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.
First the good news – this week’s appointment of Ian Bauckham CBE to the chairmanship of Ofqual will replace statistical shackles with professional competence. Ian is CEO of the Tenax Schools Trust (Kent and Sussex) and a highly successful teacher and headteacher, who has been instrumental in the reform of languages teaching and personal education. He was the first member of the Ofqual board to break ranks and point out that its mathematical formula could not be fair, and has recently chaired the DfE expert group on GCSE languages reform, of which I was a member. He has work to do, and the ability to do it. Ofqual may yet survive.
Next the bad, in the form of Eton’s sacking of English teacher, Will Knowland, which has been upheld on appeal. The story has been well aired over the last couple of weeks, with the Guardian praising the Head Master – Eton’s unusual and possibly unique separation of the words – for reforming the school, and much of the Left joining in. Knowland’s lecture on YouTube, the Patriarchy Paradox, contains inaccuracies, and can fairly be described as tripe. A sixth former presenting it might expect it to be “ripped”, though a few interesting points, including the use of physical strength to provide protection, might have raised the grade to a C. I found it difficult to sit through but, if you insist, here is the link.
What I really object to is the use of “gross misconduct” in relation to failure to remove a lecture from a personal website at the “request” of the Head Master. Gross misconduct is as serious a charge as can be laid against a teacher, usually with criminal implications. No-one has suggested referring this lecture to the police or the Department for Education, and its production as part of a critical thinking course could be thought appropriate, if only by encouraging critical analysis of the lecture itself. The reported legal advice that it could breach the Equality Act is ridiculous – there is nothing in the Act against free speech, and Eton could not be held complicit in a social media posting. Neither is free speech to be trivialised, as it has been by Professor Priyamvara Gopal, as “Freeze Peach”. We read last week of the kidnapping and execution of the Iranian Ruhollah Zam for its exercise, on the charge of being “corrupt on earth”, in itself an extreme version of being politically incorrect.
Simon Henderson, the Head Master, was reported to have sent a pupil home for suggesting that he should be fired instead of Knowland, an offence of “lèse-majesté” if ever there was one. Those of us who are not in his power remain free to criticise. His attempts at “modernisation” are highly questionable in themselves, beginning with the appointments of deputy heads for “pastoral” and “academics”, an idea borrowed from comprehensive schools, and the source of many errors. The core structure of Eton, like most public schools, is its house system, with the housemaster as the first line of senior management and responsible for all aspects of a pupil’s education. The pastoral/academic divide was originally a way of creating senior posts for the former headteachers of the smaller schools that were brought together to make comprehensives, and its separation of key elements of education into separate compartments has been a major cause of their failure. The roles of Eton’s Lower Master and Head Master brooked no such division. And, after Henderson’s use of the sledgehammer on Knowland, we might remember that Eton had to remove its new “academics” deputy for abusing his position as an examiner, an offence that better fits the description of “gross misconduct” than Knowland’s lecture.
The use of provocative language to stimulate thinking is one of many teaching styles that has become unfashionable, and Jamie Blackett’s “The Enigma of Kidson”, a highly successful, if somewhat eccentric history Master, whose pupils included Sir Matthew Pinsent and David Cameron, is a delight. Jacob Rees-Mogg described him as “an inspired beak who ignored all the modern rules but put his pupils first”, and feared he would drive Ofsted inspectors to apoplexy, though, having been one of those ogres, I would more probably have put a 1 in the box and enjoyed writing a cameo on his excellence. Knowland’s teaching – see “Be an eagle, not a snail” – is in that tradition, though perhaps without the twinkle that made Kidson’s pupils love him. He has a tuition business, is apparently not to be put out in the street before Christmas, and has expressed confidence that he will be “all right”.
I expect Henderson will be all right too, which will be Eton’s loss.