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.
To the Royal College of Music, for a masterclass by opera star Sir Thomas Allen. Three hours of teaching, closely matched to the highly varied requirements of five young singers, moving from intense concentration to hilarity as appropriate, and enhanced by his own singing, technique and stagecraft, beginning when he entered to thunderous applause and looked around him as if startled. Eric Morcombe could not have done it better. Sir Tom goes for subtlety, sound and phrasing based on deep understanding of the text and how its meaning is brought out and enhanced by the music. He spoke of living with texts for long periods before performing them and went into the smallest detail of pronunciation, such as whether or not to pronounce a final consonant to maintain a line, as if playing it on a cello. A Soft Day, sung here by Sharon Carty, shows the goal and the difficulty, for example, near the end, in a tiny diminuendo of four repeated words, from a very soft start.
And so to Party Conference, sitting beside the brilliant Clare Wagner, head of West London Free School, which has over twice the national average of level 7+ (A or A*) grades at GCSE, and is sending sixth formers to places like Jesus College, Cambridge, and the French Grandes Ecoles. The occasion was a joint panel of the Conservative Education Society and the National Education Union. Each side politely attempted to persuade the other of the error of its ways, while making the most of common ground, of which there is more than might be thought. We could agree, as do Ministers, that the financial squeeze on school budgets, and the cut in further education funding, need to be tackled, and that special, or additional, educational needs require a review, which Gavin Williamson had already announced.
Behind the good manners were deep-seated divisions over the purposes of education. I’ll discuss these in detail next week in the context of the coming election, but a big indicator was the way the brilliant results of Michaela and the West London Free School did not sit easily with the NEU leadership.
Some remarked, fairly enough, that Clare Wagner and Katharine Birbalsingh are exceptional leaders, and that you can’t build a system on the exceptional, but this does not take account of the effect of their approach in other schools, notably the best of the Ark and Harris chains, which are also posting record results.
NEU President Amanda Martin said that we should study the strengths of the successful schools and learn from them, but our conversation was cut short when she was called away to other duties. So I’ll set out the key points here. First, pupils know that any form of disruption brings an immediate detention, so there is little misbehaviour after the first couple of weeks of pupils joining. Next, pupils are grouped in core subjects and languages according to their abilities and learning needs, with teaching of high quality for all pupils, and not just the top sets. Finally, all pupils are expected to do their best at all times. They learn to buy into the system, not just to conform to the rules, and understand the Michaela principle – “Work hard, be kind.” Getting rid of the dogmatic commitment to mixed ability teaching is a key issue. It hits the least able and most disadvantaged children harder even than the gifted, as they have the fewest resources to counter its weaknesses. These are the lessons of our successful schools, though I doubt the NEU is about to learn them.
At our earlier joint session, they had argued for the abolition of all national testing, beginning with the check on phonic knowledge for six year olds, though some seemed surprised to hear that phonics as an introductory teaching method had been endorsed both by a group of professors led by Anne Castles and by the leading European neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene, despite the strong grammatical element in spelling in his native French. (A typical French text has four times as many silent letters as English, almost all at the ends of words.)
This is not to minimise continuing problems. The destruction of Ofsted by Sir David Bell and his Labour masters in 2005, when they moved to data as the basis of inspection, is just beginning to be tackled by Amanda Spielman and her senior colleagues, and in the meantime teachers are still subject to observation by their own senior staff, and by many inspectors, that can best be described as semi-skilled. The Special Educational Needs and Disability Act, 2016, is not working as intended, causing distress to parents, and post-16 provision is still suffering from cuts that have forced Clare Wagner to cut subjects from her sixth form curriculum that would be offered without question in the private sector. When I asked Jeremy Hunt at a leadership hustings what he was going to do to prevent further scandals in the academy sector, he said that we should not be focusing on what had gone wrong, but on what had gone right. The 2017 election showed that this was not good enough, and we will have to do better. Soon.