John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector and has written two books on the history of writing and spelling. He is Chairman of the Conservative Education Society.
Nine years ago, Katharine Birbalsingh stood up at our Party Conference and told the truth about what was happening in London schools. It was a brave thing to do, and within a week she was sacked. This summer, she and her colleagues celebrated one of the most important achievements in the history of British education – from a non-selective intake, they had achieved four times the national average of highest grade passes in the reformed GCSE, and one of the highest “value-added” scores on record. For me, Birbalsingh’s brilliance was clear from those first words she spoke – as Sir Michael Wilshaw has said, sometimes you know instantly. But when even The Guardian is forced to report and acknowledge her success, and by implication that of Michael Gove, who opened the door for her, there is no more room for honest doubt. Birbalsingh is right, and her key idea -”Work hard, be kind” – is spreading steadily across the country.
Our opponents, Angela Rayner and Polly Toynbee, promise to tackle the “long trail of failure that drags down national results.” Amen. Alas, neither they, nor anyone else on the Left, has the faintest idea of how to do it. No-one wants to see children going to school hungry, but tackling that will not improve what happens when they get there. Children, and particularly those for whom learning is not straightforward, need work that is closely matched to their learning needs if they are to make progress. The Left’s mantra of mixed ability teaching makes this impossible, and I spend much of my time picking up the pieces. Second chances at full-time education are no substitute for wasting the first chance in school, and that is still what happens too often. Rayner has outstanding academic ability – see her fluent conversation in British Sign Language – and what worked for her will not work for most people who fail at school.
The path to success is to tackle problems in basic skills full-on from the beginning, and not to give up. Hiding the problem by abolishing tests and independent inspection is the way of the ostrich.
So, tests and honest exams, the outcome of nine years of hard work, principally by Nick Gibb, are part of the way forward. The Lib Dems held this up as long as they could, and did a serious disservice by blocking tests in key skills for 16-year-olds by insisting on GCSE for everyone. Raising starting salaries for teachers will help too. Teachers are professional people, and deserve professional support, including effective use by more headteachers of the powers the government has provided to minimise poor behaviour. My MP, Lucy Frazer, has fought from the beginning for fairer funding of education in areas outside London and the – I hope, former – Labour heartlands, where Lord Prescott set up ingenious systems to deprive the South of essential facilities and drive up its council tax. Our manifesto commitments on spending will improve balance.
It would make it much easier for Conservatives in education if the new government could also:
- Publish the results of each school in full, by grade and subject.
- Avoid further hidden reductions in school funding through additional charges.
- Find a better way for Ofqual to ensure standards than the current “comparable outcomes”.
- Improve the teaching of reading, spelling and arithmetic beyond the initial stages.
- Remove the requirement for teachers to submit planning and “data drops” to management.
- Give teachers the right to impose an immediate detention, enforced by management.
- Introduce tests of key skills in English and maths alongside GCSE.
- Improve the accuracy of SEND assessment, particularly of autism and dyslexia.
- Set up behaviour hubs and improve facilities for excluded pupils.
- Give credit against student loans and interest in return for service in the state sector.
- Set up a German excellence programme on the lines of the successful Mandarin initiative.
As Defence Secretary, Gavin Williamson showed the determination needed to carry his programme through and stand up to internal opposition. He may well need to do so again. We must do what we can between now and Thursday evening to make sure he gets the opportunity.