vice-Chairman of the Conservative Education Society.
The title of Barnaby Lenon’s book, Other People’s Children, is well chosen. Almost everyone involved in education has a degree, and so is not in what Mr Lenon calls “the bottom fifty per cent”. Like him, we do not walk in their shoes, and he came to this area of education when members of his family had educational paths that were not straightforward.
Most people realise that the education of these lower-attaining pupils is not good enough, and parts of the Newsam Report, “Half our Future”, commissioned by the Conservative Lord Eccles, and published in 1963, reflect the school experience of some of my recent pupils. Take this, from paragraph 47:
“Too many at present seem to sit through lessons with information and exhortation washing over them and leaving very little deposit. Too many appear to be bored and apathetic in school, as some will be in their jobs also. Others are openly impatient. They ‘don’t see the point’ of what they are asked to do, they are conscious of making little progress…A headmaster acknowledges, ‘There are far too many of our slow and average children who long ago reached saturation point doing tedious and hateful work year after year’.”
Particularly “tedious and hateful” was Labour’s incessant coursework grind, which wore five of my pupils out. Two needed clinical intervention, and the others were only kept from this by exceptional support and guidance from their parents.
Lenon’s first chapter describes the origin of the problem in simple terms – children start primary school “without the basic skills they need to cope – they cannot speak well, they have little understanding of reading and numbers, they cannot manage simple tasks or respond to instructions.” These characteristics are more common among pupils receiving free school meals, and among boys.
And yet the principle of primary education, since Lord Eccles’ Plowden Report, has been to place all children in mixed-ability classes, expecting teachers to cope with this huge range of starting points and ensure good progress for everyone. It has not worked, and I saw the beginnings of a more successful approach recently in the Basildon Excellence project, where teachers used flexible grouping – not formal setting – to match teaching more closely to learning needs, and supported it with carefully-designed activities to help parents to work constructively with their children.
The gap gets wider as children move through school, and Lenon points out that, even when academically effective schools improve the standards reached by his target group, the gap remains the same. They “raise the bar”, but do not close the gap. Or, at least, have not yet done so on statistical evidence – the impact of the best schools identified by Boris Johnson as Mayor of London was exceptional, as was the progress I saw on my visit to Michaela School in Brent. By the time children move to secondary school, and literacy demands increase, the gap widens further – those with good literacy skills make accelerated progress, while those without them slow down. Again, this is not a discovery – Jeanne Chall’s The Reading Crisis: Why Poor Children Fall Behind described it very clearly in 1989.
So, the children leave school at 16, usually with a handful of GCSEs at low grades, the threshold being set at such a ridiculously low level that it is almost impossible to have no grade at all – we recall the examiner who wished to award two out of five to a student telling him to F. off, one no doubt, for the correct use of the capital letter. Further Education is the destination of most, and Lenon picks out Croydon College as doing an “excellent” job for a wide range of students. Ofsted does not go quite that far, but its sensitive and well-written report recognises a good standard of professional work in difficult circumstances.
The Further Education sector sees itself, with good reason, as education’s Cinderella. It is funded at a lower level than schools, and yet is expected to put right much that has gone wrong, including entering students en masse for GCSE resit and teaching a high proportion of students who have learning difficulties. It is, as Lenon points out, important to motivate these students, and Croydon clearly succeeds, Ofsted noting exemplary behaviour. What it can’t do is wave a magic wand and turn eleven years of failure into instant success – Ofsted tells it to do more to raise students’ pass rates.
A strength of this book is the sheer range of information and evidence it offers on provision at each stage, but it also raises issues without fully resolving them. The biggest is that of “parity of esteem” for “vocational” – now sensibly renamed “technical” – qualifications. Labour tried to achieve this by giving fake GCSE equivalences to undemanding courses, up to four per subject, and having their education guru, the late Professor Ted Wragg, accuse anyone who questioned this of snobbery. There is still fakery at GCSE level through less demanding BTEC courses and the European IT passport, which should not count towards Progress 8.
Genuine attempts to provide better technical education, Studio Schools and University Technology Colleges, have struggled to recruit, and 16 out of 50 Studio Schools have closed. Mr Lenon sees the same fate awaiting T Levels, but there is reason to believe he may be mistaken. They probably won’t appeal to Oxbridge candidates, but may be a good choice for people aiming at middle grades. Germany takes a much more realistic view of this issue. The top of the tree is the Abitur, whose standard is probably higher than our A level, and which can only be taken via a selective Gymnasium. Their technical qualifications are valued because they give entry to one of hundreds of state-controlled trades – “Ausbildungsberufe” – and a good job.
The alternative is a menial job on the minimum wage, and regular sacking every six months to avoid triggering employment rights. Labour’s goal of equality at all costs should be replaced by one of equity, offering something worthwhile to everyone.
Footnote. I was grateful for Robert Halfon MP’s kind words in response to my last posting, and apologise for misreading the entry on Professor Becky Francis’s website. It clearly lists her as a former, not current, adviser to the Select Committee. I concede nothing else. By failing to give due weight to the behaviour that leads to exclusion, and its devastating effects on education and the victims of bullying, the Committee produced an unbalanced report that implied that schools were not doing their duty. It does not require the use of a knife to break a child’s finger, to assault a teacher, or to cause serious psychological damage. My pupils – from Cambridgeshire – are suffering unreasonably in school, and I will continue to stand up for their right to go to school and learn in peace.