Published:

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.

I first recall seeing Charlotte Leslie, as MP for Bristol North West, quietly standing her ground at Question Time, while Labour MPs bayed and snarled at her like tethered beasts. Around the same time, I attended a meeting she organised at the Royal College of Surgeons with the goal of setting up a similar organisation for teachers. I did not think it would work, partly because the RCS subscription –£618 pa – was too high. State funding would bring government control, much like Ed Balls’ MAs in Labour Education Policy.

I was wrong. Thanks to the clear thinking of its CEO, Dame Alison Peacock, and with support from the late Duke of Edinburgh, the Chartered College of Teaching is up and running, with a subscription below that of union membership, and is attracting young as well as experienced teachers. It is the only educational organisation whose focus is on teaching, rather than politics or management, and I have become a Fellow. We need to make sure that it is not dominated by a point of view, but Dame Alison understands the need for a broad church. Charlotte Leslie, as a driving force behind the project, is to be congratulated on the most important contribution to education yet made by a backbench MP. She and a group of teachers came up with the proposal in 2012. As a member of the Education Select Committee she had a key role in ensuring it became a reality.

Equally good news is the extension of Amanda Spielman’s tenure as Ofsted Chief Inspector. Labour wrecked Ofsted in 2005-6, cutting inspection to a level that prevented teams from getting below the surface, giving it work it was not equipped to do, and ditching Sir Mike Tomlinson in favour of Labour’s Sir David Bell, who used inspection to enforce Blairite dogma. Among a multitude of errors, he dropped cameos of excellent teaching, and reports on subjects, from school reports. Thirteen years after the debacle, Spielman is restoring sense to the operation, and rebuilding the professional reputation of HMI, currently through a series of research reviews on individual subjects, backed by guidance on inspecting them.

I was a member of its working group on modern languages, and commend the science review, as an example of its clear and incisive approach, notably its uncomfortable conclusion that “many pupils leave school without a basic knowledge and appreciation of science.” Lest I appear sycophantic, I believe she made an important error, early in her time, when she said that it was not Ofsted’s job to get between teachers and their managers. If headteachers and senior leaders are not working effectively, Ofsted must gather the evidence and say so. No-one else can do this, and in some cases staff need protection from bullying. The idea of “every headteacher captain of their own ship” has led some to behave like Charles Laughton’s Captain Bligh, and such behaviour needs to be stopped. Reports on Stantonbury International show that Ofsted is not only taking the necessary action, but following it up.

Ofsted’s work shows how difficult it is to improve schools, and there is at the moment no shortage of bad news. Last year’s examination fiasco is being repeated, possibly with even more serious consequences, and we still don’t know what can be done for next year, and indeed succeeding years. The fact that this is due to Covid does not let the government off the hook, and that picture of the Secretary of State with a whip on his desk did nothing for his reputation among education professionals. The excellent idea of providing individual tuition to those who need it, is hamstrung by the obsession with central organisation, with some providers taking scandalous fees for recruiting teachers that schools could more easily find for themselves, and giving “guidance” that prevents the tutor from focussing on the pupil in front of them; a repeat of Labour’s error in managing tuition in the later years of the Brown government.

For the record, and their information, a tutor needs to think what it is in a pupil’s knowledge and thinking that is preventing them from learning, and to provide the knowledge, and help them adjust their thinking, so that they can succeed. It really is as simple as that, and all the paperwork in the world will not achieve it if tutors are not helped to think effectively rather than being told what to think and do by people who have little, if any, experience of the work themselves.   Among my own pupils, a “dyslexic” 14 year old got 20/20 for a spelling test for the first time in her life last week; one was offered an apprenticeship as a teaching assistant; and a third invited to join her school’s history working group – and the parents of two more had congratulatory letters from their schools. More examples here, pro bono publico – if anyone still understands what that means.