Mark Lehain: Education after the pandemic. Keep calm – and carry on as we were.

25 Mar

Mark Lehain is the founder and former Principal of Bedford Free School.

Whilst some argue about what Covid has changed for good, for most of us the pandemic has just confirmed what we already thought. It’s no different when we look at discussions around schools either.

The issues being pushed at the moment under the “Covid changes everything” banner are the same as those being pushed by the educational establishment before: Ofsted and performance tables are awful; we should trust teachers to assess pupils for exams; GCSEs set kids up to fail; the curriculum crushes creativity. They’re the same things we have heard for decades, but dressed up in a shiny new corona wrapping.

One worrying shift is apparent though. We expect this kind of thing from the teaching unions and Simon Jenkins, but these demonstrably bad ideas have gained traction with some  who should know better. This includes people in the Conservative Party who should be more aware than most of the reasons for the successes in schools since 2010.

In addition, we need to be honest and admit that it is still too soon to know what, if any, major changes are needed, as we have limited hard evidence of the type and size of impact the pandemic has had on children and schools.

This will come in time, but right now we are largely being guided by anecdotes and educated assumptions, and these are inevitably influenced by our own prejudices – so we should proceed with caution.

What do these anecdotes and assumptions suggest right now? Well, attendance is much better than feared by some, and teachers are reporting how pleased their colleagues and pupils are to be back. Kids generally like school, and staff trusted their leaders to get them back safely.

In terms of learning, there do appear to be big gaps between what children know and can do versus where they’d normally be by now. This gap varies between family, class, school and region – depending on how hard they were hit by things during the past year, and the support at home for learning.

This is not remotely surprising – but we shouldn’t overreact and conclude that it all has to be addressed this year or next. For most children, it is going to be a marathon and not a sprint.

More time in school – be it longer days or longer terms – may be part of the solution, but only if the quality of what is going on is good, and if pupils are able to make the most of it. Our littlest children need to flop at the end of the day, and parents don’t want their kids cramming morning, noon, and night – additional schooling should be a mixture of the academic with the social and the physical.

That said, some things are more urgent when we look at the youngest and oldest pupils.

By now four, five, and six year-olds would normally be well on their way with, or have mastered, their phonics. They’d have discovered the joys of reading for themselves, and experienced that wonderful escape velocity moment when they can learn independently from books.

Lots will have cracked this at home with their family or during their spells in school, but too many won’t have. This needs to be a priority for a while before they can move on to learning everything else.

At the upper end of school, students who have been studying for GCSEs, BTECs and A-levels etc have missed huge chunks of their courses. So as well as ensuring Year 11 and Year 13s get grades this summer and can smoothly move to their next destination, we have to think hard about those in Years 10 and 12 who will sit exams in summer 2022. Given the time lost and gaps created, it is going to take a while to get back to “normal” in this regard.

Importantly, this is not a case for scrapping GCSEs. The chaos last summer, and possible repeat this year, shows exactly why exams that are externally set and externally marked are the fairest way to assess what people know and can do. We’re already hearing cases of pushy parents leaning on schools to bump up grades – why would we move to a system where this was business as usual?

Also, the UK is unusual in that loads and loads of students move around at 16; we need reliable exam grades at this point, to tell us what they know and can do, but also to help them get onto the right course, apprenticeship, or job.

More generally, just as the Government was only able to fund all the interventions we’ve seen because it sorted out the public finances after 2010, I think there is a case to be made that generally our school system was in a better position to address the pandemic challenges because of the reforms since then.

There is really interesting anecodotal evidence that the good academy trusts developed in the last decade have generally done the best job of supporting their staff, pupils, and families. They didn’t wait for the Department for Education, and got on with procuring laptops for kids, PPE for staff, or running extended days and term times last summer.

Add to this too many stories about local authorities leaving their remaining schools floundering between a rock and a hard place, and I’m even more convinced we need to finish the job when it comes to academisation.

Elsewhere, changes at Ofsted in recent years mean that it isn’t so reliant on SATs or GCSE grades for inspections – so they’re in a better position to get back into schools and see how they’re doing, especially in regards to pupils safety.

As for the siren calls to stop measuring what kids know and assessing instead “wellbeing” or “creativity” – it’s a false dichotomy: the way you make kids happy, healthy and creative is by ensuring all schools are safe and orderly places of learning, and that children experience a well-planned, knowledge-rich curriculum that exposes them to the best that’s been thought said & done – across the humanities, science, art, music, drama, technology – as well as english and maths.

Reading great literature is better for wellbeing than poorly-planned mindfulness sessions; quality P.E. is better for one’s mood than cod psychology; and end-of-course exams are less stressful than the endless pressure of coursework and “portfolio evidence gathering.”

So until and unless new evidence emerges to the contrary, what our children and schools actually need is for everyone to keep calm and carry on. We need schools to get back to doing what they were before the pandemic struck. That work was narrowing the gaps then, and with a concerted effort and greater focus, it can do so even quicker again now. Anything else is a distraction, and will hold back most those whose need is greatest.

Mark Lehain: Every employee should have the same rights at work – regardless of trade union membership

17 Mar

Mark Lehain is Director of the Campaign for Common Sense, and the founder and former Principal of Bedford Free School.

Last February, an interesting story emerged about a proposed change to the Employment Relations Act.

It was briefed that Number 10 was looking at ways to bolster employee rights for workers. Amongst other things, it was suggested that the union monopoly on accompaniment to grievance and disciplinary meetings would be ended, and workers given the freedom to take other people with them instead.

Currently, if you find yourself facing such a procedure with your employer you have the right to be accompanied to meetings by a trade union representative, an official employed by a trade union, or a fellow worker. If you want them at a hearing, your employer can’t say no.

However, only one-in-four workers are in a union these days. The other 75 per cent could be stuck in such situations – as legally an employer doesn’t have to allow them to bring anyone along other than a fellow worker. If that colleague isn’t an expert in employment law, then they’re going to be at a massive disadvantage.

It’s clearly wrong that employment rights depend on whether or not someone is in a union, and no other developed country has anything like it in law. It was thus disappointing, albeit understandable, that the proposals didn’t make much progress in the past year.

Now though, things appear to be on the move once more. A Ten Minute Rule motion has been put forward for this afternoon by Brendan Clarke-Smith, titled “Education Employment (Accompaniment to Hearings)”.

It seems to have the backing of a range of people, as well as the whips – which suggests broader support is there and that it could lead to change actually happening further down the line.

This particular motion focuses on accompaniment in education, and I can absolutely believe that there is more support for this move amongst school staff now. Many have had concerns about some unions’ actions during the pandemic. Indeed, at times it felt as though union actions were designed to drive moderates away – I have lost count of the number of teachers and support staff I know who have resigned memberships and signed up with the non-union alternative Edapt.

But it shouldn’t just be school staff who benefit from changes. Any reform should be across all sectors. Widening the ways workers get support can only be a good thing – for employees and employers alike.

There would be positive impacts across the board. More choice for those in sectors that are still heavily unionised – teachers, doctors, social workers, rail workers, and so on. And more support for workers in the gig economy and other sectors where union membership is low or non-existent.

And a happy side-effect would be to encourage existing unions to become more focused on, and responsive to, their members’ priorities to keep them happy. Hopefully there would be more action on pay and personal development, and less on political posturing.

We can already see that Edapt is making a positive impact in education, and that the MPS and MDU are doing the same in medicine. I could see a whole range of different organisations popping up if the law was changed. All staff – unionised or otherwise – should have more options open to them. It really is a common sense, win-win change, and one that is easy to implement.

Obviously we can expect the trade unions to argue against any such change – they benefit hugely from their current monopoly in law.

However, every employee, regardless of union membership, should have the same rights at work. Tweaking the law to allow this is a practical example of levelling up, and should gain support from across the Conservative Party and the House of Commons in general.

So when most viewers are changing channels after PMQs this afternoon, I’ll stay tuned for Clarke-Smith’s speech to see what reaction he gets, hoping that this is – finally – the start of a change for the better for everyone at work.

Mark Lehain: The end of unconscious bias training and Truss’s coming speech on equality – signs of a Ministerial anti-woke fightback.

16 Dec

Mark Lehain is Director of the Campaign for Common Sense, and the founder and former Principal of Bedford Free School.

Yesterday’s announcement that “unconscious bias training” (UBT) is being scrapped for civil servants is a very welcome one indeed.

UBT is perhaps the most conspicuous example of the kind of worrying thing that has crept into organisations in recent years under the guise of “equality and diversity”.

Obviously we want the workplace and elsewhere to be welcoming and supportive. First of all, it’s the right thing to do morally. It’s also the best way to ensure better performance: it makes it more likely that the widest possible pool of talent will want to work for you, and that as many customers as possible will buy your goods and services.

The issue with UBT and so many other “woke” approaches is that they actually do the opposite. They make it harder to have open and honest discussion between people, and create or deepen identity-based division and resentments.

This is because they take a very particular, quasi-religious, view on the world – everything is generally awful, due to the wrong people having power over everyone else – and insist that everyone adopts it. People who don’t buy into it are seen as part of the problem and heretical – and should be dealt with as such. History tells us that absolutist religions don’t make for happy countries, and “woke” workplaces are no different.

The good news is that UBT, like the Emperor’s New Clothes, doesn’t stand up to any kind of examination when you look at the evidence.

Indeed, it’s this paucity of supporting evidence that has allowed the civil service to make yesterday’s tactical retreat: in the Written Ministerial Statement announcing the end of UBT, it is said that “an internal review decided in January 2020 that unconscious bias training would be phased out in departments.” Yes, I’m sure it did…

(You’ll forgive me if I take this with a pinch of salt, given the enthusiasm with which senior civil servants were still pushing it as a response to the Black Lives Matters protests this summer. Still: Luke 15:7.)

So: the ending of UBT is a useful move in the right direction. But we shouldn’t consider it in isolation. Take a step back and it’s part of the broader move by the Government to rein in some of the more extreme politically correct excesses that went unchecked before.

In the past few months we’ve had the Department for Education remind schools of their obligation to teach political issues in a balanced way and Kemi Badenoch emphasise that Critical Race Theory shouldn’t be taught in schools as fact. Oliver Dowden told galleries and museums to not remove objects under pressure from activists. Liz Truss found a middle way through the minefield that is trans rights, and looks set to take the equality debate in a more consensual, small-c conservative direction with her speech tomorrow.

Then there’s the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities. It’s quietly getting on with the job of examining what evidence – as opposed to emotions – tells us about why there are differences in outcomes between groups of people in health, education, etc. Its report on COVID disparities gives a good idea of the approach being taken.

Much recent Westminster gossip has focused on who is in or out with the Prime Minister, and what this means about the broader direction of the government. Well, it seems to me that the Cummings and goings have made little difference to the growing importance of using the evidence and existing law to take the heat out of the culture wars.

Some left-wing activists like to present this as a hard-right government stoking things up, but they couldn’t be further from the truth. All we’ve seen so far is politicians asking the public sector and taxpayer-funded organisations to keep their practice in line with existing law and public opinion, and focus on their core functions, not wokery.

There’s everything to gain from this approach too: less taxpayer cash will be wasted, performance should improve, and it’s very popular with the public too.

Yesterday’s move against Unconscious Bias Training was very conscious – we should hope for more of this kind of thing in the months ahead.

Mark Lehain: The Government has got it right on next year’s exams

3 Dec

Mark Lehain is Director of the Campaign for Common Sense, and the founder and former Principal of Bedford Free School.

In spite of the impression that the media may have given at the time, the exam mess this summer wasn’t unique to the UK – many other countries struggled to agree on what to do. This isn’t surprising as there are lots of different views on what qualifications are for and how best to award them.

So we can perhaps forgive making it up on the hoof this year, but there is no excuse for being like that in 2021. Giving advance notice of how things will work next summer is one of the most important steps politicians can take to make the whole situation less daunting.

However, making the right kind of decision is even more important. This is why today’s announcement by Gavin Williamson about exams going ahead in England is such good news for pupils, and why the choices made in Scotland and Wales are so disappointing.

Amid the Covid chaos, it’s vital we remember the reason why the UK has the kind of exam systems that it does. Bear with me for a minute, as it’s a bit geeky – but super important. Sadly it seems to have been forgotten by some nationalist politicians, and it’s the poorest kids who are going to get hurt the hardest as a result.

There are loads of different ways of testing people. No form of assessment is perfect. Whether we use teacher grades, interviews, open book tests, unseen exams, portfolios – they all have strengths and some major drawbacks.

Over time, though, we have come to understand that for the UK’s school systems standardised national assessments are the best and fairest way to measure what pupils have learnt, and how different schools or groups of pupils are performing.

This means we want our assessments to be as accurate as possible – that is to say, we want them to be the best reflection of what pupils know and can do. And for this, we need them to be as valid and reliable as possible.

By valid we mean the assessment actually measures the thing we want to know about, not something else. And by reliable we mean that it measures it consistently, so that the same pupil would get the same result over time, or two pupils with the same knowledge would get the same result as each other.

The big advantage that national standardised exams have is that we can make them more valid and more reliable than any other method of assessment. This is why sticking with exams as far as possible for 2021 is so important. It is a question of fairness.

With this in mind, the measures announced today for England’s GCSEs and A-levels are sensible moves to address the uncertainty and unavoidable disparities that Covid has created for schools and pupils.

As well as delaying exams to provide more teaching time, giving advance notice of some of the topics that will be covered will help kids that have missed more lessons and are struggling to catch up in time. Allowing more exam aids, like formulae sheets, will reduce the memorisation pressure for some. Having a set of additional exams as backup for pupils who miss the main papers due to illness or self-isolation is a simple but very reassuring measure that also maintains accuracy of assessment.

Even allowing some grade inflation like that we had this summer feels reasonable now – think of it as a sort of Quantitative Easing for exams: not ideal, but a necessary evil for now to get through things.

Overall then, next summer I think England’s 16 and 18 year olds will get the best deal possible given the unprecedented circumstances they’ll have been through.

But boy do I feel for pupils and teachers in Scotland and Wales, where politicians have abandoned exams and moved to teacher-assessment and other approaches. Not only are these much less valid and reliable, they’ll cause more interruptions to school life across the academic year, and create even more work for hard-pressed teachers already dealing with Covid disruptions.

However, we are where we are, and at least everyone knows what is going to happen. Now we need to get behind teachers, pupils, and their families, and support them through the rest of the academic year. High-stakes qualifications are stressful enough at the best of times, but in 2021 they’re going to be even more so, whatever steps are taken to mitigate things.

Hopefully by the time next summer’s results are awarded, life will be largely back to normal and we can get back to business-as-usual: bickering over discipline in schools, or why girls do better than boys. Bring it on!

Mark Lehain: The Government can’t afford to surrender in the war on woke

20 Nov

Mark Lehain is Director of the Campaign for Common Sense, and the founder and former Principal of Bedford Free School.

While the media and Westminster insiders have been excited about all the Cummings and goings at Number 10, one has to wonder what the rest of the country makes of it.

My hunch is that people care more about rising unemployment and falling incomes than who is up and down in Downing Street. That said, even if personnel changes had not occurred, we are about to enter a post-Covid and Brexit transition phase, and so it is fair to consider what the Government should do from here.

Among a whole range of other urgent issues, the country will have to confront the decimation of the private economy and public finances wrought by the pandemic and measures taken to combat it. Things will be challenging, to say the least.

So it’s quite understandable that some are arguing that as part of Boris’s Johnson’s Reset, the Government should stop its (so far modest) attempts to address the left-wing political and cultural biases that have spread unchallenged through so much of life.

They argue that it is a distraction from the business of economic recovery and government delivery, and that it is divisive at a time when the Government needs to bring people together. I think they are wrong for two very important reasons.

First of all, as a wise person once said, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” And until recently, Conservative-led governments did little to address the spread of divisive values and ideas from academic faculties and leftist movements into the civil service, executive suites, and elsewhere.

Wary of appearing unkind or stuffy, a blind eye was turned as universities discouraged freedom of thought and imposed niche ideologies on staff and students. Ministers stayed quiet as children were taught by their schools that “white privilege” is a fact, or told by groups such as Mermaids and Stonewall that their sex is whatever they feel it is.  And they did little to challenge the sneering and condescension by the arts, media, and others towards those who didn’t share their outlook on life.

The facts of life are (small-c) conservative but, time and again, opportunities to point this out were avoided. Conservatives didn’t start the fire – that was the radical left – but neither did they try to extinguish the flames as they burned through society and scorched the common ground.

Only recently have ministers started to challenge the metropolitan grip on quangos, pushed back against Critical Race Theory, reminded schools that they should be politically impartial, and told museums they shouldn’t bend to the whims of activists. All this shouldn’t be remotely controversial for anyone in the centre ground of politics. They’re modest moves to allow some diversity of thought in sectors otherwise captured by groupthink – not Tory takeovers.

So this Government can focus solely on economic and environmental policies, and pretend that values and culture don’t matter. But if it does, woke ideas will continue to hollow out institutions, turn people against one another, and ultimately undo any other good work it does.

The other reason as to why I’d encourage Downing Street ‘21 to persevere with challenging the cultural hegemony is that it makes good political sense: it is where the vast majority of the public are.

It’s not that people are opposed to improving the lives of trans people or examining ways to reduce disparities in health or education outcomes by different communities – far from it. They lead rich and diverse lives, have friends from all backgrounds, and families of all shapes and sizes. They care deeply about others, and want to do their best for their community and country.

They just don’t want to be told that they have to do this in a certain way, or hold specific views, or “educate themselves” to see the world as determined by academics who’ve never had to turn a profit or balance a household budget.

Research at the Campaign for Common Sense has found this again and again – on everything from political correctness, to comedy, to protests, historical statues, and the BBC. In contrast to the impressions given by the media, arts and political sectors, across all ages, socio-economic groups, and regions, people hold common sense, down-to-earth views on values and culture.

I saw this as a parliamentary candidate in the north east last winter. I was repeatedly told on the doorstep that politicians patronised voters who didn’t share their views on things. People also said that under Johnson they felt they were finally being listened to. In so many ways, Brexit was a proxy for the desire for their views and communities to be respected, not treated as something to be made better by others.

Whoever has the ear of the Prime Minister when things settle needs to bear this in mind as they plan the next stage of things. Labour and the Lib Dems are still obsessed with niche causes, and Nigel Farage and Laurence Fox are waiting in the wings to peel away voters if the government drifts that way again too.

Come the next election, Brexit will have been long done. However, the voters who delivered such a stonking majority in 2019 can be held together, but only if Johnson and his team show respect for them and their values.

So the war on woke must continue – both to bring people together as a country and an electoral coalition. It might mean a few awkward conversations for people at posh dinner parties, but it’s the right thing to do. The next few years are certainly going to be interesting times.

Mark Lehain: “The Government stands unequivocally against critical race theory.” The significance of Badenoch’s speech this week.

22 Oct

Mark Lehain is Director of the Campaign for Common Sense, and the founder and former Principal of Bedford Free School.

On Tuesday, towards the end of an otherwise run-of-the-mill debate on Black History Month in the Commons, Kemi Badenoch said the following:

“I want to be absolutely clear that the Government stand unequivocally against critical race theory… We do not want teachers to teach their white pupils about white privilege and inherited racial guilt. Let me be clear that any school that teaches those elements of critical race theory as fact, or that promotes partisan political views such as defunding the police without offering a balanced treatment of opposing views, is breaking the law.”

And boom: there it is – the clearest statement yet that the Government is serious about taking on some of the hard-left ideas that have taken hold of large chunks of the public and private sectors in recent times.  You can see the whole of Badenoch’s speech above.

Her words build on guidance released by the Department for Education last month, which contained a reminder for schools of their legal obligation to “offer a balanced presentation of opposing views” when covering political issues.

The requirement for schools to be impartial on such matters is longstanding including private schools and academies – but you wouldn’t think this was the case judging by the reaction of some people. Even John McDonell popped up to claim it was more evidence that a “drift towards extreme Conservative authoritarianism is gaining pace”, bless him.

Reminding people of a law that growing numbers are ignoring is important, but not in itself enough.

My campaign group, The Campaign for Common Sense has been tracking the issue of biased schools for a while now, and we’ve four simple, low-effort, suggestions as to how schools can be helped to get back on track.

First of all, the Department for Education should work with the Headteacher unions to develop further guidance and exemplification on the kinds of issues that are tripping schools up. (Sadly, there’s no point talking to the big teacher unions as they’re completely in thrall to Critical Race Theory and other leftist ideology.)

Next, Gavin Williamson should write to the Headteacher and Chair of Governors (or Trustees) of every school in England. He would remind them of their obligations to impartiality, and share the results of the union collaboration to assist with compliance.

Third, schools are already obliged to publish curriculum details on their website, and we propose that they add to this a statement from the Headteacher confirming one thing: that they have checked the curriculum programme and resources and are satisfied that pupils will received a politically impartial education. (They should be doing this already, so this is literally two-minutes work for them.)

Finally, Ofsted should spot-check for impartiality as part of their inspection process; this could be whilst evaluating the “Quality of Education” or “Personal Development” areas. If non-compliance meant a school’s all-important “Overall Effectiveness” judgement couldn’t be “Good” or better, you can be sure political balance would be restored very quickly indeed.

These steps would go a long way to improving things for pupils, but it raises questions about the wider public sector.

The previous Permanent Secretary at the Department for Education was particularly keen on Critical Race theory and other “woke” ideas, but even though he has been moved on the department still runs “Project Race”, and has civil servants who act as “Race Champions”. Much time and money is also given over to other politically correct initiatives including gender identity, unconscious bias, and so on. And of course, this is happening across all departments, not just education.

Stopping civil servants from allocating precious resources to these kinds of things is vital if politically contested ideas are going to be removed and the Civil Service depoliticised.

It probably shouldn’t stop there, though – after all, lots of public services are provided by quangos, third sector organisations, and charities. Obviously, how these organisations spend their own or other people’s money is absolutely their own business. But future public sector grants and contracts should insert a clause that the money that comes from them cannot be spent on politically contested ideas and practices.

All of the above would make a big difference to the focus and quality of lots of our public services. However, these changes would pale into insignificance if the government got the right people into key roles.

Consider how Liz Truss has taken the heat out of the issue of transgender rights and self-ID. Or the way the Commission of Race and Ethnic Disparities is moving the issue of racism away from emotions and onto evidence & practical improvements.

And look at the impact of a quiet letter to museums about historical displays places previously under pressure to remove objects are now standing firm.

The bad ideas we’re challenging are like the Emperor’s New Clothes – point out how wrong they are, and they quickly fall apart.

Marvel at the impact Badenoch made with a few words in parliament. Now imagine a government filled with similarly clear-sighted souls. We could quickly get back to common sense issues and improving everyday lives. Here’s hoping that Badenoch’s speech in parliament marked the start of a concerted push, and not a chance blast in the dark.