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.

John Bald: Ofqual’s evidence at a Select Committee this week demonstrated why it should be wound up

4 Sep

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.

Ofqual’s appearance at the Education Select Committee on Wednesday showed more clearly than anything to date just how far the organisation’s faith in statistical modelling and lack of understanding of education led it into error – and the education system into chaos.

Roger Taylor, its Chairman, started confidently, saying that Ofqual had wanted examinations to continue, but had been overruled by the Secretary of State. A second option had been to delay the examinations, and the third to find “some form of calculated grades.”

Gavin Williamson wrote to Ofqual on March 31 to say that students should receive “calculated results based on their exam centres’ judgements of their ability in the relevant subjects, supplemented by a range of other evidence.”

He went on to say that the approach should be “standardised across centres”, and that steps should be taken to maintain a similar grade profile to previous years. Ofqual then used “statistics and teachers’ rankings” to produce something which, said Taylor, was as fair as it could be.

The first error was to advise that examinations continue. This was impossible because some schools, following trade union advice, stopped direct online teaching as soon as lockdown started, while others – only a handful in the state sector – did not.

Stopping teaching when it would have been perfectly possible to continue it for A level classes would have put the affected pupils at a serious disadvantage. The same issue would have affected delayed examinations.

Ofqual’s statisticians could not have been expected to understand these considerations, but ministers did. Ofqual’s Board, which has highly experienced and expert practitioners, would have been able to explain the position but,  according to its official records, did not meet between 26th September 2019 and a late-night session on 15th August, when it put its collective foot down over the botched appeals process. Why not?

What seems to have happened instead is the delegation of the work to a technical group, which did not standardise teachers’ assessments, as instructed, but ignored them completely by applying a statistical model to their rankings. Michelle Meadows, Ofqal’s “Executive director, strategy, risk and research”, justified this by saying that teachers’ grades were not accurate, but that their rankings were.

There is some research evidence to support this view, notably from Daisy Christodoulou, but to ignore teachers’ grades completely was a victory for statistics over reality. Dr Meadows told the committee that 0.2 per cent of grades were “potentially anomalous” and that the statistical model – which I will not flatter with the term “algorithm” – was fair and unbiased.

Furthermore, as teachers were often unsure whether to enter candidates for lower or higher tiers in some subjects, Ofqual had removed any limitation on grades for foundation candidates. That sounds fair – until we see pupils with very limited skills awarded grade 9 on the basis of work they’d never even seen.

Conservative committee members Jonathan Gullis and Christian Wakeford made the case for reality, Gullis pointing to the unfairness of the model to large entries from FE colleges, and Wakeford echoing a pupil’s lament, “I’ve got somebody else’s D”.

The consequences of not applying the model to entries of fewer than five candidates, which favoured private schools and some subjects had clearly blind-sided Ofqual, as did the question why they did not run this year’s results, which they had had since June, through the model to see how far it worked.

Dr Meadows evaded this question, saying they had done all sorts of trials. The point is: why not this one, which would have allowed problems to be identified in advance? It is hard to see how a system that only claimed 60 per cent accuracy could result in only 0.2 per cent of potential anomalies, but Dr Meadows was undaunted. Analysis did not show any bias in the system.

Robert Halfon concluded by asking whether Ofqual was fit for purpose, to which the witnesses, all of them Ofqual officials, predictably replied in the affirmative.

I do not agree with them. Assigning children’s futures to a statistical model, without considering the quality of their work, or even looking at it, is not the action of a reasonable body, acting reasonably, and would have brought a well-deserved hammering on judicial review.

If Ofqual had moderated teachers assessments sensibly, perhaps, as suggested by Bob3142 in response to my previous article, by requiring schools to justify any overall change from past performance, we could have had a fair outcome. As it is, we have had to swallow the grade inflation, and leave schools and universities to sort out the mess. Ofqual should be wound up.

John Bald: Ofqual needs a Chairman and Chief Regulator who know about education. If these can’t be found, we must start again.

20 Aug

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.

Ofqual’s A level grades could not stand. The standard for a judicial review – that no reasonable person, acting reasonably, could have reached the decision in question (Associated Provincial Picture Houses v Wednesbury Corporation, 1948) was met with ease.

Failing a person without even looking at their work can never be reasonable. It is equally clear that Ofsted’s Saturday night U-turn was the result of its Board, which not met since last September, deciding  that it was not going to go down with the Chief Regulator and Chairman. Ofqual should have spent the money it wasted on Public First on some decent legal advice. A first-year law student could have told them.

Last week’s dog’s dinner has been followed by a dog’s breakfast. As universities struggle with the flood of candidates deemed successful, while the smaller number who feel let down by their schools are left with no redress, schools and sixth forms are hit with a huge increase in top GCSE grades.

In fairness to Gavin Wilkinson, his instruction to Ofqual when the exams were cancelled in March, was “that these students should be issued with calculated results based on their exam centres’ judgements of their ability in the relevant subjects, supplemented by a range of other evidence.”Ofqual was legally required to do this, but instead overruled these calculations via a statistical rigmarole that took no notice of them, except where they had five or fewer candidates in a subject.

The Chief Regulator and Chairman decided to do it their way,  and so hit the rocks. To that extent, the Government is justified in saying that the mess is Ofqual’s fault, and its expression of confidence in the Chief Regulator would shame a football club chairman.  The DfE’s own failure lay in not following its instructions through to ensure that they were carried out.   The Daily Mail’s front page cartoon of the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State as Laurel and Hardy sums it all up.

So, what now? First, we need to get rid of the idea that these grades are results. They are not, and cannot be relied on. Geoff Barton, of the Association of School and College Leaders, said that schools had given borderline candidates the benefit of the doubt, but this is not quite the case.

A university source from the North of England told me that many had given the most optimistic estimate of what might have been achieved with full teaching and revision, but that some had simply entered mock results, even if these had been lower than teachers’ estimates. No appeal was available, and university places had been lost as a result.

Barton’s view is more realistic than the corruption that took over GCSE school-based assessments, but the conflict of interest can’t be disguised.  When a school gives a pupil an A, it gives itself one too, and I’ve seen unjustified top grades lead to pupils struggling and failing in the next stage of education.

Ofqual itself is an odd fish. Devised by Labour in 2009 to counter well-founded suspicions of dumbing down and grade inflation, it is, like Ofsted, notionally independent, but must “have regard “ to government policy when publicly directed to do so.

This leaves the Chief Regulator very wide discretion, exemplified by Sally Collier’s statement, after lowering A level grade boundaries in 2017, that “I want the message to be that students have done fantastically well. All our kids are brilliant”.  If all are brilliant, all must have prizes.  In the end, Oqual’s Board meeting on Saturday simply obliged her to base judgements on Williamson’s instruction, rather than ignoring it. What the Board could not do was meet his instruction to take account of additional evidence, hence opening the floodgates.

The statute requires Ofqual to perform its functions “efficiently and effectively”. It has failed to do so, but it is unfair to judge an educational body on its handling of a pandemic. More important are its failure to ensure fair and equitable grading – leading to able pupils taking physics and languages receiving lower grades than in other subjects – and a structure that allows its chief regulator to base major decisions on personal views. Improving supervision by the Board, and appointing a Chairman and Chief Regulator who know about education may both help. Failing that, we need to start again.

John Bald: The lack of merit in A-level grading shows a misplaced belief in the power of statistical modelling

14 Aug

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 famous expression, “lies, damned lies, and statistics,” is extended by statistical modelling to take in the future as well as the past, whether to predict it, or, in the case of Ofqual, to dictate it. Those responsible, notably the Chair and Chief Regulator, are statisticians rather than specialists in education. They have educational advice, some of it excellent, but their main interest, as Roger Taylor, its Chair, put it,  is “How do you measure stuff?” When the “stuff” is the standards reached by children in school, and when evidence, such as analysis of the demands of questions in maths exams, or of the language used by candidates in English answers, shows that standards have fallen, there is a clear need to improve the way they are measured, and to apply a brake.

Examination reform has addressed the first part of the problem by cutting out the corruption that had grown up around school-based assessments and coursework. Shortly before its abolition, I had six clear examples in GCSE German alone, including teachers doing the coursework instead of pupils, and a grammar school head who destroyed the integrity of his staff by refusing to accept any grade below a pupil’s target, usually an A. Honest people suffered, and a very senior Ofsted official – not an HMCI – told me it was so widespread that Ofsted could do nothing about it.

The brake is another matter. Before 1993, A level grading was simple. The top five per cent of entrants got an A, for example, and other grades were also decided on percentages of entry, with sample papers kept to ensure comparability between years. A major change in 1993 doubled the proportion of A grades and destroyed the comparison papers, an act of vandalism without parallel in educational record-keeping. It was perhaps no accident that this coincided with the redesignation of polytechnics are universities, setting the scene for Blair’s disastrous target of sending half the population to university at the expense of lifelong debt. Michelle Donelan’s recent comments on this issue are a welcome sign that the tide has turned. Her point that every student with the right grades should be able to obtain the right place is a matter of principle. But what are the right grades, and how do we ensure that students receive them?

Yesterday’s report on A levels shows record numbers of A* and A grades so claims that the government has set out deliberately to penalise schools and teachers are clearly untrue. Donelan pointed out that more candidates got into their first choice of university this year than last.

Nevertheless, schools and candidates cannot be confident about having been graded on their merits. One successful headteacher described the results as “a dog’s dinner”, blaming Ofqual for a statistical straitjacket that did not discriminate between subjects, seriously downgrading the school’s strengths in its specialist areas. It had also ignored a substantial improvement in GCSE results among this year’s candidates, pulling them back on the basis of earlier results. Fortunately, Oxbridge had accepted all but one of the candidates who had received offers, and that case was pending decision.

Ofqual’s failure to discriminate accurately is founded on a misplaced belief in the power of statistical modelling, and a chronic failure in its leadership  to pay sufficient attention to detail when measuring “stuff”. We can expect hard cases to make headlines, and universities to do what they can to mitigate the most obvious injustices. We can also expect an application for Judicial Review.

John Bald: Academisation does not guarantee higher school standards

28 Jul

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.

West London Free School celebrated the end of the school year with a concert and an announcement by headteacher Clare Wagner that no lessons had been missed during lockdown. Pupils in Years 10 and 12, the pre-examination years, had taken school exams, and six pupils, from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds, had received offers from Oxford or Cambridge. The contrast with the National Education Union’s panoply of excuses not to do this, with the Guardian’s article on Manchester Grammar School, implying that state schools couldn’t possibly, and with the “Woke” lobby’s insistence that minority ethnic groups are essentially victims, could not be greater. Like Michaela, West London has travelled a long and sometimes difficult road, but has shown that the ethos of hard work and kindness works, and is the solution to the problems that have beset education since Labour’s botched introduction of comprehensives in the 60s. Like Michaela, West London is not (apart from twelve music places) selective, and, like Michaela, it has shown the difference between a genuine comprehensive school and a secondary modern.

There is a further contrast with Stantonbury International School, a sprawling, oversized comprehensive in Milton Keynes, which boasts of “Proud traditions, wide horizons and high achievement,” and has just received an Ofsted report, that is as bad as those that made headlines in the days of the late Sir Chris Woodhead. Numbers are high at 1,600, pupils are not safe, behaviour is poor, learning is haphazard, and examination results strongly negative from pupils starting points, with only three per cent achieving the English Baccalaureate (West London has 69 per cent). Like most comprehensive schools, it hides the full scale of the disaster behind the screen imposed by Lib Dems during the coalition, which provides an opaque summary rather than the full picture. Gavin Williamson should restore the requirement that schools publish their full results by grade and subject.

Stantonbury, an Academy with the Griffin Schools Trust since 2016, illustrates the difference between mass academisation and the best Free Schools, which are driven by the dynamism and vision of some of the best minds in education, as evidenced by Michaela’s second book, The Power of Culture, edited by Katharine Birbalsingh but written by members of staff. Each chapter is a detailed and intensely personal account of the author’s contribution, as head of department or year group, deputy, special needs co-ordinator, new teacher or school secretary. The result is a complete picture of its contribution to society as well as to its pupils’ education, including, but not limited to, some of the best examination results in history. Katharine Birbalsingh is not the fictional Miss Trunchbull of Crunchem Hall, but a smiling, happy person who uses authority much as the late Cardinal Hume did, in the service of the pupils.

New teachers are told that pupils will only give their best to a teacher if they love them, which comes from understanding that teachers care, and give their best to the pupils. This is not achieved by a raised voice, but by clarity and careful explanation, so that the pupils buy into the school’s ethos and share its purpose. At 380 pages, this is a demanding read, but worth it. It is the best book on school education that I’ve ever read, and better than I ever expected to find.

Back at Stantonbury, the Griffin Schools Trust has taken action to replace the senior team and the governors. But the school has been under its control since 2016, and was identified by Ofsted as requiring improvement two years later. It is fair to ask why it took virtual meltdown to lead to the necessary action, and whether this and some other multi-academy trusts are any better than the local authorities they replaced. Some of the most celebrated are demonstrably worse, and it was not good enough for Jeremy Hunt to tell me at the leadership hustings last year that I should focus on what had gone right rather than what had gone wrong.

An Academies pioneer once told me in private that “We haven’t got enough good people,” and the meltdown at Stantonbury proves the point. Barry Smith, who turned Great Yarmouth Charter Academy from sink to a thriving community in under a year, is now doing similar work in Hackney, and would do so wherever he went. Other distinguished headteachers, like Dr David Moody, formerly of Harris Battersea and now CEO of Academy Enterprise Trust are making a similar impact. But have we got enough of them? And are we making the best use of those we have? Until these questions are answered, the success of Academies as a national system of education will remain in the balance.

John Bald: Williamson is right. Pupils should sit in rows facing the teacher.

1 Jul

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.

Gavin Williamson’s statement that school pupils should sit in rows facing the teacher and pay attention, was predictably denounced by progressives as ill-informed, authoritarian, and near-fascist. Unfortunately for those who think he should be accountable to Twitter rather than Parliament, his view is correct, and supported not only by the results of schools such as West London Free, Michaela, and the best academies, but by the most recent evidence on the way the brain forms the neural networks that embody learning. His point about coronavirus spreading more easily if children sit facing each other is important in current circumstances, but the evidence on concentration and learning is permanent, and validates the reforms to teaching and learning made by headteachers and Conservative ministers since the opening of Mossbourne in 2005.

The most important source is the recent book How We Learn, by Professor Stanislas Dehaene, director of cognitive neuroimaging at the French national health and scientific research institute INSERM. Dehaene demonstrates by experiment that, from babyhood, we form working views and hypotheses about the world, which we modify when we encounter something that does not fit them. This continues throughout life, and is consistent with much scientific activity as discussed in Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. An example is Galileo’s discovery of the movement of Jupiter’s moons, which was inconsistent with the notion that the universe revolved round the earth. Dehaene sees the same process as the key to developing artificial intelligence, where computers are turned in on themselves to produce the same outcome, albeit less efficiently.

I’ve reviewed the book in detail here, and checked the review with the author. Salient points are his endorsement of phonics as the basis of teaching reading in French as well as English – to establish the alphabetic principle, which is then modified to take account of the respective variations in each language – and the effect of focus and concentration on the development of neural networks. We need, he says, to teach children to pay close attention to the teacher, not to restore the former “magisterial” style, where the teacher simply dictated and pupils copied, but to stimulate brain activity and hence learning. This is what the schools mentioned above set out to do, and the reason why their results have shot up. For the Secretary of State to recommend that others adopt this successful approach is not ideology, but common sense. The progressive “blob”, that still dominates teacher training in most – not quite all – universities does its best to ignore brain research, as it does not fit their goal of using education as a means of reshaping society, beginning with mixed-ability teaching. They would do better to put the evidence of brain research at the heart of their curriculum, and to investigate its application in each subject.

When this happens, the outcome is a happy and successful learning community in which issues of racism do not arise because the atmosphere of shared purpose and teamwork leaves no room for them.

As Katharine Birbalsingh put it on Any Questions:

“You should have seen my teachers on Monday. They were so thrilled. Everyone was beaming… One child who never smiles, and he beamed at me. We were all so excited to be back, and it is, it is lovely to be in school….”

Michaela staff had been working flat out during lockdown, with Zoom lessons – NEU please note – and other online content, but this was not an adequate substitute for school. “Children,” she said, “build a relationship with their teacher, that they have over the year, and that relationship is so important to that child, working hard and delivering for their teacher.”

This is also her solution to the issue of race. Britain, she says has perhaps only Canada as a competitor when it comes to “the best country in the world to live in with regard to race,” and this is one theme of her latest book, “The Power of Culture”. Children at Michaela sing patriotic songs and recite poems precisely to emphasise their full and active membership of society, in direct opposition to current campaigns that present them as victims. In the ten years since she stood up at our Conference and told the truth about the disintegration of education in London schools, Birbalsingh has endured marginalisation and insult – “Coconut” perhaps the most predictable – and has felt that she was swimming upstream. She is now so obviously correct that we may, to mix a metaphor, see the tide beginning to turn.

A footnote on the Huffington Post’s publication of a leaked draft of the DfE’s plans for September, including an apparent proposal to stop teaching some subjects. This is not the way to proceed. Focusing only on English, maths, and science will produce a boring grind, and not only for children whose interests lie in other directions. A better approach, as exemplified in Alex Quigley’s books, Closing the Vocabulary Gap and Closing the Reading Gap, is to build literacy and clear thinking into everything a school does, maximising brain activity and using school to build up the thinking power that highly educated parents develop in their children from birth. Schools that do this – see this 2005 report on Gateway School, Marylebone – close the gap. Those that don’t, perpetuate it.