John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector and has written two books on the history of writing and spelling. He is Chairman of the Conservative Education Society.
Haverhill Forum provides a regular meeting point for councillors in all branches of local government, in and around the town. The guest at last week’s meeting was local MP, Matt Hancock, speaking on his work as Health Secretary and taking questions, most of which were expressions of concern and complaint. Haverhill is under-provided with GPs, residents can’t get appointments when and where they need them, travel to appointments is increasingly difficult, there is duplication between surgery and hospitals over basic services such as blood tests, people can’t get through on the phone – or think they can’t – and modern equipment, such as untrasound, is only beginning to be introduced. Even the allocation of £25m for new ambulances was questioned, on the grounds that the preferred supplier, Fiat, might not be the most reliable.
Hancock was the model of patience. He had been tackling these problems as a constituency MP before his appointment, and was not arguing with anyone. The delays in getting ambulances to the must urgent cases had been reduced by a new classification system, but he also knew that it was quicker to find money for ambulances than to train ambulance crews.
There was a brighter note in his reply to my question (as Vice-chairman of Linton Parish Council) about a scheme of advanced apprenticeship training for nurses, based at Anglia Ruskin University and financed by Addenbrookes NHS Trust. Nurses attend the university on day release, with fees paid by the Trust, obtain registration, and are paid a little over £15000 pa for their work on the wards. Trainees taking the normal university route are not only hit with the full £9,000 fee, plus interest, but spend long periods doing essentially the same work in the hospital, for which they are not paid at all. No surprise, then, that nursing courses, even in top teaching hospitals, are undersubscribed. The people who removed bursaries from nursing training do not understand nursing.
Would not this scheme be an excellent model for training nurses nationally? Hancock did not disagree. He had developed it as Minister for Skills, and had fought hard to secure its acceptance by the Royal College of Nursing, which, he said, was now an enthusiastic supporter.
Equally positive was the Conservative Education Society’s meeting with Daisy Christodoulou, who has followed her brilliance as winning captain on University Challenge with a sparkling start to her work in education. This meeting was focused on tackling the problems of assessment in school, which have come to put a unreasonable workload on teachers, and covered many of the ideas in Christodoulou’s new book, “Making Good Progress?” (Oxford), which I recommend. A surprise was that one of the instigators of our current overloaded system, Professor Dylan Wiliam, wrote a foreword to this book, which challenges much of his work. Christodoulou’s crisp delivery let her cram a great deal into a 40 minute talk, including a system of assessment, used at Michaela School, which aims to improve reliability by having teachers compare series of paired examples of work, and decide which is better and why.
The system is marketed by a company with, what I see as, the unfortunate title “No More Marking”, and offers good opportunities for training sessions for teachers. The basic framework is free.
And then, over the weekend, an encounter with Labour’s new and organised left wing. Question Time, on Thursday, had struck me as a classic case of politicians deliberately failing to answer questions from the audience, and trying to make speeches instead, which Fiona Bruce, like Jeremy Paxman before her, did not allow. All of the panel were interrupted when they tried to do this, but Diane Abbott claimed that there was an element of racism in the way she was treated, which I couldn’t see on the broadcast, and saw as playing a race card to disguise poor performance.
Saying so on Twitter unleashed the dogs of war. One of our more celebrated opponents, who has a following of many thousands, decided my comment was itself racist, and drew it to the attention of his followers. I soon knew how Anna Soubry, and indeed Diane Abbott herself, must feel much of the time. The abuse, over a day or so, was straight from Lord of the Flies, clearly aimed at intimidation, and, if possible, destruction, of the person subjected to it. The instigator, who has been equally vicious to Diane Abbott over her decision to send a child to Westminster School, would probably have drawn the line at hacking my site and posting a pornographic picture on it – then boasting that he’d done so – but the clear aim of most of the torrent was utter destruction rather than argument. A reminder that the extremes of politics are very much alike on Left and Right, and a warning of what we can expect if Corbyn, McDonnell, and their nasty supporters ever get into power.