John Bald: A warm welcome to the Chartered College of Teaching

28 Jun

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 is to be congratulated on the most important contribution to education yet made by a backbench MP.

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.

John Bald: Collins’ resignation shows the mistake of using Labour strategists to run Conservative policies

7 Jun

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 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.

John Bald: How many pupils start secondary school unable to read properly? The truth is we don’t know.

6 Apr

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.

The Government’s estimate of an additional 30,000 pupils arriving in secondary school with weak reading skills is worrying, but it is a guess. The national reading test for 11-year-olds (NS6) was abolished by a committee rigged by HMI to obstruct Mrs Thatcher. We had no test at all until the early 1990s. Now we have a new one each year, with grade boundaries moved up or down to suit the convenience, first of Labour governments, now of Ofqual. The scores tell us next to nothing – and secondary schools are right not to trust them.

I trust nothing I can’t check, especially Labour strategies. Their National Literacy Strategy failed because it substituted the “Searchlights” guessing game theory for phonics. As soon as they were elected, Blair’s Labour rushed out a programme of summer schools, to which I was recruited at a late stage as a consultant. Almost all failed because they were staffed by whichever teachers happened to be available rather than those who knew how to teach reading. Labour then decided that all spare resources in schools were to be devoted to teaching reading, with much the same result. An art teacher I observed had as much idea of teaching reading as I have about teaching art, and the exercise was a waste of everyone’s time.

Sir Kevan Collins’ idea of tackling the reading deficit with an army of volunteers will meet the same fate. The Warnock Committee’s decision to replace specialist literacy teachers with special needs co-ordinators deprived secondary schools of a resource that is now badly needed. Most individual reading teaching is now undertaken by assistants, and if Sir Kevan’s army is recruited, there will be no one to train it. All of us who can bring skills to bear on the problem need to do our bit, but this is not a solution to a problem affecting the whole of the school system.

Nicky Morgan, as Education Secretary, was ridiculed by our opponents for her goal of making 11-year-olds “secondary ready”, but the pandemic and this hasty government reaction show that she was right. Pupils who can’t read and write properly can’t do their school work, and this leads to misbehaviour, dropout, and exclusion. If we can agree that literacy – alongside social reconstruction – should be the focus of everyone’s efforts, we cannot waste time and money repeating Labour mistakes.

Fortunately, we can learn from a small number of schools that have bucked the trend. In 2005 I had the honour to lead the inspection of Gateway Primary School, Marylebone, now Gateway Primary Academy. Over ninety per cent of its pupils had English as an additional language. Starting with systematic phonics teaching using Jolly Phonics, with assistants teaching small groups, as in Ruth Miskin’s Kobi Nazrul, they built reading systematically into everything they did throughout the school, so that pupils became used to reading non-fiction in science, history, and art lessons, as well as in English. All pupils, except those who arrived in their final year, met national standards in English and maths, and two-thirds exceeded them. The school won the Evening Standard School of the Year award, using this report as evidence. Its techniques should be studied and adopted.

For secondary schools I make no apology for returning to Michaela, and particularly to the work of Deputy Head, Katie Ashford, who is also the special needs co-ordinator. Grouping pupils according to thelr learning needs and abilities allows teachers to focus closely on the wide range of literacy skills pupils start with. Many are not “secondary ready” in Year 7, and yet the Year 8 work I saw from middle sets on my visit was already at around Grade 6 at GCSE. HMI described the progress thus:

“Pupils develop a love of books and reading. They talk about their favourite authors and the books they enjoy most. Support tailored to pupils’ needs ensures that pupils who struggle with reading, writing and mathematics when they join the school catch up quickly.”

and thus:

“Pupils make exceedingly strong progress across Years 7 to 9 and across subject areas, including English, mathematics, science, humanities, French, art and music. As a result of outstanding teaching, work in pupils’ books shows that, over time, all groups of pupils make consistently accelerated progress from their starting points.”

This report was written two years before Michaela’s stunning GCSE results. It shows that a sustained focus on literacy in every subject, at levels matched to pupils’ needs, can tackle the literacy deficit that is at the heart of educational underachievement and close the gap for disadvantaged pupils. The school pays close attention to spoken language and social development too, but not as a means of avoiding tackling weak literacy skills. Not for nothing did I argue earlier this year that headmistress, Katharine Birbalsingh, is the most important person in British education.

Footnote: Alex Quigley, currently national content manager at the Education Endowment Foundation, has written two books. Closing the Reading Gap – and Closing the Vocabulary Gap – that offer invaluable practical advice for secondary schools looking to tackle literacy problems and develop pupils’ skills and understanding in all subjects. I recommend them alongside Michaela’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers, and The Power of Culture.

John Bald: Yes, Jess Phillips. Ministers indeed dropped the ball on sexual violence. Under Labour.

31 Mar

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.

Jess Phillips, the Shadow Minister for Domestic Violence, said this week that Ministers have “dropped the ball” on sexual violence in schools, and that the government has “not taken seriously this issue for too long”

She picked the wrong government. The decline started in 2005, when Labour slashed Ofsted’s capacity to inspect schools properly, forced the retirement of the excellent Michael Tomlinson, and imposed its place-man, David Bell, who had famously attended Tony Blair’s victory celebrations in Downing Street and later became Permanent Secretary to the Education Department.

Bell’s changes threw away over a hundred years of experience of Her Majesty’s Inspectors of Schools (HMI), replacing them with the New Labour Dogma of “Every Child Matters,” in which achievement, one-half of five categories, counted for only ten per cent of the judgement on a school. Indeed, Labour went further, by giving a new examinations agency, Ofqual, authority equal to that of HMI, even though it lacked the educational knowledge that underpinned the inspectorate. This error continues to haunt us.

One casualty of these “reforms” was a confidential questionnaire for pupils, given out and collected by inspectors. Pupils’ responses often indicated that more than half felt that the school was poorly disciplined, and that nothing was being done about it – an embarrassment to the government.

Its acolytes in Ofsted responded by abolishing the questionnaire and so cutting off the evidence at source. Nothing new here: Labour’s response to the Bullock Report into falling reading standards  was to abolish the test (NS6) that had identified the problem. We have not had a standardised national test since.

Inspectors under Sir Michael – the only professional inspector to be appointed to the post of HMCI – had time to talk to pupils, and to follow up indications that things might not be as they seemed. This was not always welcomed. In my tim as an inspector, one of my teams found a pattern of systematic abuse of women teachers by male pupils, including an incident in which one was sprayed with hair lacquer by a pupil after she pleaded with him not to, since she was allergic to it.

The mentor for newly qualified teachers told us that he always came to an interview with box of tissues, and a female inspector, who was also a magistrate, collated this evidence to support our judgement that behaviour was unsatisfactory.

The governors responded with fury, complaining to Ofsted (their complaint was rejected) and sacking their newly-appointed headteacher, who had immediately understood the situation, and shared the view of the inspectors. I was astonished that even female governors were prepared to go along with this, but they did.

The problem is still with us. While writing this article, I had a social media communication from a teacher who had tried to stop a group of boys from taunting a girl and calling her a slag, because she had gone out with a pupil from another year group. They laughed at her.

Her point – that she could not fight a culture of ignorance and abuse on her own – was correct. One teacher can be a rock, but the tide will flow round it. In Michael Wilshaw’s schools, or those that have picked up his torch, such behaviour would have drawn an immediate and lengthy detention at the very least, and so would not have happened.  (Sir Michael was a head teacher before becoming Chief Inspector of Schools during the Coalition years.)

Too many headteachers, however, refuse to use the powers that Conservative Ministers have given them, and so have allowed the problem to fester. Those who stand against it face abuse from parents who think their children are entitled to behave poorly, and even to assault staff. Some, such as Barry Smith, have the courage to face up to it, at whatever personal cost. Most go with the flow, which only goes in one direction.

It is neither reasonable nor possible for Ofsted to cleanse these Augean stables. Amanda Spielman, who is showing herself a worthy successor to Michael Tomlinson, is carefully rebuilding the quality and reputation of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate.

She is not afraid to give the government bad news, and the quality and incisiveness of reports is improving. What she and her colleagues can’t do is investigate every aspect of a large school with a handful of inspectors over a couple of days. Efficiency is one thing, inadequate provision another.

The Government has been too slow to correct Labour’s errors, and has actually worsened the situation by not inspecting supposedly outstanding schools – the teacher I referred to above teaches in one.

“Every headteacher captain of their own ship,” has its appeal, but alongside Captain Hardy were some, like Kirby and Wade, who would not fight their ship, and then there are the likes of Captains Bligh and Pigot.

A realistic response to the present scandal might be to require each headteacher to prepare a report to their governors and publish it. Parents could then see whether matters had been properly investigated, and whether appropriate action was being taken, and only complain to Ofsted if they were not satisfied. The Government could then rectify the situation by giving Spielman and her colleagues the time and resources they need to do their job properly once again.

John Bald: Handing the education system back to Blairite advisers is misguided

18 Feb

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 Michael Barber, former education officer to the National Union of Teachers, and strategist-in-chief to the Blair government, has been appointed to lead our recovery from COVID. No surprise, then, that Sir Kevan Collins, former director of Blair’s literacy strategy and CEO of Tower Hamlets Labour council, has been named to lead recovery in schools. So, after ten years of Conservative-led government, in which Ministers have fought tooth and nail for reform against the progressive educational establishment – Blob or Octopus, as you prefer – the education system has been handed over to two Blairite knights.

It is not as if we did not have Conservative alternatives. Katharine Birbalsingh, who told the truth at our Conference in 2010, has, with her colleagues at Michaela Community School, closed the gap in examination performance for disadvantaged pupils, with a set of results that were so good that she could scarcely believe them herself. Michaela did this by starting where the pupils were, with a clear idea of where they needed to be and how to get them there – no more wasted time, no tolerance of poor behaviour or bullying, systematic hard work and homework, huge personal encouragement, and teaching carefully matched to children’s needs by careful grouping according to their starting points and abilities. The contrast with Labour’s approach, and the chaos to which it led, could not be more stark, and it matters not that Birbalsingh’s conservatism has no capital C.

Similar approaches at West London Free School, Harris Battersea Academy, and Great Yarmouth Chartered Academy, have brought, and are bringing, genuine improvements in learning, behaviour, and personal safety. Any of half a dozen leaders of these schools could point to more achievement in improving education than the whole of Labour’s coterie combined. For example, I once sat through a meeting addressed by Collins, as newly-appointed head of the Literacy Strategy, in which he studiously avoided uttering the word “phonics” in response to a series of questions – “You say phonics, I say….” – even though phonics were part of the national curriculum, which his organisation had replaced with the “Searchlights” approach, based on guessing game theories of reading that had been disproved by research fifteen years earlier. The maths strategy was no better – towards the end, it was producing materials to teach the 2x table to 11 year olds, apparently unconcerned that they didn’t already know it.

A key Labour tactic was to set everything out on paper and then adjust “accountability” measures to prove, also on paper, that they were working. They started with the assumption that they knew best, and made sure the “evidence” proved it. In school inspection, the categories “excellent” and “very good” were combined to produce a grade of “outstanding”, multiplying the number of schools in the top band by at least 5. Fake qualifications, and Ed Balls’ idea of making examinations “more accessible”, led to a huge expansion of young people with paper qualifications, disguising a fall in standards by means of fake coursework. A US contractor who applied proper standards to primary school tests in 2005, showing that standards were nothing like what was claimed, was paid off and their contract cancelled. Ministers who slipped up in Blair’s world of presentation and illusion were removed. Blair’s strategies had the credibility, and statistical methods, of Stalin’s five-year plans.

This, from an experienced secondary teacher in the North, typifies the problems we face:

“I have 2 lower ability Y7 classes and they are the weakest for literacy I have ever had. Their ability to form sentences using punctuation is really poor. I fear this happened over lockdown 1, and we never got them back to where they were. They are also the ones either struggling to engage at all, their parents not answering the phone when school rings or only doing “some” work when it is a live lesson. Give them even basic instructions on a PowerPoint to read and I receive no work. You are right, “who has lost what”. The differences at stage and ability are stark.”

“Who has lost what?” refers to what I had suggested as the starting point for recovery, as there is a huge difference between those whose schools have provided something like a full programme, and almost half who have had no direct teaching at all. Even then, the refusal of some parents to take part, or even to answer the phone, is not unusual. Not all parents value education, partly because they don’t see it as having done much for them, and others are under so much pressure from work that they are not in a position to provide support. I am, frankly, not sure what a national solution to this would look like, any more than are the large numbers of people who are criticising the government for not having one. I challenged one such, a prominent internet journalist, to provide me with a blueprint last week, and have had no answer.

We can, though, be sure that a New Labour strategy, combined with the Education Endowment Foundation’s Trip Advisor approach to research and presentation, won’t provide anything more than evidence of its own success. The variation in cases and circumstances is huge, and progress for each individual will depend on finding their starting point and building from that. Global ideas, such as keeping schools open through the summer, won’t attract the pupils who most need them, unless somehow they can be given inducements to attend. Dolly Parton’s Buddy Program, which offers $500 to children completing High School in her home county, is a possible example, and any free meals could be provided on the school premises. Similarly, Saturday schools, which have made an impact on BAME education, could be extended and subsidised, but with invitations to attend based on assessment of need, and any inducements related to achievement.

The basis of this achievement must be success in literacy and basic maths. My teacher correspondent is not an English specialist, and yet identifies illiteracy as the main obstacle to learning in her subject. Almost all secondary maths depends on competence in number work, which is held up by a failure to address essentials such as multiplication tables, without which other aspects of maths, including algebra, are much more difficult, if not impossible. I’m currently teaching a primary pupil who assured me, when we started, that 3×2=8, and that 4×2 = 9 (probably adding 1 to 8).

Brain research shows that learning involves the formation, extension and consolidation of networks in the brain, and we can’t do this if we try to extend things that aren’t there. A final, encouraging example, is C4’s The Write Offs which shows the multiples of normal progress – in one case, over five years in four months – that can be achieved by teaching, closely matched to each individual’s learning needs. Presented by Sandy Toksvig, with tuition organised by Jackie Hewitt-Main OBE, it is a shaft of light in our dark times. It should be studied and followed.

John Bald: Teachers must be free to explain grammar in terms that children can understand

4 Feb

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.

To our opponents, the term “fronted adverbial” is the gift that keeps on giving.

No-one without a degree in linguistics knows what it means without looking it up (an adverb, adverbial phrase, or adverbial clause preceding the main verb in a sentence – eg “Yesterday, I got up late”). Professional writers have been queuing up to say that they have had to ask their children. Linguistics aims to analyse and categorise rather than teach, and apes higher maths, by compressing several ideas into as few words as possible.

Teachers don’t think like that, and have been thrown into confusion through trying to do the best for their pupils, without fully understanding what they’re trying to teach. Michael Rosen’s recent attack in The Guardian drew over 3,000 comments, and Ministers find it hard to utter the phrase without embarrassment. Intended to make the teaching of grammar more effective, it makes it more difficult.

Linguistics has failed to make any positive impact on education since its foundation at the beginning of the last century. Its aim, as David Crystal once put it, is “to establish word classes that are coherent: all the words in a class should behave in the same way.”

This requires a single-mindedness that is admirable in some contexts, but not that of English. For example, most linguistics specialists maintain that English has only two tenses, past and present, as these have distinct forms – I walk, I walked – whereas other ways of indicating time, such as I will go, may depend on context, emphasis, or what the linguists call “aspect”.

Linguists in other European countries don’t do this – in French, German and Spanish, for example, time and tense share the same word, and the German future tense is formed in the same way as the English: Ich werde gehen. The most influential French grammar book, Grevisse’s Le Bon Usage is, as its title suggests, based on usage rather than categorisation, as is the grammar of English.

Linguistics specialists do not lack good intentions. David Crystal – in my opinion, the best of them – struggled hard as a professor at Reading University to put his expertise at the service of specialists dealing with the most complex problems of language disorder, and admitted his failure in Linguistic Encounters with Language Handicap, which I reviewed in The Times Educational Supplement in the mid-eighties. The underlying problem was that linguistics and language development deal with different things. The late Professor Katharine Perera, whose thesis on the development of phrasing in reading is the most brilliant piece of reading research I’ve ever read, made the same mistake in a book around the same time. It was intended to be an analysis of classroom language, but did not in fact contain any classroom language. Professors Debra Myhill of Exeter University, and Emma Marsden of York, had more success by studying the effect of grammatical teaching, respectively in English and French, in the context of children’s work. Both found positive effects, one from teaching in context, and the other from building on previous learning of grammar.

So, what is to be done? First, admit that a mistake has been made in good faith. The government looked for advice in the wrong place, reminiscent of Clare Balding’s reflection that she had been looking in the wrong section of the library. Linguistics specialists do not understand language development because they have not studied it. A start has been made by appointing Emma Marsden as Director of the government’s Centre for Excellence in Modern Languages, and we need something similar in English. Second, make it crystal clear that the terminology of the non-statutory glossary is not compulsory, and that teachers are free to explain grammar in terms children can understand, provided that they can show progress in English, particularly in writing, as a result. My approach to this, in a peer-reviewed paper for the Scottish Centre for Information on Language Teaching, is here. I welcome correspondence, and am happy to help pro bono.

John Bald: We need vaccination for teachers if schools are to reopen safely

7 Jan

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.

After this week’s turbulence, with primary schools closing after one day back, a Teacher Tapp poll showing confidence in the government as low as one per cent, and the Prime Minister hoping for “a good wind in our sails” on vaccination, Gavin Williamson’s parliamentary performance yesterday was surprisingly confident and effective. GCSE and A levels would be replaced by teachers’ assessments, but this time carried out according to agreed criteria and properly moderated. Private candidates, who suffered grievously last year, would be protected by special arrangments. SAT tests for primary schools would be cancelled, and direct online teaching, wrecked in most schools by union action last year, would be maintained by Ofsted. Provision of laptops, and low-cost access to data, were being ramped up speedily, this time following proper tendering procedures, and children with no access to tech would be able to attend school. Questions were wide-ranging and challenging, but Labour’s Kate Green spent most of her speech welcoming what he had said.

So, that’s all right then. Or is it? A good afternoon in parliament, as Lord Haig would surely testify, does not always make an impact outside it, and the long-term damage of several major problems remains. University students are being charged large sums in rent and tuition fees for services that are not provided and accommodation that they are not allowed to use, an injustice that they will remember at the next election, and which the government has yet to tackle. Claudia Webbe, a former aide to Ken Livingstone and currently suspended from the Labour whip over an assault allegation, delivered a furious rant on the subject, and the eternal student in me was inclined to agree with much of it.

So did several MPs, and Williamson’s repeated reference to a £20 million hardship fund agreed before Christmas was his weakest answer of the afternoon. His continuous reference to testing in schools, when asked about vaccination for teachers, was not much better, though he hinted at “pushing at boundaries”, particularly in special schools, and noting the impending arrival of Matt Hancock, next up for questions. There is clearly a battle going on between the DfE and Department of Health over this issue, and one the DfE needs to win if schools are to reopen safely.

This had been the biggest source of embarrassment for the government in the early part of the week. The Prime Minister on Sunday, and the Secretary of State for Health on Monday, said that schools were safe and that teachers were not at greater risk than other people. On Tuesday morning the NAS-UWT union posted figures from Leeds, Birmingham, and Greenwich, showing that the rate of infection among teachers was up to four times the local average. Given the recent friction between two of these authorities and the DfE, it is almost unbelievable that the figures were not known to the government. If Ministers knew about them when they made those statements, they were knowingly making untrue statements with intent to deceive. The Prime Minister’s statement on Monday evening that schools could be vectors of infection acknowledged something that had been sickeningly obvious to headteachers for weeks, if not months.

Sir Michael Wilshaw, Michael Gove’s choice as chief inspector, said on Tuesday  that Gavin Williamson had “got a lot wrong up to now”, and echoed the complaints of headteachers about lack of communication and consultation. He was particularly concerned at the impact on poor pupils from lack of access to technology and facilities for remote learning and suggested some kind of hubs be set up to facilitate this, though it is hard to see how this could be done without running the same risk of infection that they would meet in school. Sue Vermes, Head of Rosehill Primary School, Oxford, had initially received 17 laptops, for pupils who had a social worker, for her 218 pupils, of whom 135 were receiving free school meals. She was still 100 short of what was needed. Asked if she felt she had had good support from the DfE, she said there had been “a lack of understanding”, but that recent guidance had shown some improvement, and that her school “interacted with what the DfE say”.

Asked whether Gavin Williamson should resign, Sir Michael said he should take final accountability for what had gone on, but that Ministers “don’t tend to resign for the mistakes that they make now in the way that they did before”. He noted that we had had five Education Secretaries in the past nine years, including Michael Gove’s long tenure, and that the Prime Minister needed to make sure that the Department was led well, “by people who were prepared to stay there and work with headteachers and other leaders in education to make sure that it remains one of the most successful departments in government.” The same could be said of the Department of Health and Social Care.

John Bald: The use of provocative language to stimulate thinking is a teaching style that has become unfashionable

18 Dec

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, that 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.

John Bald: Churchill was right. Exams should enable people to show what they can do. Not find out what they can’t.

2 Dec

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.

At the height of this year’s examination crisis, I posted three articles arguing that Ofqual was worse than useless and should be shut down. Gavin Williamson, having resisted invitations to endorse it, has done the next best thing by asking Amanda Spielman and a group of experienced people to supervise next year’s exams. More on this shortly, but first a postscript on last year.

For no good reason, Ofqual ceased publishing any information on its activities, last August, as if it were a branch of the security services. Then last month it released a redacted version of no fewer than 29 Board meetings, held in secret, with much fuller information than its previous minutes, which had been no more than a reprint of the agenda, telling us nothing at all about any decisions. The redactions included 44 insertions of the phrase:

“This section has been redacted, as its publication would be prejudicial to the effective conduct of public affairs.”

That seriously limits the value of the documents, leaving aside the irony of using this expression to refer to affairs that could scarcely have been conducted less effectively. The goal was to cast Ofqual as the dutiful public servant, and Gavin Williamson as the villain.

I might have fallen for it had I not seen in another context the relations between the Department for Education and Ofqual, which really does enjoy the independence that has been claimed for it and will not budge from its formulaic approach, whatever the evidence. Its chief officers and chairman have a statistical mindset that shows no understanding of education whatsoever. The root of the problem was the botched mathematical formula that it produced in response to a perfectly reasonable request from the DfE to devise an approach that would be as fair as possible. At the eleventh hour, Williamson correctly decided that allowing school assessments was the lesser evil, even though there were injustices there too, with some schools simply submitting severely graded mock results and others what their pupils might have hoped for on the best of days.

Which brings us to 2021, and the difficult task facing Spielman and her colleagues. Almost all pupils in state schools have had serious gaps in their teaching. As an example, an A level student with whom I’m working (pro bono, and I have vacancies) had no teaching from his school for four months. He is fortunate in that his set book for Spanish is just 95 pages in large type, while the French equivalent has 450, in smaller type – over five times as much material for the same marks. He has just been hit with a two-week isolation because someone sitting near him had covid, and had been told there would be no teaching during that period. Only half of the class had been isolated, creating further problems. Eventually a laptop was set up to stream the Spanish, with powerpoints only for the other subjects.

So, how to be fair to all pupils when some will not have been taught large areas of their syllabus, and some have missed little or nothing? Not, incidentally, that the gaps are always the schools’ fault. Some parents can’t and others won’t tune in, even when well-designed work is provided. Giving out reduced papers in advance won’t help, as some will be approaching these topics from scratch, while for others it will be revision. We also know from experience that this is likely to lead to corruption. Languages teachers are, incidentally, worried about consistency in grading the spoken component, which is being carried out in widely differing ways in schools.

The only way I can see to tackle this huge variation in preparation is to adopt Churchill’s principle that exams should enable people to show what they can do, rather than find out what they can’t. This would require questions to be set on every topic in each syllabus, with schools allowed, at the start of each paper, to direct pupils to the parts of the paper they had covered. Answers would be marked with a view to quality, and grades considered qualitatively, rather than statistically, in relation to other evidence the school might offer, including its results in 2019. This evidence would also be considered on its merits rather than from a formula.

The operation would require highly-skilled markers, and moderation procedures based on professional knowledge and understanding, leavened by common sense. Candidates would need to be given the benefit of any doubt – real doubt, not number-crunching – and we would have to accept that these results, like this year’s, are less reliable than they will be in a year without disruption. The practical difficulties are great, and the full range of professional skills, including those of inspectors, would have to be brought to bear on it. Against this lies the possibility of proving once and for all what most of us in education know in our hearts – that Churchill was right.

John Bald: Closing the education gap the Michaela way

8 Oct

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.

The Secretary of State is rarely the most important person in education. With a few exceptions, such as Butler, Crosland, or Gove, they either don’t do much, or launch projects that don’t work or don’t last. So it is no disrespect to the present holder of the office to say that the most important person in British education is Katharine Birbalsingh. No disrespect, either, to pioneers like the late Sir Rhodes Boyson and Sir Michael Wilshaw, or to others doing excellent work. But Birbalsingh and her colleagues at Michaela have achieved the educational equivalent of squaring the circle. While Sir Keir Starmer talks about closing the attainment gap between poor and advantaged pupils, they have done it.

This gap has set the scene for educational debate since I started in the early seventies, and it has widened during the pandemic. Children with the least support and fewest resources at home, depend entirely on their teachers for opportunities to learn, and around 40 per cent have had little or no contact with them while schools have been closed. A substantial number of parents have made the problem worse. One of the few state schools to ignore union advice and provide online teaching during the lockdown reports that almost a third of pupils did not take part, and that some parents blocked its phone calls. We can’t compel anyone to pick up a phone or switch on a computer.

The gap starts at birth, and can be the equivalent of eighteen months to two years’ learning when children start school. Thirty years ago, Harvard professor Jeanne Chall showed that it widened on transfer to secondary school, as the children of highly educated parents picked up on the more complex vocabulary used in school work, while the others could not, and so fell farther behind. This makes closing the gap from a start with 11-year-old pupils even more remarkable. So, am I right in saying that Michaela has done it? And, if it has, can others do it too?

First, the evidence. Last year’s examination results, from a non-selective intake, go beyond excellence. They change our understanding of what can be achieved, perhaps particularly in Michaela’s four times national average success at the super A* Level 9. Such results show that the leftist argument, that achievement is inevitably limited by social background, is an error. Nevertheless, it is set in stone among the progressive octopus that still controls most university education departments. As Labour’s thinking is infused with their views from top to bottom, Starmer would have to ditch the whole of his Party’s thinking on education for the past 70 years in order to do it, and there is no reason to think he will do so.

I’ve described Michaela’s latest book, The Power of Culture, as the best I’ve ever read on schools education, and better than I ever expected to find. Katharine Birbalsingh’s excellent chapter, on “servant leadership”, reminds me of the late Cardinal Hume’s address to Catholic headteachers. Elsewhere, she edits, but the writing is the work of the staff. Hin-Tai Ting was the head of the Year 11 that achieved last year’s results, and his chapter contains extensive testimony from pupils, many of them with special needs, serious behavioural problems, and disturbed and violent lives outside school. Michaela has given them a future by enabling them to buy into its system and succeed. These are precisely the pupils who are failing in droves elsewhere, and Mr Ting’s work shows that there is nothing elitist about Michaela’s excellence – like other schools it uses nurture groups, but expects the same standard of work and behaviour there as in other classes.

The GCSE results were so good that the bar for sixth form entry is among the highest in the country – at least 7 A grades or above (Levels 7-9). This is the same as a typical offer from Manchester Grammar School . For comparison, the published admission criteria of Maidstone’s grammar schools are 6 subjects at Level 5 or above (girls) and a grade average of 5.5 (boys). Jessica Lund’s 6th Form chapter shows how Michaela pupils are guided towards the highest aspirations for their talents and abilities, both through the teaching and by tackling the social issues that might otherwise hold them back. Michaela streams, but without the stigma that has come to be associated with it. Streaming enables teachers consistently to pitch work at the right level for the pupils, so that all know that they are making progress. The excellence of this teaching of less academically able pupils is a key point in Michaela’s success. Every child matters, and everyone knows it.

The basis of this teaching is contained in four excellent chapters, respectively on religious education, history, geography, and art. The RE chapter, in particular, stands out as the only piece of work I’ve ever read on the subject that does not involve some kind of preaching or self-righteous cant, and the art shows how attention to technique enables pupils to work spontaneously. Deputy Head, Katie Ashford’s chapter brings many of these threads together, and distinguishes Michaela’s approach from its critics’ caricature of “rote-learning”. The big difference is in the use of context, which builds understanding of what has been learned, and enables pupils to apply it. Just as order and discipline free pupils by enabling learning to take place in peace, basing the curriculum on knowledge gives them the means to move towards independence. The picture is complete.

The Power of Culture is a long book at 400 pages, and the close argument and intensity of each chapter make it a most demanding read. It has taken me a month to complete. The significance of Michaela’s achievement makes it not only worthwhile, but imperative. If Michael Gove’s goal of breaking down education’s Berlin Wall is ultimately to be achieved, it will be Katharine Birbalsingh and her colleagues who have made the first breach. We now need to follow it up.