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.
This year’s examination results were the third milestone on the long road of reclaiming education from the errors of Labour and the progressives. New examinations, including questions to challenge the most able candidates, have been carried through without prejudice to the others. The incessant grind of coursework, tainted by cheating and gaming, has gone, and with it, for most, the non-qualification of AS, saving public expense and needless stress for a generation of sixth formers and their teachers. For the record, the other two milestones were the first examination results from Sir Michael Wilshaw’s Mossbourne, and the day Katharine Birbalsingh stood up and told the truth at the Conservative Conference in 2010.
Using statistical methods to maintain pass rates is not normally a good idea, as it can sustain poor teaching methods, but it was essential to protect candidates under the new system. Neither should the slight increase in top grades be a worry, as teachers began to raise their game to target them. The high A-level pass rate – 90 per cent overall, and 99 per cent for some subjects – was sustained, but grades C and above were a little tighter. This again strikes a balance between fairness to candidates and restoring rigour to higher grades. Ofqual has done well, and now needs to be equally diligent in its review of the first round of examination papers, some of which had serious design flaws. Teachers should be encouraged to accept its invitation to take part.
There was equally good news for Barry Smith, whose headship at Great Yarmouth Charter Academy has become a cause célèbre. His work in restoring basic safety and a good working atmosphere has led to a virtual doubling of the school’s success rate at GCSE, not least in French, which he took over himself. Smith has had some unbalanced press coverage over the year, including independent journalism that has focused on the needs of excluded pupils while ignoring the benefits to the majority who have welcomed the opportunity to go to school and learn in peace. Great Yarmouth is now a happier school, as well as a more successful one.
Finally, anyone who thinks I may have overdone my praise of Birbalsingh would do well to read this entry on her To Miss with Love site. The posting concerns “Sweet Boy”, a young man with a pleasant smile and previously uncontainable behaviour, whose mother brings him to Michaela School as a last chance. His smile is infectious, and he manages to work hard and behave himself for two terms or so before deciding that he is going to break a school rule and refuse to hand over his mobile phone. He’s not unpleasant about it, and neither is Ms Birbalsingh, who informs him that she will only accept his phone when he wants to give it to her, and that in the meantime he is suspended. He can’t smile his way out, and in the end, he doesn’t try to, but hands over the phone, with a large amount of voluntary homework. Sweet Boy, they agree, is going to make it.