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.
Ten out of ten to PISA, the OECD’s international testing organisation, for releasing its 2018 survey of 15-year-olds in the week before the election. It showed a six point improvement in reading scores, and nine points in maths, both subjects that are tested in primary schools, but a five point drop in science, which is not.
I won’t be the only one surprised to see Estonia, which spends 30 per cent below the OECD average, at the top of the leader board, though not to see the lowest-attaining pupils in some provinces in China achieving as much in maths as the most able in some other jurisdictions. Less encouraging is the finding that there has been no significant improvement in overall standards in the last ten years, despite a worldwide increase of 15 per cent in spending on education. Only one in ten of the huge sample was able to distinguish fact from opinion on the basis of the tests, and a tenth were five years below average in reading. We are not the only country with work to do.
Over recent months, the theme of these articles has been that Conservative Ministers have succeeded in restoring education to its proper purposes, while acknowledging errors and the work that remains to be done. A huge burden of government-imposed drudgery has been lifted from schools, not least in the examination system, where the non-qualification of AS has been abolished, and basic honesty restored. The threat to teachers’ integrity from pressure to cheat in coursework was a scandal that set a damaging example to young people, who could see that cheating paid. The best work, including from Michaela and the West London Free School, has been glorious, and the removal of the dead hand of local bureaucracy has allowed heads in Great Yarmouth, and even parts of Harlow, to open up genuine opportunities for their pupils and let them work in peace and safety.
Against this, our opponents are proceeding as if nothing positive had happened at all. Angela Rayner, the Shadow Education Secretary, riding on the admiration she has won for seizing her own second chance with both hands, wants to get rid of the testing that has begun to raise standards, and the independent inspection by Ofsted and Her Majesty’s Inspectors, whose purpose is to tell the truth, in contrast to the combination of spin and cover-up of local authority inspectors. Labour hated independent inspection, and forced the best inspector we’ve ever had, Sir Mike Tomlinson, to retire early in order to install a place-man who took personal control of the whole system and turned it into an ignorant and tyrannical political instrument.
Amanda Spielman and her senior colleagues have been working like trojans to put this right, and the improvement in her budget will enable her to inspect properly once again, and not just read the paperwork and walk round the school. One key point is bullying – a negative in our PISA report was a quarter of our fifteen year olds were suffering from it, and it is too often tolerated in the name of inclusion. Extra time will give inspectors at least some chance of finding out what is really happening and putting a stop to abuse. It’s not long since I heard a parent ask a school governor – one of ours – about bullying in an outstanding secondary school, to be told “I know the bullying policy” – as if what was written in a policy reflected the real experience of the pupils. Nobody in education approves of bullying any more than bishops approve of sin. The point is to do something about it, and the idea that bullying or violence in a school are the responsibility of the head needs to be enforced as well as understood.
I seriously doubt whether Rayner understands how inspection operates, or the gross unfairness that has resulted from its decline. She is simply inviting people to vote for her and everything will be put right. Improve opportunities at 16+? Chickenfeed. Six years paid study leave for whoever wants it, and all tuition fees removed at a stroke. She might recall Gordon Brown’s ridiculous education allowance, which was simply used as a massive tax dodge, as indeed might the Lib Dems with their £10k education allowance for every person. The Lib Dems in coalition did their best to obstruct nearly every reform, and were largely responsible for the points mean prizes attitude that has grown up at GCSE. They were also largely responsible, aided and abetted by Lord Willetts, for using university tuition fees as a graduate tax – a brains tax – in a way that has added considerably to the burdens suffered by the young people they were setting out to help. The programmes of both main opposition parties are designed to appeal to activists rather than parents, and this may well prove to be a mistake.
The Conservative alternative is equally important in Scotland and Wales. PISA tests are not the whole story, but, while Scotland did nearly as well as England in reading, it did far worse in maths and science, while Wales is the only home country to be below the OECD average in all three subjects. Education was once a source of pride in Scotland, if not always with justification, but is now a serious embarrassment to Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP, as it is failing to deliver improvement or to reduce inequality. Wales, alas, is attempting to address its own long term problems by importing its curriculum from Scotland. They would both do better to visit Michaela.