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.
Sir Kevan Collins’ resignation – see my warning on appointing Labour strategists to run Conservative policies – does not disguise the need for action. But what action? And how do we ensure that money goes where it is needed – and is properly used?
Most teachers outside infant schools have had no training to teach reading, and can’t be expected to pick it up overnight. The training we have is focused exclusively on phonics. This is essential in the initial stages of reading in order to establish the principle of using the information contained in letters, but then needs to be modified so that children are not confused when there is no direct correspondence between letters and speech. An example last week comes from a nine-year-old who had been asked to leave a Steiner school because they could not teach him to read. “I can read three-letter words,” he said, “But not longer ones.” He then sounded out w a s to rhyme with has, and I had to explain why it did not. (Was is of Germanic origin, like water, warm and at least twenty other common words with wa, and its pronunciation has changed over centuries.) We then made progress.
The reasons why one size does not fit all are obvious. Some schools have moved almost all of their teaching online, with no great loss. Others, encouraged by union stonewalling during the first lockdown, have provided little or no direct teaching. Most private sector parents have protected their investment by ensuring that children sign in on time, but many whose children are most at risk of failure have not, and at worst have blocked communication with schools. Laptops are essential, and opposition criticism of slow provision has been unfair – these things take time – but not all parents know how to use them. Some children have all the books they could want, and others none at all. Library closures have not helped, but let’s not pretend that children with reading difficulties were beating down their doors.
So, the first thing we need is an accurate damage report from all schools, to be approved by their governing body, published on their website and followed up by Ofsted, who should be given the resources to do this work. Additional funding should then be allocated to schools on this basis, and they should be required to keep a separate account of how they spend it, and the outcomes for pupils. Reading will often be the main focus, and should be assessed by means of the phonics check for young children, and brief standardised tests for older ones. These should include understanding as well as accuracy, but should not require children to read between the lines before they can read what is on them. Maths should focus on knowledge of the arithmetic, tables, and other basic procedures that are needed to attempt secondary education successfully.
Kate Green, the Shadow Education Secretary, has argued against more of what she calls “formal education” in favour of opportunities for children to meet socially. Reopening schools, though, is in itself the key to this, and it is wrong for breaks and lunchtimes to be so constricted that children have no time to play and socialise. Cutting breaks, combined with excessively long lessons, takes place because headteachers are not confident in controlling behaviour and ensuring safety when pupils move between lessons or have free time, and this needs to be addressed. Lunchtime and after-school clubs – I used to run them for homework, and invite parents to those running after school – are important, and provide avenues for the informal personal advice and support that meet children’s needs and build relationships.
They are not, however, a substitute for providing children with essential knowledge, skills, and understanding. Leading academy heads, from Sir Michael Wilshaw to Katharine Birbalsingh, David Moody and Louisa Lochner, understand this, and these are the people Gavin Williamson, Nick Gibb and Vicky Ford should be looking to for advice, rather than to opponents whose educational goals are fundamentally different from ours. The Educational Endowment Foundation, first headed by Sir Kevan and now by a former Institute of Education Director who has declared that grouping pupils according to their learning needs and abilities is “symbolically violent”, is another example of the same error. Most parents want their children to succeed in school and to be happy, and neither will happen if they are left to sink or swim in mixed ability classes. If Green considered her approach in detail, she might find it uncomfortably close to that of Steiner.
Since 2010, Conservative policy has been based on the need to restore schools to their proper purposes, with Katharine Birbalsingh’s 2010 conference speech and the success of Michaela Community Academy, showing what needed to be done and how to do it. The only speech in living memory to compare with this is Neil Kinnock’s denunciation of Militant, 35 years ago, and Katharine’s was no less significant. She and her fellow pioneers have shown that a conservative solution to our educational problems is practical, effective, and affordable. We need to follow their example, and stop putting our opponents in the saddle, where they will do their best to take control of the horse.