Robert Halfon: The Government’s education recovery funding has created another North-South divide

9 Feb

Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.

Almost £5 billion has been spent on education recovery by the Government. This spending is welcome, but I worry this funding is not reaching the most vulnerable children in our communities.

The National Tutoring Programme (NTP), currently contracted to Randstad, has the potential to be one of the great interventions made to date to support young people’s recovery from the impact of the pandemic. And yet, despite significant investment, it is falling far short of its targets and it’s not going far enough or happening quickly enough.

Over 524,000 children were supposed to start tutoring this year but only eight per cent have actually begun.

The Education Policy Institute has found there has been a marked disparity in the take-up of the NTP between the North and the South. In the South, upwards of 96 per cent of schools were engaging with the programme compared to just 50 per cent of schools in the North. Recently, headteachers and tutoring groups described to us the inaccessibility of the hub and the lack of quality assurance about the tutors on offer.

Perhaps most importantly of all, the Department for Education’s own annual report, published in December, evidenced that the risk of the catch-up programme failing to recover lost learning is critical or very likely.

The Government must look again at the contract with Randstad and seriously consider enacting the break clause. If Randstad cannot up its game, it is time to say goodbye.

The ghost children

A recent report published by the Centre for Social Justice, Lost but not forgotten, highlighted that 758 schools across the country are missing almost an entire class worth of children. Indeed, around 500 children are missing in about half of all local authorities and over 13,000 children in critical exam years are likely to be severely absent.

The effects of persistent absence go well beyond just academic progress. It also means these children are at risk for safeguarding concerns such as domestic abuse or county line gangs. The tragic cases of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and Star Hobson are an all too poignant reminder of this risk.

The Department’s recent announcements to tackle the postcode lottery of avoidable absence are a positive start, but more urgent action is needed. Prioritisation must be given to collecting real-time data about who and where these children are and the Government should use the underspend from the NTP to fund an additional two thousand attendance advisers to work on the ground to help find these children and get them safely back into school.

Charles Dickens wrote of: “so many things forgotten, and so many more which might have been repaired”.

If we are to save the Oliver Twist generation of “ghost children”, we must act now. If we do nothing, we will be haunted by them forever.

The exam conundrum

I welcome the Government’s plan to move back to regular examinations. Given that so many children missed school over the course of the pandemic due to school closures, it is understandable that Ofqual has decided to give pupils advanced information about some aspects of the topics that will be assessed to help support their revision.

But there are two elephants in the room. The first being that essentially, all students will now be running a 50m sprint, instead of a 100m race, yet they will all be starting from the same point. This may seem fair, but for disadvantaged pupils who learned the least during the pandemic, they will now be pitted directly against their better-off peers who were able to continue their learning at home.

The Government’s reply to this will be that the catch-up programme is designed to alleviate this problem, but as described above, despite the 524,000 target set by the NTP, it is currently only reaching eight per cent of pupils.

The second elephant, also referenced to above, is that according to the Centre for Social Justice, we know that over 13,000 children in exam years have not returned to school for the most part. So a system has been created where advantaged pupils will feel the benefit of the advanced notice, but their worse-off peers will struggle. Furthermore, we risk ignoring the 13,000 pupils in A-Level and GCSE year groups who have not returned to school at all.

Mental health

This week is Children’s Mental Health Week – a timely reminder about the need to address the challenges surrounding children’s mental health.

The statistics we are confronted with are pretty grim.

Just last year, 17.4 per cent of children aged 6-16 are reported to have a probable mental health disorder (up from 11.6 per cent in 2017). Eating disorders among young girls have risen by 46 per cent. The number of young people being referred to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services have been steadily rising to 538,564 in 2020, representing an increase of 35 per cent from 2019, and 60 per cent from 2018.

The Government must rocket boost its proposals to put mental health professionals in every school. But interventions to support mental health must not be seen as crutches, but should be designed to teach resilience to prevent more serious escalation.

Work must also be done to tackle the wrecking ball of social media on young people’s mental health.

In 2021, 16.7 per cent of 11 to 16 year olds using social media agreed that the number of likes, comments and shares they received had an impact on their mood. Half agreed that they spent more time on social media than they meant to and one in three girls said they were unhappy with their personal appearance by the age of fourteen.

Companies like TikTok, which, whilst providing some entertaining, are sadly acting as a trojan horse for sexualised content and negative body image thereby perpetuating eating disorders which have increased by 400 per cent among young girls during lockdown. As with other social media platforms, TikTok algorithms are like “crack for kids”.

We know that half of all mental health problems manifest by the age of 14, and 75 per cent by the age of 24. With the clear links between using social media platforms and poor mental health, why are the tech giants not stepping up to do more?

The Treasury should introduce a two per cent levy on the estimated £4.8 billion of profits generated by the big firms. This levy could generate a funding pot of around £100 million which could be distributed to schools to improve mental health support and to provide digital skills training to help support children’s resilience online.

Given the scale of the mental health challenges facing our young people, action has to be taken now to prevent it becoming an epidemic.

Nick Gibb: My advice to my successors at Education. Don’t scrap GCSEs or ease up on standards.

20 Sep

Nick Gibb is MP for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton, and was the Minister of State for School Standards until last week’s Government reshuffle.

Just before the 2010 general election, I visited a school in north London to see children being taught to read. One nine year-old girl was unable to read a single word unaided. Her reading book had words in it such as “Tyrannosaurus” and yet she struggled to read the word “even”. It was clear that she was expected to learn by sight and repetition rather than through decoding words by sounding out the letters. It wasn’t clear to me that she even knew the sounds of the alphabet and yet she was being expected to read this children’s book to the teacher.

It broke my heart to see a child just a couple of years from secondary school so far away from developing even the basic skills of reading – let alone a love of the written word that would sustain her throughout her adult life.

The memory of that young girl stayed fresh in my mind every day during my nearly ten years as an Education minister. It was experiences like this that led us, when we came into office in 2010, to place a greater emphasis on phonics teaching, strengthening its primacy in the National Curriculum.

In 2012 we introduced the Phonics Check for six year-olds to make sure they were on track to becoming fluent readers. This enabled schools to identify and support those children who were falling behind, because the evidence is clear that reading is within the grasp of almost every child.

When the test was introduced, just 58 per cent of six year-olds reached the expected standard. As a result of schools improving the teaching of reading through the adoption of systematic phonics, 82 per cent were at or above the expected standard by 2019 .

In the latest PIRLS international study of the reading ability of 9-year-olds, England had its highest ever score, rising from joint tenth in 2011 to joint eighth place out of 50 countries in 2016. The rise was attributed to improved reading by boys and lower-performing children, and the report acknowledged the close association between children’s Phonics Check results and their performance in PIRLS.

I use the example of phonics because being able to read is of fundamental importance for every child’s education and life chances. But phonics also exemplifies the battles we have waged since 2010 against the ideologically-driven bad practice that has bedevilled the education system since the 1950s.

For the first time, a Conservative Government systematically challenged the so-called “progressive” approach – an ideology which downgraded the importance of knowledge and academic rigour and which argued that children learn better through projects and through self-discovery (‘finding out’ as the Plowden Report termed it in 1960) than by teacher-led teaching. This philosophy decries exams and dismisses the importance of committing knowledge to memory. It is a philosophy which was failing – and in some schools, despite the huge improvements we’ve made, is still failing – generations of children.

So, in 2010, we started the process of revising the curriculum – restoring the centrality of knowledge. With the help of teachers, we re-wrote the Primary Curriculum, with maths based on the highly successful Singapore curriculum, and with English focused on developing fluent and accomplished readers and which emphasised the love and habit of reading.

For secondary schools, we improved the quality of GCSEs and A levels, putting them on a par with qualifications in countries with the highest performing education systems – aware as we were that future generations will be competing with the world’s best educated populations.

And I urge my successors to resist the siren voices of those who call for GCSEs to be abolished. Nothing would widen the attainment gap more than such a dismal and unambitious policy. For a large minority of people, GCSEs are the last academic qualification they will take. Remove them, and that group lose any valid certification of a broad education. GCSEs also serve to define a demanding curriculum and they help hold schools to account. Remove them and weaker schools will grow weaker still.

As we undertook these reforms, I was struck by how often the most articulate and passionate proponents of a knowledge-based curriculum were not always natural Conservatives. In fact, many saw themselves as on the left of politics.

But we were united in our dismay at the number of schools that were simply not providing the quality of education or standards of behaviour that parents expected and which our country needed. These schools were unpopular but, for a want of places elsewhere, were filled by children who, as a consequence, were destined not to live up to their promise – another cause of heartbreak.

With the Government’s focus on driving up standards and despite raising the bar for what qualifies as a good school, over the last 10 years the number of schools judged by Ofsted to be outstanding rose from 68 per cent in 2010 to 86 per cent in 2019.

But there is clearly more to do. I worry about the 14 per cent of schools that are still judged as inadequate or needing to improve. Too often, these failing schools are in areas of deprivation, serving communities that more than anywhere else deserve and need the highest quality schools not the worst schools.

My plea to the new team at the Education Department is simple: don’t listen to those who excuse failing standards and who argue that schools in deprived areas cannot succeed. President George W Bush was right to dismiss such arguments as the “soft bigotry of low expectations”. Our ambition must not be limited by such arguments.

Thanks to the huge success of the academies and free schools programme – which unshackled schools from the cloying control of local authority bureaucracies – there are now schools serving the most disadvantaged parts of the country that are delivering a standard of education that rival or exceed the best in the country – state or independent.

Schools like Michaela in Brent with 41 per cent of pupils qualifying for free school meals, Dixons Trinity Academy in Bradford (30 per cent), or Eden Boys School in Birmingham (40 per cent) – but all achieving GCSE progress scores that put them at the very top of the national performance table.

These are schools that take a strong approach to behaviour, that emphasise the importance of a knowledge-rich academic curriculum (at least to the age of 16), and which have very high expectations for their pupils regardless of their background. If these schools can achieve the standards they do in the most disadvantaged parts of the country, then it is clear that poverty never needs to be a reason for poor educational outcomes. What we need is a Michaela or a Dixons Trinity or an Eden Boys in every city and town serving those communities that have been let down for generations.

What these schools also have in common is a high proportion of their pupils being entered for the EBacc combination of core academic GCSEs – English, maths, at least two sciences, a humanity and a foreign language. These are the subjects that more affluent families will expect their children to study because they give young people the greatest opportunities and options for their future. If it’s right for these children, it’s right for all children regardless of their background. That’s why it is so important that the EBacc remains as a key metric by which we hold schools to account.

As we emerge from the Covid pandemic and 18 months of disrupted education, the £3 billion of catch-up funding is crucial. But building and opening new free schools will be just as important in helping ensure that children in the most deprived areas catch-up.

Ultimately, the life chances of children are enhanced by exceptional teaching – and this is especially true for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. It’s why in 2010 I was so keen that our first White Paper should be called The Importance of Teaching.

Over the last 10 years in Government, and the five years prior to that in Opposition, I have visited hundreds of schools throughout England. Wherever I went, despite varying standards, all the teachers I met were conscientious, energetic and committed to their pupils. The huge expansion of the Teach First programme since 2010 has brought new graduates into the profession; many have stayed in teaching and are becoming headteachers.

Teaching is an important and fulfilling vocation. It has the power to change and shape lives. We owe all our teachers a huge debt of gratitude. But they need better support, especially in the first years of their career, so we have set about ensuring their initial training is based firmly on evidence and have set higher expectations of teacher training institutions.

I am delighted that my friend, Nadhim Zahawi, has been appointed to deliver the next phase of our reforms. Much has been achieved since 2010, but there is still much more to do. If I were to give the newly reshuffled team at the DfE one piece of advice it would be this: remember that reform must be a continuous process, the speed can change but momentum must not stop.

If we let up our concentration on standards, on what evidence tells us works; if we stop pushing forward the knowledge-based curriculum or abandon changes to teacher training, the tide will turn. It’s hard work, but the progressive ideology has not gone away. It would be a tragedy for future generations if we gave in and settled for an easier life.

Michael Goode: How to close the inspiration gap in schools between students’ ability and their outcomes

8 Aug

Michael Goode is a school governor and has been a young offenders mentor since 2017.

When school children are inspired and informed about the world of work they study harder, place a greater value on their subjects and are more engaged. This is especially true for underperforming students. Inspirational sessions with employers can also result in higher earning potentials and fewer young people becoming a NEET (not in education, employment or training).

Put simply, what children think they want to be when they grow up and how they reached those aspirations matters. Yet there is a serious inspiration gap between the schools doing an excellent job of expanding pupils’ horizons, through exposing them to a variety of careers, and those that are not.

Its scale is significant. When asking children what they want to do when they grow up, research in 2018 showed that about half expect to work in one of only ten jobs. Many of these (teachers, doctors, vets etc.) are typically grounded in a nineteenth or twentieth century view of the professions.

Research from 2020 also highlighted the disconnect between pupils aspirations and our economy, showing that over five times as many 17 and 18 year olds wanted to work in art, culture, entertainment and sport as there were jobs available. Nor are these career ambitions future-proofed, given that over 30 per cent of the jobs that UK teenagers want are at high risk of automation.

I have seen for myself what it is like to be on the wrong end of this inspiration gap. I went to a failing secondary school (now merged) where around 70 per cent of the students didn’t get their five A-Cs at GCSE. 

I was later told that I was the first person from that school to go to the University of Cambridge, which was shocking, given how bright so many of my classmates were. Looking back, I can see how little we had in terms of inspiration. We simply didn’t know what jobs were out there, what we could aim for, or how that would be affected by our grades.

At best, it was: “good grades will get you into a good university,” but there was no horizon beyond that point or alternative view of success. I remember discussing plans with classmates and hearing answers like “‘Ill work for my uncle so don’t need to study” or “I just want a family and will get a flat”.

Everyone is entitled to their own life plan but there was nothing to invite us to expand our horizons. We were all just left to reach our own conclusions. It sounds funny, but I remember thinking hard about what people would always need and settling on being a shoemaker.

Few of us become what we wanted to be at school (I’m not a shoemaker or an astronaut), but those initial aspirations shape our perception of what we can be and our appreciation of the value of education. And it is not hard to understand why survey after survey still show children having stereotyped and out of touch aspirations.

All this means that children on the wrong end of the inspiration gap are leaving school with limited or warped career expectations expectations which, crucially, have been built almost entirely outside of school.

Policy makers increasingly recognises this. One recent, substantial improvement is Ofsted’s inclusion of the Gatsby Benchmarks (tried and tested principles for expanding pupils’ horizons) in their inspection guidance.

Another is the establishment of the Careers and Enterprise Company, a national network designed to facilitate careers education and support schools.

But there is much more work to be done to ensure that career inspiration is at the heart of every child’s school experience. Especially because, as the Prince’s Trust has found, the disruption, uncertainty and misery of the last 16 months has affected young people’s aspirations.

The job to do now is to close this inspiration gap. The research shows that the best way to achieve this is to ensure all schools act early and often, showcasing different career paths and using these sessions to have broader conversations about jobs.

To do this we need to –

  • Make employee and career engagement an independent section in any Ofsted report;
  • Update Ofsted guidance to require schools to work with their Local Enterprise Partnership on employee engagement plans which are grounded in the area’s economy and future job needs;
  • Set out new guidance encouraging schools to use digital conferencing technology to connect with employers outside of their region;
  • Change Ofsted guidance to mandate termly opportunities for pupils to encounter the world of work, primarily through guest speakers and –
  • Update guidance to stress that inspiring employer engagement sessions must come before lessons around CV writing skills or training pathways.

None of this should add appreciable cost to the taxpayer, especially given the plethora of programmes out there designed to help pupils engage with different careers and industries.

The organisation Education and Employers has a fantastic program called Inspiring the Future and is leading the work in this field, while other initiatives focus on specific sectors: I volunteered for a program called Feeding Britain’s Future, which works to explain to students what careers exist in the food industry, while also providing general interview guidance and CV writing skills. One good side-effect of the lockdowns is that schools now have far more digital conferencing technology, which means volunteering takes less time and can reach pupils across geographical boundaries. There is plenty of goodwill and many programmes to tap into.

And for those of you thinking about volunteering, or perhaps with lingering doubts about the importance of this gap, I have seen for myself as a prison mentor how important inspiration is. Helping young offenders dream of a career on the outside, getting them fired up, and then building a plan to achieve that goal has been the most powerful tool in helping them feel that there is something tangible to roll their sleeves up and work for. What’s disheartening is that many certainly did not have this at school.

No young person should leave school, as my classmates did, without a good understanding of what jobs are out there and what they could do to get to them. Fantastic work has been done in this area, but an inspiration gap remains. That gap takes on a new importance, given how the past 16 months have disrupted education and dampened young peoples’ aspirations.

Let’s close this gap by connecting pupils to the world of work, expanding their horizons, and inspiring them to make the very best use of their time studying, confident that there is something to work for.

Robert Halfon: We need to get a handle on home education – and the surge of kids who’ve vanished from the school roll

28 Jul

Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.

Thanks to the Centre for Social Justice, we know that around 93,500 children missed over 50 per cent of their school sessions in Autumn 2020. As disturbing as this may be, at least we are aware of these children and can track them with the hope of getting them back into education.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the many thousands of children across our country that are being home educated. We have little information, limited data and no analysis of these pupils’ outcomes. Astonishingly, the Department for Education does not even collect national figures on the number of children in elective home education.

For too long, a fog has shrouded home education.

Compared with our European neighbours, the English model is relatively permissive. A survey from 2018 showed that in a dozen countries, including Germany, home education was possible only in exceptional circumstances and in many cases, parents had to get authorisation. Students’ progress was “monitored and assessed everywhere except in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom”.

Survey figures suggest that, over the year to October 2020, there was a 38 per cent increase in the number of home educated children, with around 75,000 being educated at home. Further to this, Fraser Nelson, the editor of The Spectator, has identified around 20,000 thousand children who have completely vanished from the school roll. We are faced with a surge of missing children, catalysed by the Covid-19 crisis.

The Education Select Committee, which I Chair, published a report this week looking at what steps can be taken to strengthen and support home education. The report was passed unanimously by the Conservative and Labour members of the Committee.

First, our report recommends that the Department for Education should collect much more data and information about home educated pupils. One way of achieving this would be to have a register collected by local authorities. Data from the register would be anonymised nationally. It would enable resources to be targeted. The Department for Education would be able to seriously lend a helping hand to the families of children who have been let down by the school system.

Second, our report notes that every parent is required to secure a suitable education for their child. As we point out, home education should aim to enable the child, when grown-up, to function as an independent citizen in the UK. Individuals are surely independent if they have the qualifications and basic key skills in numeracy and literacy needed to gain access to the jobs ladder of opportunity.

Our report suggests that home educated children should be assessed at least once a year in maths and English. It is worth noting that Anne Longfield, the respected former Children’s Commissioner, has argued for termly visits to home educated children.

Third, too many parents have been forced into un-elective home education. This is especially true of families of children with special educational needs. One parent told our Committee that support for children with special needs was inadequate and that many parents remove their children from school in order to protect them. We are, therefore, proposing the introduction of independent advocates for these families to help them wade through the treacle of bureaucracy and to get the right support for their child.

Fourth, if it is agreed that there should be a register and that home educated children should be assessed, it only seems fair that there should be a level playing field for exams. In practice, this would mean that the Government would fund home educated pupils who wish to complete GCSEs, A-Levels and other relevant qualifications.

Finally, it is worth noting data from the former Children’s Commissioner, suggesting that five per cent of schools were responsible for 40 per cent of children being withdrawn to home education in 2017-18. The Commissioner could not say whether these high numbers reflected parental dissatisfaction or were the result of pressure or influence from the school to withdraw a child.

During the 2018-19 school year, before the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, Ofsted was investigating around one hundred schools for high levels of pupil movement, potentially linked to off-rolling. Of course, permanent exclusions for serious misbehaviour will still be necessary, but there should be a requirement for schools to publish data on their websites about the number of permanent and fixed-term exclusions alongside the number of children taken off the school roll.

With all that being said, there will be many examples of where home education has proven to be successful. However, some families may be struggling. It does not follow that every home educating family has access to the networks and resources they need to provide a “suitable” education.

Neither is it wrong to suggest that home educated children need to have a basic knowledge of literacy and numeracy. After all, pupils in schools are required to take SATS and other examinations. Moreover, by having a register, we can ensure that assistance and resources can be directed to home educated families who are having difficulties.

Emily Carver: The Government’s plan to make exams easier will be devastating for this country’s education system

21 Jul

Emily Carver is Media Manager at the Institute of Economic Affairs

In the midst of the media frenzy around vaccinations passports, the “pingdemic” and the long-awaited “Freedom Day” (which turned out to be no such thing), one story that has hasn’t received nearly enough scrutiny is what’s going on in our schools.

We all know that students have faced significant disruption over the past 16 months. On-off school closures, months of virtual-only learning, plus the farce that has become the “Covid bubble” scheme, have plunged many schools into crisis territory. It was reported yesterday that last Thursday there were over a million pupils off school, including 774,000 as a result of children being told to self-isolate. Some schools have been forced to close altogether.

It’s hard to overstate the impact this level of lost learning will have on children, yet the Government has consistently failed to put children first over the course of the pandemic, while the unions have warned against – and continue to stubbornly oppose – any easing of restrictions. Now, with the summer holidays fast approaching, pressure is mounting on the Government to find ways to claw back some of what has been lost.

It is regrettable that schools were ever forced to close, but there have since been some sensible recommendations made, including funding for extra tuition, and catch-up classes for those who have fallen behind. Predictably, when offered an extra £1.5 billion for such measures, the response from union officials was one of outrage at what they deemed to be a derisory sum.

Of course, it’s likely no amount of money will be enough to fix the level of damage that Covid restrictions have reaped on schools – there is no way of going back in time. But the Government’s education recovery commissioner has also proposed practical changes that will cost far less, including longer school days and changing the structure of the school year – both common-sense ideas that an IEA paper advocated earlier this year.

These suggestions were met with equal pushback, with teaching unions straight out of the traps to claim a 30-minute extension of the school day would do “more harm than good”. This, despite the fact longer school days have been shown to help disadvantaged pupils the most.

You would have thought – or naively hoped – that those dedicated to representing teachers, would rally around measures to help pupils. Instead, they’ve pushed for the strictest interpretation of Covid measures every step of the way, acting as a thorn in the Conservative government’s side. ‘Twas ever thus, I suppose.

However, there is one area where the unions have got on board with the Government: plans to make exams easier next summer. Proposals published by the Department for Education and Ofqual, which aim to address schooling disruption by “reducing pressure” on students and “freeing up teaching time” essentially amount to making examinations easier to pass.

They will do this by narrowing the scope of the curriculum that will be subject to examination and giving teachers the greenlight to tell students in advance what specific topics will be covered in their GCSE and A-Level exams.

Sure, shrewd students have always analysed past papers to discern which topics are most likely to reappear in their exam. But this effort to make exams easier will do nothing but create a false illusion of success. This may serve the short-term interests of teachers, students, parents and the Government, who will benefit from a perception that educational achievement has remained stable, but the longer-term consequences of this are deeply concerning.

Some may argue that this is little different from shifting the grade boundaries to reflect the relative difficulty of the paper, as happens every year. However, the consequences of manipulating results by limiting the scope of the exams themselves are of far more troubling consequence.

Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, said it is “right that next summer’s arrangements take into account the disruption young people have faced over the past 18 months”. But isn’t this a case of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted? Should we not assess pupils as rigorously as normal years? Only then can we understand the impact of Covid on educational outcomes. It seems the Government and some teaching representatives would rather sweep our problems under the carpet to save face.

In the next few years, we may find that we have large numbers of pupils leaving school without any real, in-depth knowledge of their subject. The knock-on effect on universities will be significant. School will send students off to university, knowing full well they have gaping holes in their understanding of what should, in normal times, be the basics. Will students spend the whole first year of their tuition catching up to A-Level standard? Will there be a need to extend the duration of the degree? Will universities now have to dumb down degrees to make up for lost time?

The impact on young people, the economy and wider society, of manipulating students’ achievements will store up big problems for the future, not least setting them up for deep disappointment when they realise their qualifications are worth less than those taken in previous years. Employers will also know full well that GCSEs and A Levels taken during the Covid years aren’t of the usual standard.

It is widely recognised that New Labour’s educational reforms made exams less rigorous. Some on the left still continue to dispute this for ideological reasons, but for anyone like me who has seen an O-Level French paper and a GCSE French paper side by side, there is no doubt.

It is understandable that the Government would want to ease the pressure on students during a pandemic, but if these planned changes to exams go ahead next summer, they may well take far longer to reverse. Why would it be in the interests of the unions, teachers or some parents to make exams harder once again?

It would be devastating for this country’s education system if, after Michael Gove spent so much time and energy attempting to reverse the legacy of the Blair years, Covid caused standards to slip once again.

Making it easier for students to pass their exams won’t reduce educational disparities in this country; grade inflation will encourage children to have a false sense of confidence in their own academic ability, and the buck will be passed to universities and their future employers.

Pressure must be put on the Government to restore exams to pre-pandemic standards as soon as possible, for the benefit of students, dedicated teachers and the wider economy.

Georgia L. Gilholy: Eton’s new sixth-form colleges will do little to promote social mobility

2 Jul

Georgia L. Gilholy is a Young Voices UK Associate Contributor. She writes about foreign policy, religion and culture for UnHerd, CapX, City AM, the Salisbury Review and others.

Last weekend Eton College announced its “unprecedented” partnership deal with “Star Academies”, the Blackburn-based educational trust responsible for the running of 30 free schools and academies in some of the most deprived areas of England.

The trust, whose schools have gained accolades for their high rates of “pupil progress”, was the brainchild of recently-knighted Sir Hamid Patel who originally kickstarted it as a small chain of Muslim schools.

The Eton-Star deal pact will involve the centuries-old public school funnelling hundreds of thousands of pounds into three spanking new sixth forms, across several currently unspecified locations in Northern England.

The Times has revealed that the schools will all be “highly selective” in terms of academic requirements, and will focus on recruiting pupils who live in particularly deprived areas or are on free school meals. They have promised to blend “Eton’s educational philosophy and rigorous curriculum”, namely intimate seminar-style classes, with the “ethos and approach” that has already served Star Academies well.

No doubt these schools will transform the lives of many of those lucky enough to gain a place. Unfortunately, many of the critics of private schooling have long been blind to the tremendous good that the altruism of many fusty old institutions such as Eton routinely spread via generous scholarships, bursaries, and partnerships with comprehensive schools.

More importantly, many well-meaning advocates of the comprehensive ethos, such as the late Baroness Shirley Williams, who consistently demonstrated a genuine concern for the disadvantaged and oppressed, have clung to it like dogma precisely because it is just that, and not because it has demonstrably improved social mobility as grammar schools once did.

This one-size-fits-all system has abandoned working-class children to an anti-talent culture and severely diminished curriculum, while as per usual, the elites responsible for these decisions (including Williams herself) ensure that their own offspring are well-catered for.

Yet given that the selection for these schools, and indeed other such colleges across the country, takes place at 16, the wider impact is negligible. Those selected for these schools will be those who have already managed to achieve decent grades in less than desirable circumstances. Many are not able to do so, and therefore never fully realise their potential.

At age 16 children have already sat their GCSE exams, the only grades (aside from predicted ones) now taken into account in university applications since AS levels were scrapped in 2015. In other words, the overwhelming chunk of the children seeking to gain admission to these and other such prestigious sixth forms will have already largely sealed their educational fate.

Moreover, this framework unveils the outright hypocrisy of our laws. Why is it illegal or even immoral to select by academic ability from 16 and above, but not from 11 or 13, ages when it is still early enough to turn things around for most kids?

Of course, this is not to say that GCSEs or in fact any exams are the be-all and end-all of life. Many people’s skillsets lie outside of academics. Plenty, though an increasingly small number, of us, prefer to move straight into employment, and may return to education later in life or not at all. Neither of these options signifies failure.

But this is far from just a personal issue, it is one with national and even global implications. If we expect children from deprived backgrounds to achieve the same level of academic success, within the same timeframe, as their middle and upper-middle-class peers, namely through admission to the best universities, it is simply not good enough to expect the private sector to “top up” the education of a handful once they have already sat their most critical set of exams.

At a time in the international power balance when democratic societies such as Britain urgently need to harness their talent and expertise, our education system has been degraded into a shell of what it ought to represent, leaving one in 20 of us functionally illiterate, and in which most opportunities are decided by our postcodes or the “bank of Mum & Dad” rather than our talent.

This is not to blame our woeful education system for all cultural and socioeconomic ills. The instability wrought by widespread family breakdown, in particular, is at the heart of the damaging cycle of deprivation in many traditionally working-class communities across the country. However, if we are not even willing to offer the next generation a stable, rigorous education system that affords as many as possible the chance to break the cycle, they will not.

Iain Dale: The Government’s race review had some positive findings. So why are ministers avoiding the media rounds?

2 Apr

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and the For the Many podcast with Jacqui Smith.

The report from the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities has certainly caused a lot of comment over the last 48 hours. Much of it has been ill-informed twaddle.

The number of people who castigated and slammed it within minutes of its release can’t possibly have read all of its 258 pages. They just jerked their knees in the time-honoured fashion.

Basically, the criticism was based on the fact that Boris Johnson had commissioned it, ergo it must be biased, useless or bad, or all three.

What its critics couldn’t stand is that it actually had some positive things to say about race relations in this country. And you know what? Those positive conclusions were based on fact.

Take educational achievement, for example. The report compared GCSE achievement for the different ethnic groups and found that all of them surpassed the achievements of white kids, with the one exception of children of black Caribbean backgrounds. Black Africans achieved higher exam grades, as did kids from Indian or Bangladeshi heritage.

The pay gap between white and ethnic minority employees has shrunk to just 2.3 per cent, and for the under 30s there is no gap at all. Now can someone please tell me why these two facts shouldn’t have been pointed out?

Race relations have come along way in the last twenty years in Britain. Can other countries say the same? America? France? I don’t think so. But it doesn’t suit the victim mentality of the Left to admit this. It suits their agenda to portray a Britain at war with itself over race.

The Left tried to keep the working classes in their place, almost as a client state of the Left. Margaret Thatcher exposed that and we’re now at a point where 47 per cent of working-class Brits vote Tory, and only 35 per cent vote Labour. The challenge for the Right is to break through among British Asians and in the Black vote. The opportunity is there, but the Left will fight it tooth and nail.

On the other side of the coin – you know I liked to be balanced – there is still a long way to go before many black or brown Britons feel they will get a fair crack of the whip, and the report rightly makes this clear. Equality in educational achievement may be a positive sign, but it’s still the case that black Caribbean kids are much more likely to be excluded from the classroom.

And in the workplace there is still a long way to go. Too many people feel they have to anglicise their names to get a fair crack of the whip.

You can’t ignore the evidence that you’re more likely to get a job interview if you’re called Michael Bookham, than if your name is Ndaboningi Nwoykoye or Mohammed Abdullah. All the surveys into this phenomenon show us that there is a conscious or subconscious bias present in many of our recruitment practices.

Look at the way we are policed. The same phenomenon is there in the policing and justice systems. Just examine the statistics and it becomes self-evident. To deny it is to deny that racism exists, whether it is institutional or not.

Britain as a country is not institutionally racist. Like in every other country, we have racists among us, and no doubt always will have. But the report was right to say that the UK is not institutionally rigged against ethnic minorities.

Indeed, the Commission members – all 12 of whom are from ethnic minorities, and people of stature in their own fields – were courageous to point that out, given they must have known that the Left would come for them.

I was disappointed that Lord Simon Woolley, the long-time campaigner for more black participation in the democratic system, called the report, or the authors of the report, “disingenuous”. Disagree with a report’s conclusions all you like, but it’s almost tantamount to accusing the commission’s members of being dishonest or having been bought off.

Over the last few years there have been no fewer than nine commissions or reports into different aspects of racial equality in this country. Most of them have sat on shelves gathering dust.

David Lammy complains that the 35 recommendations contained in his report into the criminal justice system have not been implemented. The Government say most of them have or are in the process of being implemented. And never the twain shall meet.

There are 24 conclusions and recommendations contained in this latest report. Admittedly most of them are fairly innocuous and minor, and to that extent I think it hasn’t been particularly brave.

But then again, Downing Street hasn’t been very brave either. It should have had ministers out on the airwaves on Wednesday, most especially Kemi Badenoch, the Equalities Minister.

If they think they’ve got a good story to tell, for God’s sake tell it. We put in a bid for her for my evening show on Wednesday. We got a straight “no” from Number 10 (as usual) on the basis that no one was doing media on it. Why the hell not?

If you commission a report you surely ought to be able to put up a minister to comment on its conclusions, especially as they were so benign. I say again, if the Government won’t talk about or explain its position, who the hell do they is going to do it for them?

The comms approach at Number 10 could be dubbed an Ostrich strategy. Stick your head in the sand and just make it all go away.

I had thought that when Dominic Cummings departed the stage, things would change. But they haven’t. Hey ho. Not my problem.

Nick Gibb: Education. We must not let the pandemic lead us astray from our mission to raise school standards

26 Mar

Nick Gibb is the Minister of State for School Standards, and is MP for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton.

Over the past eleven years, this Government has, with a forensic and relentless focus, embarked on a mission to drive up school standards and overhaul a tired education system that was letting too many children down – especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The failing system we inherited was not the fault of teachers, who are overwhelmingly committed to the interests of the children they teach. The failure was the result of politicians, of all parties over decades, who had too easily been swayed by a cadre of education academics promoting assertions as fact and driven by ideological certainties.

To be fair, from the 1980s onwards, politicians had begun to question why standards were failing to rise and had started to make changes. But resistance was fierce and the promise of a quick fix or the latest fad too often diverted attention from the hard slog of evidence-based reform.

As the redoubtable Jonathan Simons noted in his article on this site on Tuesday, this has been an uphill battle. Change would not have been possible without thousands of committed teachers and head teachers who have led the way in developing new approaches, set up new schools and adopted methods that have been proven in the world’s highest performing nations – from the east Asian way of teaching maths to the tried and tested systematic phonics method of teaching children to read and a clear focus on expectations and discipline.

These women and men are heroes. People like Mark Lehain, who set up the first of the Government’s programme of ‘free schools’ (new schools established by teachers or groups of parents rather than the local council and which are shattering the belief that high standards can’t be delivered in areas of disadvantage).

Visionaries such as Katharine Birbalsingh, who established the Michaela Community School and is proving that background should never be a barrier to high academic standards.

Leaders like Hamid Patel, the inspirational head of STAR Academies and the excellent trust CEOs and staff in other families of schools, such as Reach, Outwood Grange, Harris, Ark, Inspiration Trust and Tenax.

These people, and hundreds of others like them and all the teachers across the country committed to a knowledge-rich curriculum, have inspired and are leading a genuine movement for change. And they are improving the lives of millions of children.

The results of the reforms are plain to see. Between 2011 and 2019, the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and others had narrowed by 13 per cent in primary and nine per cent in secondary. Evidence-led, systematically implemented, reform works. And it is this approach that will work again as we start the task of catch-up and tackling the widened attainment gap that is the result of hundreds of hours of missed teaching during the pandemic.

Despite everything achieved by our reforms, some have tried to use the pandemic as an opportunity to make a push for a reheated progressive agenda which would take this country back decades. Both Jonathan Simons and Mark Lehain, writing in ConHome this week, sound a note of caution in their pieces: that we should not let the challenges of the past year lead us to stray from our central mission of raising school standards. I could not agree more.

Indeed, whilst the Government had made positive steps in closing the attainment gap, I believe we haven’t gone nearly far enough. Education has a key role to play in delivering the Prime Minister’s levelling up agenda.

In 2012, we introduced the Phonics Screening Check to ensure every six-year-old was on track in learning to read. In its first year just 58 per cent of pupils reached the expected standard in that test. By 2019 it had risen to 82 per cent. But this still means that one in five six-year-olds finish Year 1 unable to read simple words accurately, rising to almost a third of children from disadvantaged backgrounds. We need to tackle this.

We have almost doubled the proportion of students taking the EBacc combination of academic subjects at GCSE. But almost a fifth of children take neither geography nor history GCSEs; more than half are not entered for a language. We need to tackle this, particularly languages, so important for a trading nation with a newly global focus.

There is so much more to do. The past 12 months have galvanised my belief in what makes a great school: an ambitious, knowledge-rich curriculum, taught by well trained teachers in a disciplined environment with high expectations and led by inspiring head teachers who create a caring ethos where conscientiousness dominates and success is rewarded and celebrated.

Amidst the pandemic, education ministers have remained focused on making sure we give teachers the training and support they need to give pupils the education vital to enable them to steer their own destinies. We are implementing the most significant reforms to teacher training in a generation, making sure all teacher training courses are rooted in evidence of what works, such as the importance of the explicit teaching of knowledge and how to manage classroom behaviour. And from September we are changing teacher induction to give all newly qualified teachers two years of mentored support based on the new Early Career Framework developed by some of the best training organisations in the country.

Alongside this, our new Institute of Teaching will give a new generation of teachers the expertise they need to drive up standards in our schools. Opening in September 2022, it will be the first organisation of its kind, delivering first-rate professional development for teacher trainees through to executive heads and system leaders, challenging failed education orthodoxies of the past, putting evidence based approaches at its core and delivering the pluralism demanded by Jonathan Clark in his ConHome article this week.

We are determined to return to full exams from next summer. Put simply, unseen external examinations are the fairest and most valid means we have to assess what pupils have learned in their time at school. And our reformed GCSEs are the gold standard of validating pupils’ attainment. Those who seek their abolition are profoundly mistaken. GCSEs help to deliver a well-structured and broad academic curriculum. For a significant minority they will be the only academic qualifications they hold – hugely important for any future career change. And GCSE results help to hold schools to account.

We must strongly resist the calls from those who talk about ripping up our curriculum to make it more ‘relevant’ or to make it solely about preparing pupils for work. This would be to deny children their birthright – and it’s the most disadvantaged in society who would suffer the most, who may have less access to this rich knowledge in the home.

I believe that the purpose of education is to open up a pupil’s mind to the finest examples of human endeavour – what Oakeshott called “an inheritance of human achievements” – unlike the tepid child-led progressivism of the Left.

We have achieved much over the past 11 years, but there is much more to do. We must look to those areas of the country that remain left behind and those areas of policy where the education revolution is unfinished. With children back in school, and with the sunlight of spring in the sky, this is a Government – and a Schools Minister – energised by the task ahead of us.

The DfE has thrown everything but the kitchen sink at school reopenings. But the perennial problem is communication.

25 Feb

With little over a week to go before schools reopen, Gavin Williamson has been busy trying to persuade all parties concerned that it’s safe to go back.

Yesterday at a Downing Street press conference, he outlined plans for schools in England. One of the Government’s biggest moves is a “pandemic package” of extra funding to help pupils catch up with all the learning they have missed during the course of 2020/21.

The Government will fund £700 million in total for England, with a £302 million Recovery Premium dedicated towards state and primary schools. This is designed to help schools support disadvantaged students in whatever way they think is best – whether that’s additional clubs and activities, or something else.

The other huge development is that A-Level and GCSE results in England this year will be decided by predicted grades (teachers deciding pupils’ exam results, based on a combination of mock exams, coursework and essays). More on that later.

As for safety, face masks will not be compulsory in schools, but “highly recommended”, and Nick Gibb, the education minister, said he hoped the majority of students would volunteer to have Coronavirus testing twice a week. Secondary schools and colleges are also allowed to stagger reopenings on March 8 to get testing in order.

The DfE has gone to huge efforts to try and get schools running again. It is trying to pre-empt every criticism that has been levelled at the Government during the pandemic, from schools not having enough tests to concerns about how far behind pupils are, which will be addressed with mass testing and after-school classes, respectively.

One of the toughest challenges for the Government has been deciding how to mark grades. It cannot win, whichever route it takes. When it used an algorithm over the summer – designed by Ofqual – to decide GCSEs and A Levels, this led to huge outrage about exam results. But predicted grades aren’t perfect either. When the Government switched to them after the Ofqual furore, it led to grade inflation (last year a total of 76 per cent of GCSE results were a grade 4 or above compared to 67.1 per cent in 2019).

Williamson said 2021’s predicted grades will be “fair to every student”, and Gibb promised “the best system possible to ensure there is consistency and fairness in how teachers submit grades for their students.” But you sense that it’ll be another troublesome summer for the Government.

Add to that it is already dealing with increasing calls to bump teachers up the vaccine queue. These will only grow after Germany announced it was doing this (even in spite of its terrible difficulties rolling out the vaccine, which make it no model to follow). 

Although the UK government’s scientific advisers have repeatedly spelled out the rationale for the vaccine order, it has been hard to compete with the likes of Tony Blair (who has also called for teacher prioritisation) and everyone else who has suddenly decided they’re an epidemiologist.

Overall, the Government’s biggest problem has always been communication. Up against a vocal opposition – that’s the teaching unions, not Labour – Williamson has struggled to make the case for keeping schools open (and it is a strong one).

As I wrote in November for ConservativeHome, one way the Government could have moved its plans forward is by using an independent taskforce in the way it did for vaccines (with Kate Bingham in charge). I also wrote that “it would be wrong to assume that the issue of closures has now been settled for good” – at a time when public attitudes to school reopenings actually improved.

Likewise, despite the speedy roll out of the vaccines and a palpable excitement about the Government’s roadmap to easing lockdown, one senses that the problems with school reopenings are far from over.

Why is Williamson fighting so hard to prevent schools breaking up early for Christmas?

15 Dec

Of all the own goals and missteps the Government has inflicted on itself during the pandemic, the exams fiasco was one of the most embarrassing.

Having taken the decision to cancel end-of-term examinations months before – and watched the Scottish Government run aground on the very same reef a couple of weeks before England was scheduled to do so – the Department for Education sailed blithely into disaster.

Gavin Williamson, having struck a tough pose against grade inflation, was swift to capitulate. With a second round of more-generous results anticipated in 2021, a decade of Conservative attempts to toughen up school standards risks becoming another victim of Covid-19.

And all of this followed a prolonged battle between the Government and the teaching unions about getting schools open in the first place, with the latter accused of setting deliberately impossible safety conditions on any return to work.

So one can see why the Education Secretary might feel he has something to prove, and thus why he has chosen to take an extremely muscular line against several London councils which had planned to close their schools early for Christmas in view of rising coronavirus cases. Williamson issued Greenwich with a ‘temporary continuity direction’, a new power afforded him by Covid-19 legislation, to force the local authority to reverse course.

Two more, Islington and Waltham Forest, had issued similar directives and likewise face a confrontation with the Government if they don’t back down.

Ministers followed up this move with the announcement that they will roll out mass rapid testing in secondary schools in the New Year, in what Williamson called a “milestone moment in our work to keep schools and colleges open for all”. However, the unions claim that schools have not been provided with adequate staff and training to make use of the tests.

Furthermore, if the tests are going to be rolled out in January it isn’t immediately obvious why allowing schools to break up for Christmas a week early would be such a disaster – the last week of term is seldom one in which many critical lessons are taken.

A couple of possible explanations present themselves. First, that the Government wants to avoid councils such as Greenwich setting a precedent for school closures that could come back to bite it in the event that the new testing regime and the vaccine rollout don’t bring the pandemic under control as quickly as hoped in 2021. Second, that Williamson has simply spied an opportunity to square off on favourable terms with the teaching unions and some Labour-led local authorities.