John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector and has written two books on the history of writing and spelling. He is Vice-President of the Conservative Education Society.
The Secretary of State is rarely the most important person in education. With a few exceptions, such as Butler, Crosland, or Gove, they either don’t do much, or launch projects that don’t work or don’t last. So it is no disrespect to the present holder of the office to say that the most important person in British education is Katharine Birbalsingh. No disrespect, either, to pioneers like the late Sir Rhodes Boyson and Sir Michael Wilshaw, or to others doing excellent work. But Birbalsingh and her colleagues at Michaela have achieved the educational equivalent of squaring the circle. While Sir Keir Starmer talks about closing the attainment gap between poor and advantaged pupils, they have done it.
This gap has set the scene for educational debate since I started in the early seventies, and it has widened during the pandemic. Children with the least support and fewest resources at home, depend entirely on their teachers for opportunities to learn, and around 40 per cent have had little or no contact with them while schools have been closed. A substantial number of parents have made the problem worse. One of the few state schools to ignore union advice and provide online teaching during the lockdown reports that almost a third of pupils did not take part, and that some parents blocked its phone calls. We can’t compel anyone to pick up a phone or switch on a computer.
The gap starts at birth, and can be the equivalent of eighteen months to two years’ learning when children start school. Thirty years ago, Harvard professor Jeanne Chall showed that it widened on transfer to secondary school, as the children of highly educated parents picked up on the more complex vocabulary used in school work, while the others could not, and so fell farther behind. This makes closing the gap from a start with 11-year-old pupils even more remarkable. So, am I right in saying that Michaela has done it? And, if it has, can others do it too?
First, the evidence. Last year’s examination results, from a non-selective intake, go beyond excellence. They change our understanding of what can be achieved, perhaps particularly in Michaela’s four times national average success at the super A* Level 9. Such results show that the leftist argument, that achievement is inevitably limited by social background, is an error. Nevertheless, it is set in stone among the progressive octopus that still controls most university education departments. As Labour’s thinking is infused with their views from top to bottom, Starmer would have to ditch the whole of his Party’s thinking on education for the past 70 years in order to do it, and there is no reason to think he will do so.
I’ve described Michaela’s latest book, The Power of Culture, as the best I’ve ever read on schools education, and better than I ever expected to find. Katharine Birbalsingh’s excellent chapter, on “servant leadership”, reminds me of the late Cardinal Hume’s address to Catholic headteachers. Elsewhere, she edits, but the writing is the work of the staff. Hin-Tai Ting was the head of the Year 11 that achieved last year’s results, and his chapter contains extensive testimony from pupils, many of them with special needs, serious behavioural problems, and disturbed and violent lives outside school. Michaela has given them a future by enabling them to buy into its system and succeed. These are precisely the pupils who are failing in droves elsewhere, and Mr Ting’s work shows that there is nothing elitist about Michaela’s excellence – like other schools it uses nurture groups, but expects the same standard of work and behaviour there as in other classes.
The GCSE results were so good that the bar for sixth form entry is among the highest in the country – at least 7 A grades or above (Levels 7-9). This is the same as a typical offer from Manchester Grammar School . For comparison, the published admission criteria of Maidstone’s grammar schools are 6 subjects at Level 5 or above (girls) and a grade average of 5.5 (boys). Jessica Lund’s 6th Form chapter shows how Michaela pupils are guided towards the highest aspirations for their talents and abilities, both through the teaching and by tackling the social issues that might otherwise hold them back. Michaela streams, but without the stigma that has come to be associated with it. Streaming enables teachers consistently to pitch work at the right level for the pupils, so that all know that they are making progress. The excellence of this teaching of less academically able pupils is a key point in Michaela’s success. Every child matters, and everyone knows it.
The basis of this teaching is contained in four excellent chapters, respectively on religious education, history, geography, and art. The RE chapter, in particular, stands out as the only piece of work I’ve ever read on the subject that does not involve some kind of preaching or self-righteous cant, and the art shows how attention to technique enables pupils to work spontaneously. Deputy Head, Katie Ashford’s chapter brings many of these threads together, and distinguishes Michaela’s approach from its critics’ caricature of “rote-learning”. The big difference is in the use of context, which builds understanding of what has been learned, and enables pupils to apply it. Just as order and discipline free pupils by enabling learning to take place in peace, basing the curriculum on knowledge gives them the means to move towards independence. The picture is complete.
The Power of Culture is a long book at 400 pages, and the close argument and intensity of each chapter make it a most demanding read. It has taken me a month to complete. The significance of Michaela’s achievement makes it not only worthwhile, but imperative. If Michael Gove’s goal of breaking down education’s Berlin Wall is ultimately to be achieved, it will be Katharine Birbalsingh and her colleagues who have made the first breach. We now need to follow it up.