Emily Carver: It is unacceptable that children are arriving at school unable to talk

22 Jun

Emily Carver is Head of Media at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

What on earth is this country coming to when children are arriving at primary school unable to speak, use the toilet properly, or hold a cup?

You could be forgiven for thinking that this is unbelievable in Britain.

But across the country, there are children heading off to school unable to say their own name, asking for a ‘bot bot’ instead of a drink of water, being taught not to devour their food with their bare hands and, shockingly, not knowing how to use the toilet on their own.

This would be bad enough, but it turns out that at the same time as children are failing to grasp the absolute basics at home and in school, inspectors from Ofsted have been marking down primary schools if children aren’t taught about… gender identity.

(Ofsted being a regulator that only recently quit the controversial Stonewall charity’s diversity training.)

If you were in any doubt that our institutions have been captured by gender identity ideology, a report last week in the Telegraph revealed that a lack of teaching of ‘gender identity’ and ‘gender diversity’ played a part in the downgrading of two primary schools in 2019 and 2020 by Ofsted inspectors.

Another school that was rated ‘inadequate’ was marked down in part because it had not taught pupils about ‘gender reassignment’. Apparently, the absence of such teaching at primary school level “reduces their ability to be respectful and tolerant of others in society”.

I’m sure most parents would forgo the ‘tolerance’ for basic literacy and numeracy.

Forgive me, but if teachers are reporting that five-year-old children are lacking the most basic communication and mobility skills, and head teachers are flagging that their reception classes are spending so much time on basic care that children have little time left for learning to read and count, then pupils learning about whether or not they may have been born into the wrong body may be ever so slightly beyond them.

What we are seeing now is a catastrophic culmination of three deeply undesirable issues: poor or negligent parenting, the devastating impact of lockdowns on early years’ learning, and a frankly absurd overemphasis on woke ideology in classrooms.

This last is enabled by messy equalities legislation, and is something Nadhim Zahawi, the Education Secretary, is currently battling with.

It was warned many times during the pandemic that lockdowns would have a devastating impact on child development – not least in terms of speech development.

Zahawi has admitted that school closures were a mistake, but the impact will be felt throughout the education system for years to come, with thousands of children having gone missing from school altogether.

It’s become a perfect storm. There was a natural lag when it came to seeing the economic consequences of lockdowns, and the same thing is happening when it comes to the stunting of child development.

The gap between those at the very best schools and the rest has been allowed to widen, and it’s clear that children are being let down both by their guardians at home, their schools, and a government that seems unable to get to grips with the system’s inadequacies.

Just look at some of these damning revelations in the Times:

“A head teacher from Nottinghamshire said that her school spent little time on literacy or numeracy in reception because it had to focus on basic care. Some four and five-year-old children joined reception class unable to say their own names and having drunk only from baby bottles. One child was brought to school in a shopping trolley.”

Another school leader reported that a child had to undergo extensive physiotherapy because they had spent so much time in front of the telly that they didn’t have the strength in their legs to walk around the school.

This may be an extreme example, but as a YouGov poll of teachers by the early years charity Kindred Squared found, nearly half of pupils starting in reception were not deemed ‘ready for school’ in 2020, up from 35 per cent the previous year.

The impact on those children whose parents have sent them to school well-equipped to learn must be considerable.

What is clear is that parents are becoming more and more reliant on schools – and the state – to play the role of mum and dad, as we saw with the controversial debate over free school meals.

It should be common sense that teaching a child to use the toilet is a basic parental responsibility, and that teachers are there to supplement a child’s learning, not to replace parental guidance.

In terms of resources, it may well be that we’ve got our priorities slightly skewed too. As the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) recently highlighted, while health spending is set to increase by 42 per cent between 2010 and 2025, the education budget will have risen by less than three per cent in the same time period. This seems hard to justify, when around 200,000 children left primary school last year unable to read and write.

When one looks at it in the round, adults – both at home and in government – have let children down. Badly.

The post Emily Carver: It is unacceptable that children are arriving at school unable to talk first appeared on Conservative Home.

Grammar schools. If Downing Street really is prepared to act, MPs need to make sure it counts

21 Jun

At this point, one of the more compelling cases for the Conservatives finally lifting the ban on new grammar schools – as the Times reports Downing Street is considering – is that the Party might start thinking about something else.

Education is an important policy area which the Party has a habit of neglecting, as I noted last week in the furore over the Schools Bill. What attention many backbenchers can spare seems to be mostly about grammars.

Constantly raising the subject alienates whoever it is going to alienate, whilst failing to deliver means that nobody is won over. It’s an entirely unproductive loop to be stuck in.

Allowing grammar schools to expand or open afresh would also – provided the Government wins the next election and/or Labour doesn’t immediately can the policy – provide some much-needed fresh data to an evidence base about the efficacy of grammars which is by now more than half a century out of date.

Whilst there are 164 grammar schools still operating (full disclosure: I was lucky enough to go to one), there are serious problems with trying to assess the impact of a widespread rollout by extrapolating from that current stock.

As I’ve noted elsewhere, a lot of the features of grammar schools’ intake profiles that opponents object to are at least partly artefacts of how rare they are, with existing institutions concentrated largely in a few well-to-do areas of England and with extraordinary competition for each place.

But ‘bring back grammars’ does not a policy make, and there will clearly be wrangling about what any proposal entails. Will new sites be limited to areas earmarked for ‘levelling up’? Will Rob Halfon get his way and see places reserved for less well-off pupils?

Then there’s the electoral politics. I don’t know what data David Canzini might be looking at to justify this pivot by Downing Street, but it would be interesting to know what, if anything, has convinced Tory strategists that this would be an effective wedge issue against Labour.

Yes, areas which retained their grammar schools tend to be rock solid in support of them, for all the supposed horrors of the Eleven Plus. But there will scarcely be time to get many new selective schools, or satellite sites of existing schools, open before the next election. Will the promise of new schools be so effective?

Which also raises one other question.

This Government is developing a bad habit of stumbling into policy proposals seemingly not because of any great enthusiasm for the policy per se, but because it is viewed as fertile ground for a fight with the Opposition or other sundry forces of wokery and darkness. Recent muttering about withdrawing from the ECHR being just the most recent example.

Now there is a respectable case for withdrawing from the jurisdiction of Strasbourg, just as there is a respectable case for selective education. But ministers are unlikely to make the best cases they can on such important subjects if their primary concern is the optics of the battle.

Those MPs who have championed grammar schools have done so in good faith and for a long time. If this really is their moment, they have a responsibility to ensure that we get sensible, workable proposals, and not let their cause be misappropriated by the hunt for a few good headlines.

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The strange story of the Schools Bill – and the taming of Gove’s education dream

17 Jun

It has been a long time since education really felt like it was at the top of the Government’s agenda. The issue which once seemed the defining issue of Coalition-era Conservatism only warranted a single page in Boris Johnson’s 2019 manifesto.

But even so, the claim levelled by Fraser Nelson in his column last week is extraordinary.

For those of you without a Daily Telegraph subscription, here’s the precis: former education secretaries have been giving the Schools Bill a proper mauling in the House of Lords, because it contains a sweeping power-grab by the centre which threatens to undo all the good work on school autonomy since 2010.

Perhaps more explosively still, Nelson alleges that the reason for this is that Nadhim Zahawi and his team were simply not across the legislation when it was rushed out, allowing civil servants at the DfE to effect a “revenge of the Blob”.

The Education Secretary is widely perceived as one of the stronger members of the current Cabinet; he ranked second in our most recent League Table. If that were truly the grip he had over his own Department, that would not bode well.

So what is actually going on with the Schools Bill? The answer comes in two parts: the legislative side, and the ideological side.

Part 1) The Bill

The common thread running through every version of what happened with the Schools Bill is that Downing Street needed it to go in May – so it went in May, when perhaps it ought not to have done so.

According to Nelson, this meant that it was tabled before Zahawi and his team were properly across its provisions. Sources at the Education Department deny this, and offer if anything a stranger version of events. It goes like this.

There is apparently an internal review currently being carried out by the Department (its membership and terms of reference were not available) about the rationalisation of the regulations governing academies. The plan is that the final form of the Education Bill will enact, more or less, the recommendations of this review.

Yet given the parliamentary timetable, there was not time to have this review conclude before tabling the Schools Bill. Instead, the Secretary of State decided to run the two concurrently.

This meant that the Bill had to be drafted very broadly, which is a big reason it looks so much like a power grab by the centre. But apparently, the plan is what when the review reports, the Government itself will remove most of the objectionable provisions.

Suffice to say, this is an extremely unusual way to proceed with legislation, if indeed that is what happened.

But there are a few gaps in the story. For starters, sources closer to Downing Street report that they thought the Bill was ready to go, and have watched it catch fire on the launchpad with some bemusement.

Nor did anyone do any pitch-rolling with Lords Agnew, Baker, Nash, and the others causing trouble in the Upper House. Whilst Agnew and Nash are apparently now working with the Department to put things right, nobody was able to confirm whether or not this arrangement was in place before they savaged it in debate. One assumes not.

Finally, I wasn’t able to get an answer about what would happen in the event that the review didn’t conclude in time and the Department found itself getting the Schools Bill close to the finish line without having been told which bits to take out. That feels like something that should have been worked out.

Either way, the strategy wasn’t briefed out and so now Zahawi’s clarifications in his speech of yesterday are being written up, perhaps unfairly, as a U-turn in the making.

Part 2) The Policy

So much for how the Bill is coming about. What is it actually doing? At one end of the debate, Nelson claims it is a betrayal of the entire free schools revolution. At the other, it’s merely a tidying-up exercise. Which is it?

As far as we can make out, it’s a bit of both.

The DfE insists that a huge range of the powers the Bill is allegedly ‘taking’ are in fact already exercised by the Secretary of State via the complex and somewhat haphazard arrangements which currently govern academies. The Bill merely moves a lot of these onto a statutory footing.

(However, they do concede that because officials have copied over headlines – “nature and quality of education,” “procedures and criteria for admission,” “suitability of staff” and “the spending of money” – and not the detailed contents, it does make the Bill appear much more sweeping than it is in reality.)

This isn’t an entirely neutral change – Lord Baker, the man behind University Technical Colleges, has raised concerns that it will make it harder for schools to assert their rights than it is under contract law. But it falls short of an “audacious, unannounced counter-reformation”.

Nonetheless, it would be false to describe the Bill as just a rationalisation or tidying-up exercise. There does seem to be an ideological gear-shift underway: towards standardisation.

This doesn’t mean uniformity; DfE sources insist that they intend only to ‘regulate against failure’, not ‘regulate for excellence’. But having allowed a thousand flowers to bloom under Gove, the idea now seems to be taking what has worked best and trying to apply it to the whole system.

Multi-academy trusts (MATs) are viewed as the best way of spreading excellence through the system, so the push is to rationalise the State’s relationship with MATs and regulate them as effectively as possible, including expanding the DfE’s capacity to intervene against trusts which are actually failing or in serious financial difficulty.

Viewed one way, this could be seen as a culmination of the original academy agenda. Zahawi certainly frames it that way.

But it is nonetheless seems to signal a shift away from the original vision of Conservative education reform, which placed a much greater emphasis on individual schools having the freedom to do their own thing.

This point was raised in the Lords, but also seems to have caused some division within the Department. Zahawi apparently blocked efforts to include provisions in the Schools Bill that would have compelled individual free schools or single-academy trusts (SATs) to join MATs.

But given the direction of travel, that feels like a stay of execution. It makes sense from the Department’s point of view  – much easier to do business with a manageable number of national chains than a sprawling system of individual schools. The pressure to move against those will be continual, and not every Secretary of State will resist it.

For all that, however, this sort of active confusion is still preferable to further years of quiet drift. It is far better that Zahawi take an active approach to his brief than keep his head down and consign the Conservative education agenda to yet more years of quiet neglect.

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Join Nadhim Zahawi MP at the ConservativeHome Future Jobs Conference for just £3

15 Jun

We are pleased to invite you to the ConservativeHome Future Jobs Conference – the first in a new series of half-day conferences from ConservativeHome – which will take place on the morning of Tuesday 5th July.

This event will explore the changing needs and nature of jobs, skills, the workforce, the British economy and the workplace, and accompanying challenges and opportunities in policy-making.

The morning will feature a keynote speech from Nadhim Zahawi MP, Secretary of State for Education, and two further discussions further exploring the future of work, ranging from infrastructure and technology; to universities and urban centres.

The conference, which is held in partnership with Amazon, will take place in Central London, plus it will be streamed live online via our website.

In keeping with ConservativeHome’s founding principle of making politics accessible to grassroots conservatives, we’ve ensured that tickets are affordable.

Tickets booked before 24th June are priced at an Early Bird rate of £5.

Even better, if you click here and subscribe to the ConservativeHome daily email, then you will get a promo code giving you an even more discounted rate of just £3.

Click below to get your ticket – we look forward to seeing you there:

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David Willetts: Jobs and living standards – thinking for the long term

7 Jun

David Willetts is President of the Resolution Foundation. He was Minister for Universities and Science 2010-2014. His book A University Education is published by OUP.

The challenge to Boris Johnson’s leadership is of course the immediate political issue grabbing all the headlines. But behind the adrenalin rush of the day’s political crisis, there are still the long term issues which responsible parties of government have to think about and try to address. And behind today’s living standards crisis are still the deeper issues of how well the British labour market is doing and what it means for jobs and wages.

First, the good news. Britain is a high employment economy with a flexible labour market. We are still benefitting from Margaret Thatcher’s labour market reforms of the 1980s. Ironically, it was the threat to these from Jacques Delors in his notorious speech to the TUC which led to her Bruges speech starting the movement which led to Brexit.

But the EU did not actually impose substantially more regulations after that. Instead, the main interventions have been domestic – notably the minimum wage. And contrary to the fears that many of us had, including myself, it did not lead to a surge in unemployment.

There is however still the problem of the NEETS – people who are Not in Education, Employment or Training. It peaked in the 1990s at over a million young people aged 16-24. Now it is down to about 800,000.

Research we will shortly be publishing at Resolution Foundation suggests the fall is almost entirely amongst young women who are less likely to be having kids when they are young and, even if they do so, are more likely to carry on working. There has however been no real improvement among young men.

There has also been a shift in job satisfaction, especially amongst the low paid. In the past the low paid used to be more satisfied with their work than they are now. The minimum wage might have boosted their pay, but it also increased the pressures on them from managers and employers, especially if they are insecure contract workers.

Moreover there are still abuses of the labour protections which successive political parties have brought in – that is why the 2019 Conservative Manifesto promised a single effective body to enforce legal rights instead of the mish-mash of weak and under-resourced agencies we have at the moment. We should have a simpler, stronger system. It would be great if that pledge were now implemented.

Our employment rate for 16-64 year olds reached an all time peak of over 76 per cent before Covid struck. Although our employment rate is high, it is not yet back to its pre-Covid peak. The problem is that a swathe of older workers haven’t gone back to work. They appear to have opted for a quiet life and early retirement.

If they are still of working age and claiming unemployment benefits we should be expecting them to engage actively in job search, and they should be accessing the same range of back to work initiatives as younger unemployed people.

The biggest problem is that we are a low pay economy and that is above all because we are a low productivity economy. The living standards crisis has been building for years as our economy has underperformed. It is hard to boost living standards by tax cuts when Government borrowing is so high and productivity is so low. Instead, we boost living standards by a work force with more education and trainingm together with more business investment behind them.

We had a vivid example of this problem in the Chancellor’s package to help people with the rising cost of living. It was big and bold and widely welcomed. But it was all about transferring money to help people with these costs. There was nothing about actually investing in the home insulation and the innovative domestic heating systems which bring household costs down in the long run.

One reason for that omission is that the Treasury is scarred by the failure of successive green deals. The biggest single reason why they fail is that we are short of the trained workers to insulate the houses or install the new boilers. There is a lot of rhetoric about boosting vocational training, but we need to do more to deliver it in practice.

These jobs can’t all be created straightaway, but we need a plan of gradually increased funding to lower home heating costs by investment and innovation with a proportion of the budget going specifically on the vocational qualifications linked to those programmes. That would show we meant business about boosting living standards in the only way that makes those gains solid and sustainable.

Ben Bradley: In Nottinghamshire we are ensuring that “levelling up” is not just a slogan

7 Jun

Cllr Ben Bradley is the MP for Mansfield and the Leader of Nottinghamshire County Council.

Levelling up, by its very nature, is not something that can be imposed from London. The Prime Minister was absolutely right last year when he talked about empowering communities and local leaders in order to deliver on this key political, social, and economic priority.

It’s often said that levelling up is just a sound bite, or that it doesn’t mean anything. I wonder if those journalists and commentators are really paying attention, because there is a whole world of work going on. It would be nice to be able to neatly package it all and tie it up with a bow, to present to the public and the media, but it’s not that simple. This programme of work is not just one thing, or another. It’s vast, it’s long term, and it’s a complex map of inter-relating parts.

It’s also different in different parts of the country, because as I said, you can’t dictate local needs from Whitehall. From that perspective, I can only really speak from an East Midlands perspective, but the moves that are afoot in my region could be profound.

We’ve got a whole world of progress being made here in a range of areas, from skills and job creation, to education, infrastructure, and public service reforms. Not much of it is physically visible yet, in all honesty, just a small proportion. These plans are long term. Not all of them are directly Government-led. In some cases, the public sector is just trying to support other stakeholders, and in others it’s entirely privately funded. It doesn’t matter who is doing it, does it, in truth. What matters is outcomes.

So skills then… What is happening in my part of North Nottinghamshire on skills? The major development is a new partnership between Nottingham Trent University and local colleges, starting with West Notts college in my constituency. This means that Mansfield is becoming a University Town, with high quality provision delivered by the country’s most popular university. This partnership is expanding to include other colleges, and for the first time we’re beginning to see a local FE and HE sector that is working together rather than competing for ‘bums on seats’. This is a game changer, as it means in the future we’ll have a more coherent and high quality local offer, and it means that local young people will not have to leave in order to get the kind of qualifications and career they desire. Towns Fund projects for new skills provision around Aerospace, Automation, and more, will come to fruition in the coming years.

We’re a Schools Improvement area in the Department for Education, which means extra funds and support to improve school outcomes in the county’s most disadvantaged areas of Ashfield and Mansfield. We’re having two secondary schools entirely rebuilt, standards are improving, and we’re also talking to the Department about the Schools White Paper and what might be possible over the year ahead. We’re taking big strides in education across all levels.

All of that, and more young people staying in North Notts to learn, means we need to provide them with jobs in the area too. Part of levelling up has to be providing the kinds of high skilled, high paid jobs that local people want and providing them here within commutable distance, as well as, of course, ensuring that they have access to the training and qualifications they need to take those opportunities.

Again, we have a whole range of things going on, including major regionally and nationally significant projects that will create thousands of jobs. The East Midlands Freeport will bring jobs across a range of sectors, like engineering, energy, and logistics to the area. Our East Midlands Development Corporation, which will be finalised in the Levelling Up Bill, is master planning huge areas of the county and working to attract investors in areas like Toton and Ratcliffe-on-Soar, where new commercial and industrial development will interact with recently announced investment in HS2 and local rail projects. I envisage that in the longer term, the DevCo will be able to use its powers and capacity to pick up new sites too and make the most of the potential of areas like the M1 corridor through North Notts and North Derbyshire. We’re in the final stages of bidding for a multi-billion pound investment in STEP Fusion Energy, and Bassetlaw is the perfect future home for the proposed prototype power plant. This too would bring thousands of highly skilled jobs.

I mentioned HS2. Across the country, outside of the London to Birmingham corridor, again our area is set to benefit most. We’ll have four HS2 hubs across Notts and Derbyshire, plus a commitment to growth and a new station at another site at Toton in the middle. We’ll cut the commute from Derby and Nottingham to Birmingham down to 26 minutes, with a £12 billion investment, and open up new local and regional routes too, to connect people in to work. We have plans through the Levelling Up Fund to open up new roads and access routes to further potential development sites, and of course we’re blessed with great access to the M1 and A1 that offer us further opportunity. Lots of potential, and lots of investment.

This is all drawn together under new proposals for regional devolution. The PM was clear that empowering communities and local leaders is key. I hope that the East Midlands will get access to the kind of clout, and the kind of public and private funds, that areas like the West Midlands or Teeside have seen come their way as a result of having these kinds of deals. Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire are lined up to go first, and in many ways this is one of the biggest opportunities in helping us address the long term regional inequalities that have plagued our part of the country.

We’ve got it all going on! Levelling up isn’t a finished product, nowhere near, but neither is it a soundbite. It’s long term and it’s complex, which is not easily communicated. It’s clear though, as I list just some of the work we’re doing across national and local government, across partner organisations and the private sector, that levelling up has a momentum. The East Midlands has a plan, and it’s local people who are set to benefit, as it comes to fruition over the coming years.

Georgia L.Gilholy: The case for grammar schools

3 Jun

Oxford University accepted three times as many pupils from Eton College than pupils on free school meals between 2009 and 2012. And one in 20 UK adults are functionally illiterate- far outnumbering their counterparts in similarly developed nations. It is obvious that a deep rot flourishes at the heart of our education system.

So no wonder there are signals that a boost for grammar schools could be ahead as the government scrambles together a strategy for “levelling up” schooling. A White Paper published in March proposed allowing grammars to maintain their selective status, even if they join one of the multi-academy trusts the government are so keen on expanding.

Before his Education Secretary days, Nadhim Zahawi praised the virtues of grammars, and spoke in favour of their revitalisation in an article for this very website. Meanwhile, the claim that Number 10 is open to lifting the ban on new grammars has been made, despite civil servants reportedly pouring cold water on the idea. Whether or not the alleged scheme, like Theresa May’s short-lived pro-grammar pivot, is set to flop, the argument for their renaissance endures.

Jonn Elledge recently claimed that many Conservatives back grammars “partly because the era of selective education coincided with economic growth and social mobility, and it’s easy to mix up correlation and causation”. Yet Elledge forgets that the era of selective education never ended at all. Access to “better” schools is more dependent on one’s finances or questionable religious conversion than it was back when we still needed ration books.

Most working-class British children have no choice but to attend mediocre schools. Meanwhile, the members of the upper and middle classes who decide against independent schools are able to gain better education for their children – via pricey locations or tutoring-funnel their children into the dwindling number of grammar schools heavily concentrated in the South East. They also dominate the small number of uber-successful “state” schools such as Fulham’s prized Oratory School.

The reality is that the destruction of grammar schooling was never about equalising opportunity. It was an emotionalist, utopian move to “equalise” the classroom at any cost as successive administrations failed to fortify the pre-war system for the bulging classrooms of the baby boomer generation.

The aptly-named Graham Savage, the civil servant who partly spearheaded the destruction of grammars, admitted that he thought Britain ought to model itself on the US’ more “democratic” comprehensive system, even if it lowered performance – which he correctly predicted that it would.

Of course, the grammar system of yesteryear was imperfect, and any attempt to revitalise it would require tweaks. Selection at age 11, for example, may be premature for some pupils. The average age students are selected for different programs across OECD countries is 14. Academic selection on a rolling basis with no rigid age cut off could also ensure better outcomes.

There are also complaints that a more selective system would leave children rejected from grammar schooling feeling ostracised and subpar. Yet there is no automatic requirement that selective schooling shame those who take “non-academic” pathways. The expansion of grammars would necessitate an equal attempt to revalorise vocational options, plenty of which have similar or better salary outcomes than that of the average graduate.

The widespread degradation of vocational options in today’s system is one of the worst forms of elitism. Such attitudes inadvertently denigrate the value of trades and other such occupations, many of which continue to suffer severe staffing gaps. Students who opt for practical routes are either pressured to attend university by teachers or decide to do so for its perceived social advantages. It is hardly surprising that eight British universities are under investigation for offering poor courses.

Another well-worn argument of the anti-grammar wing is that academically selective schools act against social mobility. No doubt they dismiss as anecdotal evidence the fact that between 1964 and 1997 a succession of Conservative and Labour prime ministers from working-class and lower-middle-class backgrounds all benefited from a grammar school education. Not to mention the other countless swathes of our cultural and professional milieu who rose from the grammar school ranks.

Moreover, figures from 1954, just before the overwhelming of the tripartite system by the post World War Two baby boom, nearly 65 per cent of grammar school students were working class. Contrast this with 2016, when fewer than three per cent of grammar school students were eligible for free school meals, compared to 14 per cent for all school types.

It remains likely that any rumoured plans to revive extensive grammar schooling will be sidelined or frustrated. However it is a terrible shame that so many arguments against grammar ignore the inadequacy of the current system for working-class students, and caricature those who suggest grammars might play a part in their remedy.

Jeremy Yallop: Home education has been a basic freedom for most of English history. Why is this Government placing it under threat?

30 May

Jeremy Yallop is a trustee of the Home Educators’ Qualifications Association (HEQA)

In the recent Queen’s Speech debate, Baroness Eaton praised the Government’s “listening mode”. Councils, inspectors, teachers’ unions and others have clamoured for years for home-educating families to be tracked, monitored, and regulated. The Children Not In School measures in the Schools Bill shows that the Government has listened to the lobbying.

But if the Government has also listened to those who will be affected, it has not shown it. Of the thousands of young people and parents who responded to its consultation, 85 per cent rejected proposals for compulsory registration. Home educators differ widely in background and motivation: some aim for a more varied education than schools offer; others focus on a safe learning environment for children who have been bullied out of school. Almost all home educators agree, however, that surveillance by officials will not improve their children’s lives.

In opposition, Conservatives shared this view and forced the Labour Government to abandon similar plans. Nick Gibb celebrated the defeat of Labour’s “draconian and excessive proposals”, predicting that “home educators across the country will be extremely relieved to be spared compulsory registration”. Michael Gove advised the Government to “work with people who want to home educate their children, rather than stigmatise them.”

Now both the proposals themselves and the stigma are back. “There’s no doubt in my mind” wrote the Education Secretary, introducing his new register, “that being in school is crucial to a child’s learning and development”. The implication of the register’s name – Children Not In School – is clear, then: something is wrong with these families, and they need watching closely.

The mechanics of the proposals are equally troubling. Two issues stand out.

First, the Education Secretary will have powers to decide key details later, without parliamentary oversight. One such detail is the sharing of children’s sensitive personal data. The Minister plans to share data with the police, at least, but he will be free to extend access as he sees fit.

Similarly, although the Bill itself only requires parents to register basic facts (names, dates of birth, addresses), it grants the Minister power to demand details about family life. The initial regulations will include at least ethnicity and other demographic information, reasons behind the parent’s decision to home educate, and information about the child’s welfare and general circumstances.

Second, the penalties for demurring are severe. If families delay disclosing these private details, whether through reluctance or a simple lapse, councils will respond by serving School Attendance Orders.

This is a fundamental change in the law. Home education, though only explicitly written into law in the 1944 Education Act, has been a basic freedom for most of English history. It has never before been contingent on entries in a register or on opening up family life to ongoing state scrutiny. It is unlikely that this change will improve relationships between councils and families.

At present, School Attendance Orders are a last resort, issued only where education is clearly unsuitable or absent; in a typical year, half of councils do not issue any at all. The Schools Bill makes them the first resort, so that every contact with the council carries the implicit threat that permission to home educate may be withdrawn.

A glance at the Bill’s other provisions reveals a more promising change: councils have a new duty to support home-educating families. As the consultation response explained, this duty is intended to signal Government recognition of and support for home education.

It is a disappointing signal so far. Despite the nominal duty, councils will not be obliged to offer any specific form of support. The Schools Minister has set out the same position in the past: when asked about help with accessing public exams, he reiterated the Government’s dislike of home education (“For most children … we are clear that school is the best place for their education”) and made clear that help will not be forthcoming.

In practice, most support for home-educating families comes from other home educators. Locally, sports and cultural activities are organised by dedicated volunteers. Nationally, internet groups with thousands of members share advice on pedagogy and on qualifications, from Key Skills to Oxbridge entrance exams.

It would be difficult to find a clearer example of the Big Society than these pluralist, cooperative, mutually-supportive communities. Council support cannot replace it, but there is an opportunity to strengthen it with guaranteed access to resources such as exam centres and sports facilities.

The Children Not In School measures are not intended to intrude into family life, or further damage relationships between families and councils; they are intended to help identify children who are missing education.

However, councils already have a mechanism for collecting information on children withdrawn from school, a duty to identify children missing education and powers to intervene where there is evidence of neglect. Registration provides nothing new, except a means of punishing home-educating families for administrative failures. Councils have already recognised this, and have called for the Bill “to be amended, to introduce adequate powers for local authorities to check on home-schooled children” which, in their view, requires a right of entry to people’s homes.

If it is clear that the Children Not In School measures will not help to identify children missing education, the councils’ response also makes clear that the measures will not satisfy the insistent calls for home education to be regulated. However, the measures will lead to unnecessary collection of sensitive personal data, to a further breakdown in trust between councils and families, and to home-educating families such as mine being forced to defend their educational provision in court.

It is regrettable that the Government has introduced these proposals without listening to those affected. The unstated aim of punishing home-educating families seems embedded so deeply in them that it is difficult to see how they could be usefully amended. There is, however, an opportunity to rebuild trust by withdrawing them and focusing instead on revising the similarly hostile Elective home education guidance in collaboration with the home educators that it affects.

Home education law, developed and refined over almost a century, is a distinctive strength of the English education system, as is the remarkable community that the law has allowed to flourish. Home-educating families share the Government’s aim for their children to have the best education possible. Strictures and stigma will not achieve that; the Government should instead work with the community to ensure that the resources needed to succeed are available to all.

John Bald: The “progressive” demand to have children with extreme behaviour in normal lessons has been a disaster

24 May

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.

Since Baroness Warnock’s 1978 report on the Education of Handicapped Children and Young People, the determination of progressive educators and militant parents to have children with extreme behaviour present in normal lessons, whatever the consequences, has become a threat to the whole of the education system. The Report itself is rather different. It stipulates off-site provision for three groups of children – those with severe and complex needs, those who could not thrive in an normal school setting, and:

“children with severe emotional or behavioural disorders who have very great difficulty in forming relationships with others or whose behaviour is so extreme or unpredictable that it causes severe disruption in an ordinary school or inhibits the educational progress of other children” (Ch8,8).

I’ve seen the damage done by the drive to “include” these children in the mainstream of education at first hand, as a teacher, inspector, and consultant. In the 1970s, I was head of the remedial department in an East End comprehensive school. One of my pupils, who would now be diagnosed with Tourette’s syndrome, wrecked every lesson he attended by uncontrollable outbursts, which prevented me from teaching the other pupils to read. I eventually lost my temper. Everyone has a breaking point, and I was lucky. Psychological damage can easily become physical, as in the recent £850k settlement for a teacher who left the profession after being assaulted by a pupil who should not have been in his class in the first place.

As an inspector in a school in the Midlands, I saw a young woman teacher reduced to tears by a class who took great pleasure in taunting her and refusing to do any work. Rules or no rules, I intervened and made it clear to them that unless it stopped immediately, the headteacher would be in their classroom before they could blink. Inspectors were professional colleagues and I was not going to stand by and see a colleague abused. The lead inspector thanked me, but, having spoken to the headteacher, changed his mind, and said that teaching was a tough job and not for everyone. Another headteacher said it would “disenfranchise” the pupils if he took action to stop them from swearing and using sexually abusive language to female teaching assistants, and complained when I stopped a lesson because pupils had made makeshift tomahawks by folding several sheets of paper into sharp triangles, with which they were hitting each other in the face.

Such behaviour, which I also saw as a consultant, makes teaching and learning impossible, and is a threat to the mental health of teachers and of victims of bullying. It has been tolerated for too long, and headteachers who have stood against it – notably Sir Rhodes Boyson, Sir Michael Wilshaw, Katharine Birbalsingh, and Barry Smith – have met insult and abuse from the progressive establishment and militant parents. The Government’s long-awaited review of SEND could, therefore, not be more welcome. It is one of the few good official reviews of education we have had, intelligent, honest, well-argued and practical. The system is broken – or, more accurately, never worked in the first place – and needs to be fixed.

The proposed fix builds on what has been found to work. Pre-Warnock, special schools ranged from excellent, usually small, settings, in which children were given work closely matched to their needs, and superb personal support – to what can only be described as dumping grounds for problems no-one wanted to acknowledge. Pupils were frequently sent to the wrong place, and parents had no choice. We are still not free of this – a parent in my village was threatened with prosecution last year if she did not agree to a special school for her son, who, incidentally, is well-behaved and co-operative.

The Review proposes an expansion of off-site provision, to be used flexibly, so that children can continue with mainstream education and be returned to it when possible. The quality of individual education and health care plans (ECHPs) is to be improved, and backed by earlier identification and tackling of problems in the hope that far fewer will be needed. There will also be a national qualification for special needs and disability co-ordinators (SENDCOs) in schools, though this, and other aspects of training staff, will be much more difficult. The predominance of behaviour has led to serious neglect of the specialised teaching skills needed to tackle specific difficulties, including language and literacy problems, and the education of deaf and hearing-impaired children. There will be plenty of organisations lining up to offer provision in these areas, and, like some of those involved in Labour’s dyslexia initiative in the 00s, they are highly likely to shift things towards their own agenda. The DfE likes to work with organisations rather than individuals, an approach which protects them from mavericks, but also stifles thought – organisations are out to make and influence policy, and, like the department itself, sift available ideas, but do not actually think.

The only way to make an impact on a learning problem is for the teacher to consider what is preventing the person from succeeding in what they are trying to do, and help them to adjust their thinking so that they can do it. An example, with a student assessed as dyslexic, witnessed by his deputy headteacher and parents, is here.

Until this approach is applied throughout SEND training, we will continue along the road paved with good intentions.

Footnote: The Review is published under the signatures of the Secretaries of State for Health and Education. Much of the work behind it was completed by Vicky Ford MP, and her successor as Children’s Minister, Will Quince MP.

 

Georgia L Gilholy: It’s time the Tories filled the God-shaped hole in British schooling

20 May

Georgia L Gilholy is a Young Voices UK contributor.

If the average British citizen has any formal connection with religion, it is usually via occasional rites of passage or increasingly secularised holidays.

A 2014 YouGov survey found that a measly ten er cent of Brits confessed to religion playing a ‘very important’ part in their lives.

While many faith-based communities persist, and the religious roots of our culture are never far from the surface, for most of Britain transcendent faith is no longer understood, never mind adhered to.

At first glance, this might seem surprising. After all, teaching Religious Education (RE) is a legal requirement in English schools. Maintained schools are statutorily obliged to teach it, while academies and free schools are contractually required in their funding agreements. Faith schools must follow the national curriculum but are permitted to choose their own RE topics.

The subject also remains popular, with analysis released this week by the RE Policy Unit demonstrating a 50 per cent uptick in A-level entries for the subject since 2003, beating the more traditional humanities options of Geography and History.

This is against the backdrop of RE receiving no subject-specific funding from 2016 to 2021. During the same period, £387 million was allocated to music projects, £154 million to maths projects, £56 million to science projects, £28.5 million to English projects, and £16 million to languages projects. It is time the Government put RE on an even keeling with such disciplines.

Worryingly, 500 secondary schools are still reporting zero hours of RE provision in Year 11. Meanwhile, at a time when the Government is pushing schools to join multi-academy trusts, approximately 34 per cent of current academies report no timetabled RE classes.

The 2021 Ofsted research review also identified barriers to high-quality RE teaching, which included an insufficient supply of properly well-equipped teachers.

Syllabi for the most popular RE qualifications, GCSEs, also routinely allow students to study just two religions to pass their exams, hardly amounting to an in-depth exploration of global spirituality.

As Ofsted guidance stresses, RE “affords students the opportunity to make sense of their own place in the world”, and it is hard to disagree with their point.

In light of increasingly polarised political debates, surely the school children set to come of age in this fractious landscape deserve to benefit from the millennia of ethical reflection offered by religious perspectives?

A familiarity with faith is also crucial in light of growing issues of religious extremism. Despite the growing presence of far-right ideologies, Islamist extremism remains the dominant terror threat in the United Kingdom.

As Dr Rakib Ehsan, a social cohesion expert,  told me, a broad RE curriculum “has the potential to cultivate social trust and mutual respect between young British people of different religious backgrounds,” including those across all groups who may be at risk of falling prey to extremism.

He also emphasised the possibility of interfaith cohesion through such a curriculum, stating that:

“There is much common ground to be struck when it comes to the family-oriented and community-spirited values that can be found under various belief systems.”

Surely secular and faith schools alike would benefit from a well-rounded education in the religions that have and continue to shape Britain and the world? As Camille Paglia, the atheist art scholar, stresses, religions represent “the metaphysical system that honours the largeness of the universe…. Without it, culture would revert to fear and despair.”

As a religious person I obviously appreciate the value of some doctrines in and of themselves. But surely regardless of one’s personal beliefs, an academic acquaintance with religion is essential to a balanced perspective?

This is particularly true when it comes to confronting history. How can one accurately study slavery and its opponents in Europe, for example, without grappling with the classical doctrine of “natural slaves”? The evangelism of the abolitionist Clapham Sect? The Catholic scholasticism that underpinned the Valladolid debates of sixteenth-century Spain?

The STEM obsession of successive Conservative governments has probably not helped the fate of RE, nor has it uniquely impacted it. All three English A-level courses saw entries fall by one fifth between 2016 and 2019, while STEM entries grew by the same proportion.

This followed the spurious claim, made by then-Education Secretary Nicky Morgan in Autumn 2014, that it “couldn’t be further from the truth,” that arts and humanities subjects are useful.

While this is blatantly not the case when it comes to understanding art, culture and history at the least, these claims fail to line up even with purely material considerations. Indeed, the average post-graduation salaries of arts students are similar to their STEM counterparts.

It is an act of historical and social vandalism to dismiss the role of religion in Britain and beyond. The study of religion has just as much a place in the curriculum as maths, science, or other humanities subjects.

It is time schooling began to reflect the importance of religious studies, rather than pitting valuable disciplines against each other.