John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector and has written two books on the history of writing and spelling. He is a Vice-Chairman of the Conservative Education Society.
Damian Hinds was in listening mode with the Conservative Education Society in a recent meeting, and is clearly bringing a fresh mind to an old problem – how to make a system, that works for some people only, work for everybody. The starting point is his £5m initiative to improve the language experience of young children, which directly addresses the issues raised in the series of postings beginning on March 6th, which, as I said at the beginning, originate from the earliest days of civilisation.
The problem is simple. Highly-educated people, from the scribes onwards, pour their own education into their children from birth, giving them economic and social advantages that others don’t even know exist. As educational opportunities spread in the UK, due to the 1944 Education Act, university expansion in the sixties, and the growth of polytechnics, the number of parents able to do this grew, and the gap between their children’s experience and that of children from less educated parents grew with it.
The recent report from the Oxford University Press confirms US research and a series of British research findings from the 1980s, which show that the contrasts are not simply in the number of words heard, but in their nature. One UK study in the eighties, “Young Children Learning” (Tizard) found that highly educated mothers encouraged children to ask questions and used them as a focal point for conversation. Those who had left school with no qualifications were more likely to see questions as a nuisance. Hart and Risley in the US found that most of the language heard by the poorer children in their sample consisted of instructions and reprimands, with little or no educational content.
It is difficult to see how this can be altered. We know what makes for success, and what does not. It is also obvious that a parent, whose own education has given them access to interesting and better-paid work, has more reason to value it than one whose experience of failure has given them a profoundly negative view of school. Labour’s Sure Start centres, and its changes to the preschool curriculum, were an attempt to have the state do what the parents could not or would not do, but there is no evidence of their impact on the underlying educational problems. I do, however, know of one school that has had success with carefully-targeted programmes in which parents are encouraged to work with their children on activities set up by the nursery, followed by informal splitting of classes to enable teachers to focus closely on children’s language, without holding other pupils back. I’ll be happy to introduce anyone interested to the school.
The workload issue grew out of Labour’s frustration at the same issue – they were trying to make the education system benefit working class children, and those who benefited were those they termed “educationally advantaged”. One solution was the Primary Language Record, a booklet that required teachers to write lengthy essays on the work of every pupil in their class. It was, from memory, around 20 pages long, and would have made a good case study for a student teacher.
For a class of 30, it was an monstrous imposition, and was enforced by management bullying. I heard an Inner London Education Authority headteacher threaten a recruit with failing probation if it was not completed properly. It disappeared when ILEA folded, but the idea returned under the Blair and Brown governments, with essays written on the work of sample pupils in each class, and the monstrosity of triple and “deep” marking of work that coincided with the extension of coursework and controlled assessment at GCSE. The result was that teachers were doing the pupils’ work for them rather than teaching, and massaging examination results in the process. With the changes to Ofsted to base its reports on these fake data rather than first-hand observation, the outcome was win-win for the government. Working teachers into the ground did not greatly trouble them, or indeed the teachers’ unions at the time, as these saw the programme as being in the interests of the pupils.
Conservative policies to date have done little to improve the situation, and have sometimes made it worse.
On the positive side, they have removed the pressure on teachers to fake school-based assessments, and the unnecessary AS examination. The negative is that the legitimate extension of headteachers’ powers to deal with poor teaching has effectively made them inspectors within their own schools. Too many are using these powers in an uninformed and arbitrary way, and no amount of advice or exhortation from ministers and Ofsted – including the recent video, Working Together on Workload, will stop them from doing so.
Teachers are not voting for us in sufficient numbers because they feel they have no rights, and the unions’ campaigning on this as well as school cuts cost us dearly at the last election. A solution to this problem will require a good deal more than words of advice.