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.

Nick Maughan: To shut schools again would inflict further harm on a damaged generation of children.

18 Dec

Nick Maughan is an investor and philanthropist.

In a rapid escalation, four London borough councils have this week backed shutting schools early and switching to online learning. This follows the most disrupted year for education for generations, where children have collectively missed millions of hours of teaching. To shut our schools early again would be a grave mistake, harm the most deprived children and further set back a generation already facing a mountain to climb in a post-pandemic world.

Back in March, when the pandemic began in earnest, there was a case for closing schools. Our understanding of Covid 19 was limited and, had it turned out to have been more deadly amongst younger people than we now know to be the case, it would have been vindicated. However, our understanding of the disease today is greatly improved. There is no longer the justification for shutting schools that we had in March, especially given the lost education children have already experienced.

Speaking earlier this week, the Head of Ofsted, Amanda Spielman, said she believed that many children are “at least six months behind where they should be”. Spielman also pointed out the especially difficult situation of disabled and special needs children, who have struggled with the extra restrictions placed on them by the pandemic. These are the significant problems educational authorities and institutions are already having to deal with. These will be worsened by closing schools.

In many respects, we are fortunate that this tragic pandemic hit in 2020. Modern technology in the form of smartphones, tablets, high-speed internet and top-quality audio-visual equipment is standard. All this has been conducive to establishing an alternative form of schooling that has allowed education to continue in some form. In the 1970s, there simply would have been no education, schools would have closed and that would have been it. For some, learning has been able to continue, even if not in its ideal form.

However, the word ‘some’ is the operative one. Technology is emblematic of the divide between worse and better off pupils. In crude terms, the wealthier children have access to better computers, audio-visual equipment and online resources, in a way that the most deprived children do not. It therefore stands to reason that an early return to online learning, or a late return to school, is going to hit the worst-off children hardest.

In time, programmes could be established that see better provision of higher quality tech for the worst-off children. However, in the here and now it simply isn’t possible to make up for the added disruption to learning which shutting schools would mean. Parents, and most importantly the children themselves, have had enough anxiety and uncertainty to deal with in 2020, it would be especially cruel to add one final dose as the year ends.

In addition to the further educational setbacks shutting schools would entail, we would be adding further to the long-term mental health problems already caused by the pandemic. Children in particular, who have had confidence in their futures shaken, are especially vulnerable. We owe it to them to offer as much stability as possible, and that means keeping schools open.

There are many things that can be done to help the most vulnerable children come back from the educational setbacks this year has inflicted on them. Catch up classes, provision of better technology, incentives for former teachers to help provide more focused tuition for in-need kids. All these measures will be important to help bridge a widening attainment divide. However, none of them can be a sustainable, effective substitute for keeping schools open. That must be the priority above all else.