Interview: Braverman says that what may emerge from Russia “is a basis for charges of genocide”

20 May

There is “emerging evidence now of genocide” in Ukraine, Suella Braverman, the Attorney General, says in this interview. She recently visited Ukraine, only the second British minister to do so, and describes how Britain is helping the Ukrainians to bring prosecutions for war crimes.

At home, Braverman says the Conservative Party needs to “stamp out this long tail of Blairism”, including “creations like the Human Rights Act and the equalities agenda, which has built up a whole industry of people who make their living from rights-based claims”, and has led to “a feeble approach to common sense, decency, British values”.

She is a passionate defender of British values:

“My background is one that is ferociously proud of Britain, Britain’s history, Britain’s welcome. My parents were born under the British Empire. They came to this country with a huge fondness for the British Empire. 

“What Britain brought to their countries, Mauritius and Kenya and India where we have our origins, was remarkable. And I get very saddened by this apology and shame, promulgated by the Left and commenced by the collective guilt that started under Tony Blair, that is pervading our society.”

In Braverman’s view Sir Keir Starmer  is “a child of Blairism in many ways, and that’s what’s very dangerous”  about the Labour Party under his leadership.

She wants the Conservative Party to replace its tree logo with the torch of liberty which was used in Margaret Thatcher’s day, opposes a windfall profits tax and would be happy to have her friend Lord Frost as “a colleague in the Commons”.

Braverman began by defending herself against attacks from the Left, and by insisting that the Government, and she in particular as Attorney General, are staunch upholders of the rule of law.

ConHome: “This hostility from the Left towards you: Nick Cohen has attacked you in The Observer for something you wrote on ConHome in 2019: ‘I was the shy Tory in my Chambers of ‘right-on’ human rights lawyers.’

“According to Cohen, your Chambers was actually full of ‘regular barristers fighting disputes about the licensing of pubs and betting shops, not human rights law’. What’s your response to all this?”

Braverman: “I’m not going to get into an argument about my old set of Chambers. What I will say is that in the late Nineties, when I was at university, when Blair had just won his landslide, it was unpopular to be a Conservative amongst under-30s.

“And I definitely felt that at university, although I was Chairman of Cambridge University Conservative Association, and I had my little close tribe of people.

“But the post-Blair years, in that immediate aftermath of 1997 to 2005 and even onwards, definitely I felt in professional circles in London among the university-educated, liberal arts community, there was definitely a Blairite bias.

“And actually that’s one of the challenges for us, as a 21st-century Conservative Party, we’re actually still dealing with the long tail of Blairism.

“And the legacy issues of that Blair era are what still motivate me to get into politics. I did stand for Parliament in 2005 [she was eventually elected for Fareham in 2015] so maybe I wasn’t that shy. I was able to put my head above the parapet.”

ConHome: “Peter Golds had schooled you, hadn’t he.”

Braverman: “Peter Golds is an old friend of my family and of mine, absolutely, yes. The force of nature that is Peter Golds. But yes, the long tail of Blairism, the creations like the Human Rights Act and the equalities agenda, which has built up a whole industry of people who make their living from rights-based claims, didn’t exist prior to Blair.”

ConHome: “This was also true of your Chambers then?”

Braverman: “I felt they were an excellent Chambers, and I was in the company of excellent lawyers. But I wasn’t out and proud as a flag-waving Tory at work, definitely.

“But I think they all knew I was a Conservative and they tolerated me. But there was no animosity or hostility and I’m not going to throw mud at them. They’re brilliant lawyers.”

ConHome: “Is Sir Keir Starmer a sort of continuation of this whole thing? He’s steeped in it, isn’t he?”

Braverman: “Yes, exactly, he is a child of Blairism in many ways, and that’s what’s very dangerous about a Labour Party under Keir Starmer.

“For the legacy of Blairism we will get quite a feeble approach to common sense, decency, British values.

“And the reasons why I’m a Conservative, my background is one that is ferociously proud of Britain, Britain’s history, Britain’s welcome. My parents were born under the British Empire. They came to this country with a huge fondness for the British Empire.

“What Britain brought to their countries, Mauritius and Kenya and India where we have our origins, was remarkable. And I get very saddened by this apology and shame, promulgated by the Left and commenced by the collective guilt that started under Tony Blair, that is pervading our society.”

ConHome: “The critique of you on the Left is that somehow you are a very political Attorney General, who’s sort of bending the law. So there’s this report in The Financial Times last week which suggested you were casting your net wider for advice on the Northern Ireland Protocol than you really should be.

“The accusation was that you’re going opinion shopping. What’s your response to that claim?”

Braverman: “Well I’m afraid I can’t talk about legal advice or how I’ve reached it, or indeed whether I’ve given it. That’s one of the frustrations of being in this role. I am gagged to a large degree.

“However what is completely normal practice is to consult specialists in their fields. We have gone to outside lawyers because they bring expertise and specialism.

“I think aspersions being cast on lawyers are actually very serious attacks on their professional reputations, when lawyers actually in private practice, they wouldn’t necessarily have a right to reply, and somehow trying to malign them is actually quite dangerous.

“Because lawyers take a case on the merits of the law, and they fight them for legal reasons, not because of political agendas. That’s what good lawyers do anyway.”

ConHome: “Pretty plainly this charge of opinion shopping you reject.”

Braverman: “Yes.”

ConHome: “And your reasoning on the Protocol, this is based on the idea that the Belfast Agreement trumps the Protocol because of something called “primordial significance”?

Braverman: “Again, I can’t get into the legal reasoning of any advice that may or may not have been given. What I can say is that the Foreign Secretary has said there is a lawful basis. We’re going to be issuing a statement in very high-level terms.

“But what we do know, in political terms, is very clear. There is a clear problem in Northern Ireland. I would say there’s an economic problem, the costs being imposed by the application of the Protocol on the trade of goods across the Irish Sea, the diversion of trade is another consequence of that.

“There are problems with the administration and the political institutions, the collapse of Stormont. And I would say there is a more profound challenge to the Good Friday Agreement that has been presented squarely by the Protocol.

“The Good Friday Agreement is premised clearly on the consent of both communities, and depends on a delicate balance and harmony between those two communities.

“The application of the Protocol has put that balance out of kilter and undermined the East-West balance in favour of the North-South balance.

“And therefore the Good Friday Agreement, the foundation of peace, is seriously affected by the operation of the Protocol.”

ConHome: “Without asking you to comment on the particular case, because you can’t, is ‘primordial significance’ a familiar concept in constitutional law?”

Braverman: “I don’t know where you’ve got that term from.”

ConHome: “Well it was quoted in the Financial Times story.”

Braverman: “Well there’s definitely a term in customary international law about the conflicts of treaties.  What’s been very interesting about the rule of law generally, and suggestions that this administration is undermining the rule of law – I take issue with what my friend David Gauke has written about extensively on ConHome – I actually think that these days there is a very high level of reverence for the rule of law.

“I would quote Sumption here. He talks about the empire of law defining our society. You see that by the prolific statutes that Parliament puts out, and regulation, and regulators. You don’t have to look very far in any sector before you come across rules, and checks and balances, and people who make their living trying to sniff out incidents where those rules are broken.

“From a governmental point of view, and on my watch, the government’s got a very good record in court. So it’s actively challenged, in judicial review, and a side issue is the expansion of judicial review that we’ve seen over recent decades, but we are challenged every day in hundreds of instances on all manner of decisions, and on the whole, and in the majority of cases, we win.

“The Good Law Project is one such example. They’ve taken it upon themselves as their raison d’être to challenge us regularly and actually in the majority of cases we’ve won, and they’ve been ordered to pay, at the last count it was £300,000 in our legal costs, and I think that was set to increase actually.

“So they are proving the point that the Government is adhering to the rule of law very very carefully on the whole in terms of our decision-making.

“And lastly I would say when it comes to the rule of law, and this expansion of judicial review, the debate, or the tension you could say between the rule of law and parliamentary supremacy.

“And I think that is an interesting debate, and jurists in the past have taken the view as to which one should prevail. Dicey is the founding father of our constitutional law and sets out how he defines the rule of law but also says that parliamentary supremacy is the foundation.

“He’s echoed by Thomas Bingham, former Lord Chief Justice, in his book, and I would say our modern-day leading mind on this is Richard Ekins.

“And they all say that parliamentary supremacy is the kernel, the founding element of our constitution. And that’s not a creation of the Common Law, that’s not made up by judges, that’s not something that statute can amend.

“I’ve got a quote from Thomas Bingham which I really love, which sums it up very well:

“The British people have not expelled the extraneous power of the papacy in spiritual matters and the pretensions of royal power in temporal in order to subject themselves to the unchallengeable rulings of unelected judges. The constitution should reflect the will of a clear majority of the people.”

“And I think that is where my heart and my legal mind lies. Of course there are many eminent jurists who disagree. Lord Steyn in particular in his decision on Jackson, Lord Hope and Brenda Hale. They are eminent lawyers who have taken another view, and would say that the rule of law acts as a curb and a limit on parliamentary supremacy.”

ConHome: “So you don’t feel the rule of law is undermined if members of the academy, as it’s known, argue that Parliament isn’t sovereign ultimately, and that the last word is with the judges?”

Braverman: “I actually think that partly because of our membership of the European Union, and Brexit, and this is the whole argument of sovereignty, actually, and taking back control – partly because of the Human Rights Act, which has acted, to some degree, as a check on parliamentary supremacy – Parliament, and our legislators, and therefore those representing the will of the people, have assumed a lesser position in our constitution.

“I think it’s now, post-Brexit, reclaiming our sovereignty and writing the next chapter in our history of democratic politics, it’s really up to Parliament and MPs to grasp the nettle of their new-found power.

“A reflection of that is the vibrant debate we have on some of these issues to do with trade deals. The fact that we can have those debates is a reflection of an empowered legislature, a renewed supremacy and sovereignty to Parliament, thanks to Brexit.

“The Rwanda deal, and immigration policy generally, we wouldn’t have been able to debate the substance of our migration policy were we still in the EU.

“The vaccine roll-out and how we were able to do that outside the auspices of the EU. That’s an argument of how our Parliament and our Government has been empowered to take decisions in its own right which have really paid off.”

ConHome: “You think it’s perfectly fine from the point of view of a consensus about the rule of law if some judges and members of the academy take the view that Parliament isn’t really sovereign, and there are certain human rights fundamentals that judges in the last resort must pronounce on?”

Braverman: “I actually think that most judges today don’t want to be dragged into the arena of making these decisions…”

ConHome: “It’s well known you were a Brexiteer. You weren’t just a Brexiteer. You were a Spartan. You voted against Theresa May’s deal three times. You were there with Steve Baker and Mark Francois and the rest of the resistance.

“So tell us a bit about your thinking on that.”

Braverman: “I’m very proud to have been a Spartan, and I think that what’s remarkable about what the Spartans did is that at the time it was incredibly hard. I’d go so far as to say the vote on MV3 was the hardest decision I made in my professional life, because I felt so torn.

“And I know that several of my fellow Spartans felt the same way. For me I had resigned already, I had resigned in November of 2018 over the terms of the deal, and it had been set in stone by that point, and it was clear the Northern Ireland Backstop was fundamentally undemocratic…

“As it got closer to MV3 many people were changing their minds and it was becoming very hard to sustain that position, particularly in the face of accusations of ruining Brexit, the Spartans are killing Brexit, we’re going to end up with a second referendum and Corbyn’s going to get in.

“Accusations of disloyalty to the party. So that was very heavy social and political pressure… It was a very difficult time.

“But I do believe it was thanks to that rebellion that the deal didn’t go through, that Boris secured an 80-seat majority, and actually was able to get Brexit done. He’s the one who started Brexit, this massive, important, transformative mission for our country of which we are reaping many benefits.

“And I think it’s right that we support him in tidying up this outstanding issue of the Protocol now.”

ConHome: “Clearly Brexit and self-government and all that was very important to you. Can you just say a bit more about how your approach to politics developed as you were growing up.”

Braverman: “Well I think there’s definitely this strand of being very grateful to and having a deep love for this country, born out of my parents’ experience of coming here with nothing from former British colonies, my father was effectively exiled from Kenya as part of the Asian diaspora, my mother was recruited as a nurse and came here [from Mauritius] to work for the NHS.

“And they as I said had a real admiration for what Britain meant to them in their childhoods. Britain brought the rule of law. Britain brought statecraft. Britain brought military traditions. Members of my mother’s family fought in World War Two with the British in Egypt.

“Britain brought the civil service. My grandfather on my father’s side worked for the civil service in Kenya. Britain brought huge amounts of good. I think it was Cambridge University that was the examining board for my mother’s O levels. And of course the English language.

“They came here with huge admiration and a sense of great luck and they instilled that in me. Growing up, I come from Wembley, I went to school in Harrow, again your ConHome piece, I really loved what you wrote about the Asian vote wot won it, and I really relate to that.

“What’s wonderful, and I know I’m harking back to the days of empire and the mother country, but there’s a real visceral connection through my parents, growing up, admiring the Queen, and coming to this country, the country offering them opportunities and security.

“And then myself being brought up in a part of London where many Asians congregated, and this is what the Asian vote in Harrow, Wembley, north-west London is defined as, and this is what you picked up on in your column, why they are in growing numbers supporting the Conservatives.

“They are plucky. They are resilient. They are aspirational, ambitious. I’m very proud of the cliché of the Asian doctor or the Asian pharmacist or the Asian lawyer, and we are all products of plucky, pushy Asian parents who wanted to get their kids into the professions, into med school or law school.

“And you see that in modern Britain today. You see that in the Cabinet. Isn’t it remarkable, a Chancellor, Home Secretary, a Health Secretary, a Business Secretary, an Education Secretary, a COP 26 Secretary, an Attorney General, we all have linkages to Britain’s past, and we are now Britain’s present and Britain’s future.

“And that’s informed my conservative philosophy. That pride in our nation, but also the resilience of the individual against the odds.

“And I think my parents were very, very keen to invest in education. The little they had, they put into my education after starting in a state school, in the 1980s beset by strikes. My mother, a huge admirer of Margaret Thatcher, put me into the independent sector.

“My father had some years unemployed in the recession in the 1990s. We really experienced the pain of unemployment. It’s morally debilitating. As the so-called breadwinner in a family it’s crushing.

“And it was reskilling, and getting back into the workplace, that restored his sense of value in our country, and in our family…

“I get very frustrated with these leftie activists who want to decolonise our curriculum and cancel our culture and pull down statues.”

ConHome: “Is this why Ukraine has been such a big thing? Because people feel instinctively these are people who want to have their own country, have their own sovereignty…”

Braverman: “Yes, this is a battle for western civilisation, western values like the rule of law and democracy and civil liberties. Having visited Ukraine very recently, I’ve been working with the Ukrainian Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova for a few months since the conflict started, and I’ve wanted to help her in her mission to keep justice going and prosecute war criminals.

“The Ukrainians are very keen to move quickly, which is quite remarkable. In all of the instances of war crimes prosecutions in the past, they’ve all pretty much started after the end of the conflict.

“Here the conflict is live and they are already beginning their legal processes, which is amazing. They’ve got 11,000 cases, 5,000 suspects. They’ve got hundreds of detained prisoners of war. And just last week she commenced her first prosecution, against a young commander accused of killing an unarmed civilian.

“This is very powerful as a message that people implicated in this illegal war will face very harsh consequences. So I think it’s brilliant. I want to help her on that mission.

“The first thing I’ve done is appoint an expert, Sir Howard Morrison QC, a former war crimes judge. He is working with her, at my behest, on an almost daily basis, advising and supporting her.

“Howard and I went to Ukraine last week to see more close-up where the gaps are and how we might help.

“We’re seeing some emerging evidence now of genocide. I would not want to say definitively, from a legal point of view, but there’s definitely genocidal talk from political leaders in Russia, like eradicating Ukrainians, and we’ve got some stories of forced deportation.”

ConHome: “We’re following very closely the conversation in Russia about genocide, because it’s possible that what may emerge from that is a basis for charges of genocide.”

Braverman: “It’s possible. It’s possible.”

ConHome: “You said this morning there might be in certain circumstances a legal basis for action from this country on cyber. Could there possibly be a legal basis for supplying the Ukrainians with tactical nuclear weapons?”

Braverman: “In the context of cyber what I’m stating in my speech today is that there’s currently a vacuum in terms of rules and frameworks that govern what’s acceptable and unacceptable.

“There’s a principle of non-intervention. And if you were on the receiving end of a hostile activity in cyber space you would have a legal right of retorsion, or counter-measures, which is to take action, proportionate and necessary to remedy the negative effects.

“Very difficult to say yes or no. It would all depend on whether it’s a proportionate response.”

ConHome: “Do you have a view on a windfall tax?”

Braverman: “I don’t think a windfall tax would be a great idea, if I’m honest. I think that we want to incentivise investment. Profits are not an enemy of Conservatives. Profits mean more investment. Profits mean more research. Profits mean more jobs.”

ConHome: “Would you welcome your former colleague, Lord Frost, in the House of Commons?”

Braverman: “Listen, I worked closely with Frosty, he’s a good friend of mine. Yes, having him as a colleague in the Commons would be brilliant.”

ConHome: “Someone said somewhere, this may be quite wrong, that you’d got a view on the party’s logo?”

Braverman: “Oh yes, absolutely, right. So the old logo, the torch of liberty, wouldn’t it be great to bring that back?

“I’m not saying I don’t like the tree, but if we really want to, as I say, stamp out this long tail of Blairism, and define ourselves as Conservatives who value liberty, who trust individuals, who know that it’s responsibilities and duties that bind us as communities, as a country, as families, which actually bring that collective contentment, that’s why I’m a Conservative, then yes, let’s try the torch of liberty.

“I think one of the challenges for us as Conservatives is to make sure we get back to this more responsibility-focussed approach to our responsibilities and our society.

“So when it comes to human rights, and the Equality Act, for example, and I think that those are Blair creations generally, and we are seeing insidious effects of some of the expansionism of the interpretation of rights, this is some of the work that Dominic Raab is doing, I’ve worked with him on this, and we’ve worked closely on the British Bill of Rights.

“But we’ve also seen on the transgender issue, we’re getting into identity politics, which is very divisive, where people’s personal characteristics as defined in rights documents have now become fragmenting of the fabric of our society, and where you’re getting clashes and a lot of uncertainty.

“And that’s why this instance of the girl being thrown out of the school is outrageous. What’s really worrying is there’s a lot of confusion, and actually the Equality Act, there is no duty on schools – legally if you’re under-18 you can’t change sex – so if you are a male child who is saying I’m a trans girl, legally they are still treated as a male child, as a boy, and schools do not need to go to this extreme position of throwing other children out of schools to accommodate this group.

“I believe in aspiration, and that’s why I helped to cofound Michaela School, with Katharine Birbalsingh and Anthony Seldon, I was Chairman of the Governors for several years until we got our first Ofsted rating which was Outstanding, and that is a great template of what high standards, restoring the authority of the teacher, a traditional curriculum, and a zero tolerance approach to discipline can achieve, because we have turned around children who came to us at 11 with a reading and numeracy age of way below where they should be.”

Charlotte Gill’s Podcasts Review 7) Nick Robinson with Katharine Birbalsingh, Matt Chorley with Alok Sharma

22 Dec

Every fortnight, ConservativeHome will compile a handful of podcast recommendations – content that has been published in the weeks preceding – for its readers. Although these will mainly focus on podcasts for conservative listeners, we will try to include other options – should they be particularly interesting. Sometimes this feature will contain other types of media.

Title: Political Thinking with Nick Robinson
Host: Nick Robinson
Episode: The Katharine Birbalsingh One

Duration: 42:52 minutes
Published: December 17
Link: Here

What’s it about?

Readers of this podcast review may remember that Katharine Birbalsingh, the founder and headmistress of Michaela Community School, and more recently the Government’s new Social Mobility Commissioner, featured in my November round-up, when she was interviewed by Matt Chorley. So compelling is Birbalsingh that I must include a second conversation with her, during which she is interviewed by Nick Robinson. They cover a huge amount of ground, from whether she’s “the strictest head in Britain”, as the media once put it, to her upbringing and small-c conservative values.

Some teaser quotes:
  • On being strict – “It means immersing children in love.”
  • “In 2021, we as a people are letting ourselves down and letting our children down, because we’re not expecting enough of them.”
  • “I knew I was being naughty. I knew I was saying things you’re not meant to say.”
  • “I don’t want the limelight, but I have a duty… Somebody has to say something.”
Verdict

An excellent exchange, in which Robinson is never short on challenging questions for Birbalsingh. The most interesting one is around whether she can create consensus in her new governmental role.

Title: Planet Normal
Hosts: Allison Pearson and Liam Halligan
Episode: Penny Mordaunt on Omicron hysteria, Tory rebels and Brexit

Duration: 58:36 minutes
Published: December 16

What’s it about?

This episode of Planet Normal is split into different segments, with fun and engaging exchanges between its two hosts, Allison Pearson and Liam Halligan, and then an interview with Mordaunt sandwiched in the middle. During the course, Halligan asks Mordaunt about her progress pursuing FTAs with the United States, as well as what she thinks about Omicron and the Government’s “Plan B”.

Some teaser quotes:
  • “We are doing exceptionally well, and we have these huge and deep trading relationships and cross-investment interests… but I think we can do more – and a super deal with America would be fantastic.”
  • “The response we’ve had at state level has been incredible… people want to have obstacles removed from them doing more business with us.”
  • “Brexit is not an event to be mourned by the international community, nor is it an act of self-harm or an act that requires us to be punished in some way. It is a huge opportunity and we need to start to encourage to see people in that light.”
Verdict

An impressive discussion, which will fuel speculation about Mordaunt taking on an even higher role in government one day.

Title: Red Box
Host: Matt Chorley
Episode: Alok Sharma talks about the climate

Duration: 40 minutes
Published: December 16
Linked: Here

What’s it about?

In this interview, Matt Chorley sits down with Alok Sharma, the COP26 President, to find out the ins and outs of how he created one of the most impressive deals in world history. They cover all sorts of interesting territory, from how Covid affected this year’s climate conference, to Sharma’s experience seeing the effects of climate change up close, to why he’ll now be “auditor in chief”, as well as “shepherd in chief”, on environmental progress.

Some teaser quotes:
  • “Just look at what’s happened this year. You’ve seen terrible flooding in China, you’ve seen that in central Europe, you’re seeing wild fires raging in America, in Australia; I mean, even in our own country. Talk to farmers; they will tell you the impact that climate change is having on the yields of their crops.”
  • “Well I can tell you that my nostrils took quite a battering.”
  • On the decision to delay COP26 – “Climate change didn’t take time off during that year.”
  • “We helped delegates in over 70 countries get vaccinated as well.”
  • On ensuring countries didn’t pull out of the COP26 deal – “It literally is like playing Jenga.”
Verdict

A comprehensive interview, which shows the huge amount of work that went on behind the scenes of COP26, as well as showing Sharma’s satisfaction with how it went.

Charlotte Gill’s Podcasts Review 5) Matt Chorley with Katharine Birbalsingh, Peter Whittle with Matt Ridley

24 Nov

Every fortnight, ConservativeHome will compile a handful of podcast recommendations – content that has been published in the weeks preceding – for its readers. Although these will mainly focus on podcasts for conservative listeners, we will try to include other options – should they be particularly interesting. Sometimes this feature will contain other types of media.

Title: CATCH UP
Host: Matt Chorley
Episode: An Interview with Social Mobility Commissioner Katharine Birbalsingh

Duration: 30 minutes
Published: November 22
Link: Here

What’s it about?

In this interview, Matt Chorley sits down with Katharine Birbalsingh, the founder and headmistress of Michaela Community School, and more recently appointed the Government’s new Social Mobility Commissioner, to discuss a range of educational issues. From whether her school is too strict, to what she aims to change in her new position, Birbalsingh is characteristically compelling and unapologetic in her worldview.

Some teaser quotes:
  • (On making sure the Government listens to her on the Social Mobility Commissioner) – “I’m not in the business of being ignored. I don’t waste my time. I think I need to be quite selective and interesting about the things we choose to put forward.”
  • “We can all go on all day about how terrible Boris Johnson is. I just explained how one of my kids corrected him. But I don’t think that’s going to come to any use.”
  • “I think we could right now, with no more money in the education system, we could make things better, simply with different ideas.”
Verdict:

A fun insight into what’s next for the Government’s social mobility strategy.

Title: So What You’re Saying Is… (New Culture Forum)
Host: Peter Whittle
Episode: Viral: The Search for the Origin of Covid-19 – Matt Ridley

Duration: 50:34 minutes
Published: November 20

What’s it about?

In this conversation with Peter Whittle, Matt Ridley introduces some of the topics from his brave new book, Viral: The Search for the Origin of Covid-19, co-authored by Dr Alina Chan, a genetic engineering expert. Ridley exposes some of the complacency the West has had around how the pandemic started, taking listeners through the various inconsistencies that haven’t yet been explained.

Some teaser quotes:
  • “The World Health Organization became very beholden to China over the last few years. Dr Tedros, the Director General, was elected with Chinese support and China basically went around Africa saying “if you support this guy, we’ll give you more subsidies”.
  • (On whether his book has been dangerous to write) – “Yes it is… It is very clear that the wolf warrior diplomacy that the Chinese state operates is one that involves cyber attacks, denigration, criticism of people who say unwelcome things about what’s going on in China.”
  • “The ecological explanation for pandemics, which is very, very fashionable among a certain kind of environmentalist activist, simply don’t make much sense.”
Verdict:

A wake-up call as to how much the media and politicians have buried their heads in the sand about the origins of Covid.

Title: Triggernometry
Host: Konstantin Kisin and Francis Foster
Episode: Viral: Kathleen Stock – Hounded Out for Trans Views

Duration: 1:07:53 hours
Published: November 21

What’s it about?

Readers of my podcast review may know that Kathleen Stock, the former Professor of Philosophy at Sussex University, featured in the last feature of these series. It felt fitting to put another of her interviews in a) in the same week that JK Rowling posted about receiving death threats for holding “gender critical” views (aka believing sex and gender are different things), but b) also because it is simply very interesting too. In the chat, Stock elaborates on her ordeal at the hands of activists, who hounded her after she expressed (perfectly common sense) arguments on gender identity.

Some teaser quotes:
  • (On gender ideology) – “I just think it shows how susceptible to flashy-sounding ultimately mad ideas human beings can be in the right circumstances… I think it’s sociologically interesting how so many of us seem to have gone along with this, despite the obvious, terrible consequences for children, for gay women, for women in sport and so on.”
  • “Alongside extreme trans activism goes this cult-like structure which says ‘anyone who disagrees with us is a hater'”.
  • “There’s nothing academic about this; there’s something pretty primitive about this. It’s like ‘get that heretical figure out of our environment’.”
Verdict:

An interview that shocks as much as captivates.

John Bald: Zahawi’s challenge is to ensure more special needs children learn to read

26 Oct

John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector and has written two books on the history of writing and spelling. He is Vice-President of the Conservative Education Society.

The influence of major Education Secretaries can be measured in decades.

Butler’s 1944 Act lasted two, Crosland’s secondary modern comprehensives, four. Michael Gove’s reforms are into their second, despite the early need to accommodate Liberal Democrats, and the major error of listening to Dominic Cummings. Michaela and Katharine Birbalsingh shine brightly, but Nadhim Zahawi and his new team have plenty to do.

Zahawi made a brilliant start at our Conference. Born in Saddam’s Baghdad, arriving in Britain with no English, he learns to read – key point – graduates in engineering from UCL, makes a fortune from YouGov, and becomes a member of Her Majesty’s Government. No latter-day Dick Whittington, though. Like another noted Conservative, he didn’t turn. Zahawi’s story is one of single-minded determination and staying power, backed by intellect.

It was a nice touch to call for a round of applause for Oxford University’s achievements in vaccination. But Zahawi and the new skills minister, Alex Burghardt, are also intent on reviving Further Education and apprenticeships as an alternative route to qualification. I recently explained the benefits of this – including Btech – to one of my students in the care sector – and expanding degree apprenticeships is the key improving the supply of nurses. A review of Btech is a good idea – taking a scythe to it is not.  At the heart of this change is the final recognition that Blair’s huge expansion of universities has been a disaster both for the students saddled with permanent debt, and for the Treasury, for which loans have become a money pit. The argument that apprenticeships are for “other people’s children” does not diminish enthusiasm for them in Germany, whose economy is both more successful, and more strictly regulated, than ours.

Work is also needed on the continuing review into special needs, and the major changes in reading teaching brought in under Nick Gibb.

Since Baroness Warnock’s review of special educational needs provision, the education of these children has become focused almost exclusively on dealing with severe behavioural problems, with next to no attention to the teaching of reading. The waste of human potential has been enormous, and half-hearted attempts in the last years of the Labour governments to redress the balance by means of private tuition were held back by yet another series of authoritarian guidelines to tutors, written by apparatchiks who knew little or nothing about the work. This error was repeated at the height of the pandemic by recruiting unqualified and inexperienced companies to organise tuition.

The key to progress is to introduce rigorous monitoring of all initiatives in terms of their impact on pupils’ progress, rather than the self-advertisement of their proponents. We have not had a nationally standardised test of reading since our opponents hijacked the membership of Margaret Thatcher’s commission on falling reading test scores, and decided that the best solution was to abolish the test. NS6, as it was, would require modest alterations to be returned to service, and would give us a clear idea both of where we stand nationally, and of the real standing of individual pupils. It would also give decisive evidence on the ability of the Reading Recovery programme, which refuses to include phonics, to deliver long-term progress.

The phonics programme itself is half-finished. The key evidence in its favour, the research in Clackmannanshire that showed benefits in word recognition and spelling from initial phonics teaching five years later, has since been reinforced by work showing that this was essential to orient children towards using information from print to read (the “alphabetic principle”) rather than guessing. This information does not, however, tell us all we need to know, as the same letter or group of letters can indicate different sounds. One of my pupils, fourteen and assessed as dyslexic, has become engrossed in the diary of Anne Frank. She was stumped last week by “whitish”, which phonics would not help her distinguish from “British”. To read it, we had to go back to “white”. But it was knowledge of the language beyond phonics that solved the problem.

This little example supports the French Professor Stanislas Dehaene’s theory that we learn by building up ideas based on our experience, and modify them when something doesn’t fit. There could not be a more accurate picture of the process of learning to read in English – or indeed in French, which has four times as many silent letters as English, and uses them to tie things in grammatically. My teaching of reading and spelling, on which I based my application for fellowship of the Chartered College of Teaching, makes these variations clear to children and adults in plain English. It was reported in the Times Educational Supplement 25 years ago, and repeated this morning, pro bono, with an 11 year old non-reader, with his deputy headteacher watching. It changes lives. It deserves serious attention as part of the special needs review.

Emily Carver: This September, unions cannot be allowed to sabotage and obstruct children’s education again

1 Sep

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

The beginning of a new academic year is always an exciting time. Even more so this September, following months of stay-at-home mandates, Zoom lessons and cancelled sports, music and social events. It will come as a relief to many parents and pupils that a full reopening of schools is just around the corner.

Despite the progress of the vaccination roll-out, however, a significant – and vocal – minority of people still harbour anxieties over the imminent return. The potential for cases to rise among unvaccinated children, for the virus to spread to teachers, and the perceived threat of long Covid are among the oft-repeated arguments for schools to keep social distancing measures in place.

The point is less whether these concerns are justified (and my reading of the data is that they are unfounded), but rather the possibility that coordinated pushback from teaching unions or headteachers alone will be enough to scupper the Education Secretary’s plans to get schools back to normal.

The Government appears to be taking that threat seriously, and has launched a “back to school and college” campaign to reassure teachers, parents and pupils that schools are indeed safe environments. The PR drive, which began last week, includes social and digital advertising as well as wider engagement with the teaching profession.

The message from the Department for Education and the Department for Health is not to throw all caution to the wind. While the policy of bubbles – which saw entire classes of pupils sent home as a result of one positive case – has been scrapped.

Regular testing will continue, and children as young as 12 years old will actively be encouraged to get vaccinated (there has even been talk of vaccinations going ahead without parental consent). The door has been left wide open for a return to mask wearing for pupils in the event of “an increase in cases” – which seems inevitable.

The vast majority of parents want children back in a routine. In July, the Office for National Statistics found that almost nine in 10 adults (89 per cent) with children of school age said they were likely to send their children back to school this September. They’ve seen the destruction wreaked by months of disruption, are aware of the risks, and have come down on the side of schooling and social activities.

Perhaps the remaining 11 per cent are still excessively terrified of Coronavirus. Or perhaps they’ve been influenced by the obstructive, fear-mongering usual suspects for whom the importance of education comes far below the opportunity to contradict this government.

This week alone Nick Brook of the National Association of Head Teachers has accused the Government of being “naïve” and claimed that further disruption will be “inevitable”.

Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, who back in May was overheard referring to children as “mucky germ spreaders”, has suggested the Government should follow Scotland’s lead in maintaining restrictions. Bousted declared that the alternative was “hundreds of schools” being forced to reintroduce tougher Covid measures, including bubbles, “within weeks”.

This was no great surprise from those who trade in the language of fear and thinly-veiled threats. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to believe these groups have children’s best interests in mind. Pupils in England lost 58 per cent of their classroom time – the equivalent of 110 days of learning – between March last year and this April alone.

Researchers at Oxford University found that the policy of bubbles, which saw more than one million pupils in England out of lessons in just one week in July, were no more effective in preventing transmission of the virus than regular testing. Record numbers of children are being prescribed antidepressants after studies suggested that missed schooling may be behind higher rates of mental distress.

Though children are, thankfully, less likely to experience severe symptoms from Covid-19, they have been collateral damage in the Government’s battle to limit its spread. While it may be in the interests of union bosses and some teachers to maintain a safety-at-all-costs strategy, it certainly isn’t for the millions of pupils who will discover their education sits pretty far down the priority list – and the most deprived will continue to be hit the hardest. The very same children the unions claim to care about most.

This last point is important. We know that the pandemic has already hit reverse to the Government’s levelling up agenda when it comes to educational disparities. As a government-commissioned report found earlier this year, pupils in some parts of northern England were losing twice as much learning over the same periods as those in London.

While the unions may respond to this simply with calls for more investment in catch-up efforts (the Government has already announced over £3 billion) or claims that Tory cuts are to blame, they continue to push for the very restrictions that have led us to this situation – with little to no real scientific justification or sense of proportionality to the threat that children and teachers do or do not face.

On the media round yesterday morning, Robert Halfon, Chair of the Parliamentary Education Select Committee, said that schools need to go back, that children need to be kept in school and that government needs to enforce this across the board. Refreshing rhetoric – but how confident can we be that schools will stick to government guidance after it seemingly allowed the unions to sabotage and obstruct education throughout the pandemic?

All may not be lost. It has been reported that “tiger headmistress” Katharine Birbalsingh, founder of the high-achieving Michaela Community School in North London, is in the running to become the new boss of the social mobility commission, the Government body in charge of helping improve the life chances of disadvantaged children.

Seeking advice from experts like Birbalsingh, who have shown their ability to raise standards in deprived catchment areas, is certainly a step in the right direction if we are to catch up students who have lost out over the last year and a half.

Let’s hope the Government can capture some of her no-nonsense, common-sense spirit when it comes to the unions, stop pandering to their excessive demands, and finally allow school children the education they deserve.

John Bald: Collins’ resignation shows the mistake of using Labour strategists to run Conservative policies

7 Jun

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.

Sir Kevan Collins’ resignation – see my warning on appointing Labour strategists to run Conservative policies –  does not disguise the need for action. But what action? And how do we ensure that money goes where it is needed – and is properly used?

Most teachers outside infant schools have had no training to teach reading, and can’t be expected to pick it up overnight. The training we have is focused exclusively on phonics. This is essential in the initial stages of reading in order to establish the principle of using the information contained in letters, but then needs to be modified so that children are not confused when there is no direct correspondence between letters and speech. An example last week comes from a nine-year-old who had been asked to leave a Steiner school because they could not teach him to read. “I can read three-letter words,” he said, “But not longer ones.” He then sounded out w a s to rhyme with has, and I had to explain why it did not. (Was is of Germanic origin, like water, warm and at least twenty other common words with wa, and its pronunciation has changed over centuries.) We then made progress.

The reasons why one size does not fit all are obvious. Some schools have moved almost all of their teaching online, with no great loss. Others, encouraged by union stonewalling during the first lockdown, have provided little or no direct teaching. Most private sector parents have protected their investment by ensuring that children sign in on time, but many whose children are most at risk of failure have not, and at worst have blocked communication with schools. Laptops are essential, and opposition criticism of slow provision has been unfair – these things take time – but not all parents know how to use them. Some children have all the books they could want, and others none at all. Library closures have not helped, but let’s not pretend that children with reading difficulties were beating down their doors.

So, the first thing we need is an accurate damage report from all schools, to be approved by their governing body, published on their website and followed up by Ofsted, who should be given the resources to do this work. Additional funding should then be allocated to schools on this basis, and they should be required to keep a separate account of how they spend it, and the outcomes for pupils. Reading will often be the main focus, and should be assessed by means of the phonics check for young children, and brief standardised tests for older ones. These should include understanding as well as accuracy, but should not require children to read between the lines before they can read what is on them. Maths should focus on knowledge of the arithmetic, tables, and other basic procedures that are needed to attempt secondary education successfully.

Kate Green, the Shadow Education Secretary, has argued against more of what she calls “formal education” in favour of opportunities for children to meet socially. Reopening schools, though, is in itself the key to this, and it is wrong for breaks and lunchtimes to be so constricted that children have no time to play and socialise. Cutting breaks, combined with excessively long lessons, takes place because headteachers are not confident in controlling behaviour and ensuring safety when pupils move between lessons or have free time, and this needs to be addressed. Lunchtime and after-school clubs – I used to run them for homework, and invite parents to those running after school – are important, and provide avenues for the informal personal advice and support that meet children’s needs and build relationships.

They are not, however, a substitute for providing children with essential knowledge, skills, and understanding. Leading academy heads, from Sir Michael Wilshaw to Katharine Birbalsingh, David Moody and Louisa Lochner, understand this, and these are the people Nick Gibb and Vicky Ford should be looking to for advice, rather than to opponents whose educational goals are fundamentally different from ours. The Educational Endowment Foundation, first headed by Sir Kevan and now by a former Institute of Education Director who has declared that grouping pupils according to their learning needs and abilities is “symbolically violent”, is another example of the same error. Most parents want their children to succeed in school and to be happy, and neither will happen if they are left to sink or swim in mixed ability classes. If Green considered her approach in detail, she might find it uncomfortably close to that of Steiner.

Since 2010, Conservative policy has been based on the need to restore schools to their proper purposes, with Katharine Birbalsingh’s 2010 conference speech and the success of Michaela Community Academy, showing what needed to be done and how to do it. The only speech in living memory to compare with this is Neil Kinnock’s denunciation of Militant, 35 years ago, and Katharine’s was no less significant. She and her fellow pioneers have shown that a conservative solution to our educational problems is practical, effective, and affordable. We need to follow their example, and stop putting our opponents in the saddle, where they will do their best to take control of the horse.

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.

John Bald: Handing the education system back to Blairite advisers is misguided

18 Feb

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.

Sir Michael Barber, former education officer to the National Union of Teachers, and strategist-in-chief to the Blair government, has been appointed to lead our recovery from COVID. No surprise, then, that Sir Kevan Collins, former director of Blair’s literacy strategy and CEO of Tower Hamlets Labour council, has been named to lead recovery in schools. So, after ten years of Conservative-led government, in which Ministers have fought tooth and nail for reform against the progressive educational establishment – Blob or Octopus, as you prefer – the education system has been handed over to two Blairite knights.

It is not as if we did not have Conservative alternatives. Katharine Birbalsingh, who told the truth at our Conference in 2010, has, with her colleagues at Michaela Community School, closed the gap in examination performance for disadvantaged pupils, with a set of results that were so good that she could scarcely believe them herself. Michaela did this by starting where the pupils were, with a clear idea of where they needed to be and how to get them there – no more wasted time, no tolerance of poor behaviour or bullying, systematic hard work and homework, huge personal encouragement, and teaching carefully matched to children’s needs by careful grouping according to their starting points and abilities. The contrast with Labour’s approach, and the chaos to which it led, could not be more stark, and it matters not that Birbalsingh’s conservatism has no capital C.

Similar approaches at West London Free School, Harris Battersea Academy, and Great Yarmouth Chartered Academy, have brought, and are bringing, genuine improvements in learning, behaviour, and personal safety. Any of half a dozen leaders of these schools could point to more achievement in improving education than the whole of Labour’s coterie combined. For example, I once sat through a meeting addressed by Collins, as newly-appointed head of the Literacy Strategy, in which he studiously avoided uttering the word “phonics” in response to a series of questions – “You say phonics, I say….” – even though phonics were part of the national curriculum, which his organisation had replaced with the “Searchlights” approach, based on guessing game theories of reading that had been disproved by research fifteen years earlier. The maths strategy was no better – towards the end, it was producing materials to teach the 2x table to 11 year olds, apparently unconcerned that they didn’t already know it.

A key Labour tactic was to set everything out on paper and then adjust “accountability” measures to prove, also on paper, that they were working. They started with the assumption that they knew best, and made sure the “evidence” proved it. In school inspection, the categories “excellent” and “very good” were combined to produce a grade of “outstanding”, multiplying the number of schools in the top band by at least 5. Fake qualifications, and Ed Balls’ idea of making examinations “more accessible”, led to a huge expansion of young people with paper qualifications, disguising a fall in standards by means of fake coursework. A US contractor who applied proper standards to primary school tests in 2005, showing that standards were nothing like what was claimed, was paid off and their contract cancelled. Ministers who slipped up in Blair’s world of presentation and illusion were removed. Blair’s strategies had the credibility, and statistical methods, of Stalin’s five-year plans.

This, from an experienced secondary teacher in the North, typifies the problems we face:

“I have 2 lower ability Y7 classes and they are the weakest for literacy I have ever had. Their ability to form sentences using punctuation is really poor. I fear this happened over lockdown 1, and we never got them back to where they were. They are also the ones either struggling to engage at all, their parents not answering the phone when school rings or only doing “some” work when it is a live lesson. Give them even basic instructions on a PowerPoint to read and I receive no work. You are right, “who has lost what”. The differences at stage and ability are stark.”

“Who has lost what?” refers to what I had suggested as the starting point for recovery, as there is a huge difference between those whose schools have provided something like a full programme, and almost half who have had no direct teaching at all. Even then, the refusal of some parents to take part, or even to answer the phone, is not unusual. Not all parents value education, partly because they don’t see it as having done much for them, and others are under so much pressure from work that they are not in a position to provide support. I am, frankly, not sure what a national solution to this would look like, any more than are the large numbers of people who are criticising the government for not having one. I challenged one such, a prominent internet journalist, to provide me with a blueprint last week, and have had no answer.

We can, though, be sure that a New Labour strategy, combined with the Education Endowment Foundation’s Trip Advisor approach to research and presentation, won’t provide anything more than evidence of its own success. The variation in cases and circumstances is huge, and progress for each individual will depend on finding their starting point and building from that. Global ideas, such as keeping schools open through the summer, won’t attract the pupils who most need them, unless somehow they can be given inducements to attend. Dolly Parton’s Buddy Program, which offers $500 to children completing High School in her home county, is a possible example, and any free meals could be provided on the school premises. Similarly, Saturday schools, which have made an impact on BAME education, could be extended and subsidised, but with invitations to attend based on assessment of need, and any inducements related to achievement.

The basis of this achievement must be success in literacy and basic maths. My teacher correspondent is not an English specialist, and yet identifies illiteracy as the main obstacle to learning in her subject. Almost all secondary maths depends on competence in number work, which is held up by a failure to address essentials such as multiplication tables, without which other aspects of maths, including algebra, are much more difficult, if not impossible. I’m currently teaching a primary pupil who assured me, when we started, that 3×2=8, and that 4×2 = 9 (probably adding 1 to 8).

Brain research shows that learning involves the formation, extension and consolidation of networks in the brain, and we can’t do this if we try to extend things that aren’t there. A final, encouraging example, is C4’s The Write Offs which shows the multiples of normal progress – in one case, over five years in four months – that can be achieved by teaching, closely matched to each individual’s learning needs. Presented by Sandy Toksvig, with tuition organised by Jackie Hewitt-Main OBE, it is a shaft of light in our dark times. It should be studied and followed.

John Bald: Closing the education gap the Michaela way

8 Oct

John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector and has written two books on the history of writing and spelling. He is Vice-President of the Conservative Education Society.

The Secretary of State is rarely the most important person in education. With a few exceptions, such as Butler, Crosland, or Gove, they either don’t do much, or launch projects that don’t work or don’t last. So it is no disrespect to the present holder of the office to say that the most important person in British education is Katharine Birbalsingh. No disrespect, either, to pioneers like the late Sir Rhodes Boyson and Sir Michael Wilshaw, or to others doing excellent work. But Birbalsingh and her colleagues at Michaela have achieved the educational equivalent of squaring the circle. While Sir Keir Starmer talks about closing the attainment gap between poor and advantaged pupils, they have done it.

This gap has set the scene for educational debate since I started in the early seventies, and it has widened during the pandemic. Children with the least support and fewest resources at home, depend entirely on their teachers for opportunities to learn, and around 40 per cent have had little or no contact with them while schools have been closed. A substantial number of parents have made the problem worse. One of the few state schools to ignore union advice and provide online teaching during the lockdown reports that almost a third of pupils did not take part, and that some parents blocked its phone calls. We can’t compel anyone to pick up a phone or switch on a computer.

The gap starts at birth, and can be the equivalent of eighteen months to two years’ learning when children start school. Thirty years ago, Harvard professor Jeanne Chall showed that it widened on transfer to secondary school, as the children of highly educated parents picked up on the more complex vocabulary used in school work, while the others could not, and so fell farther behind. This makes closing the gap from a start with 11-year-old pupils even more remarkable. So, am I right in saying that Michaela has done it? And, if it has, can others do it too?

First, the evidence. Last year’s examination results, from a non-selective intake, go beyond excellence. They change our understanding of what can be achieved, perhaps particularly in Michaela’s four times national average success at the super A* Level 9. Such results show that the leftist argument, that achievement is inevitably limited by social background, is an error. Nevertheless, it is set in stone among the progressive octopus that still controls most university education departments. As Labour’s thinking is infused with their views from top to bottom, Starmer would have to ditch the whole of his Party’s thinking on education for the past 70 years in order to do it, and there is no reason to think he will do so.

I’ve described Michaela’s latest book, The Power of Culture, as the best I’ve ever read on schools education, and better than I ever expected to find. Katharine Birbalsingh’s excellent chapter, on “servant leadership”, reminds me of the late Cardinal Hume’s address to Catholic headteachers. Elsewhere, she edits, but the writing is the work of the staff. Hin-Tai Ting was the head of the Year 11 that achieved last year’s results, and his chapter contains extensive testimony from pupils, many of them with special needs, serious behavioural problems, and disturbed and violent lives outside school. Michaela has given them a future by enabling them to buy into its system and succeed. These are precisely the pupils who are failing in droves elsewhere, and Mr Ting’s work shows that there is nothing elitist about Michaela’s excellence – like other schools it uses nurture groups, but expects the same standard of work and behaviour there as in other classes.

The GCSE results were so good that the bar for sixth form entry is among the highest in the country – at least 7 A grades or above (Levels 7-9). This is the same as a typical offer from Manchester Grammar School . For comparison, the published admission criteria of Maidstone’s grammar schools are 6 subjects at Level 5 or above (girls) and a grade average of 5.5 (boys). Jessica Lund’s 6th Form chapter shows how Michaela pupils are guided towards the highest aspirations for their talents and abilities, both through the teaching and by tackling the social issues that might otherwise hold them back. Michaela streams, but without the stigma that has come to be associated with it. Streaming enables teachers consistently to pitch work at the right level for the pupils, so that all know that they are making progress. The excellence of this teaching of less academically able pupils is a key point in Michaela’s success. Every child matters, and everyone knows it.

The basis of this teaching is contained in four excellent chapters, respectively on religious education, history, geography, and art. The RE chapter, in particular, stands out as the only piece of work I’ve ever read on the subject that does not involve some kind of preaching or self-righteous cant, and the art shows how attention to technique enables pupils to work spontaneously. Deputy Head, Katie Ashford’s chapter brings many of these threads together, and distinguishes Michaela’s approach from its critics’ caricature of “rote-learning”. The big difference is in the use of context, which builds understanding of what has been learned, and enables pupils to apply it. Just as order and discipline free pupils by enabling learning to take place in peace, basing the curriculum on knowledge gives them the means to move towards independence. The picture is complete.

The Power of Culture is a long book at 400 pages, and the close argument and intensity of each chapter make it a most demanding read. It has taken me a month to complete. The significance of Michaela’s achievement makes it not only worthwhile, but imperative. If Michael Gove’s goal of breaking down education’s Berlin Wall is ultimately to be achieved, it will be Katharine Birbalsingh and her colleagues who have made the first breach. We now need to follow it up.

Ben Everitt: Why the plan for a new technical university in Milton Keynes offers a fresh model for higher education

16 Sep

Ben Everitt is the MP for Milton Keynes North.

We have world class universities in this country, which provide some of the highest calibre graduates around. We must maintain and protect our best institutions. But speaking to businesses in my constituency, they tell me that what they want isn’t always graduates. It’s workers with technical skills, an understanding of the industry they want to work in, and who are ready to work in teams and who can communicate.

That’s why this Government is right to be taking a hard look at the system of higher and further education in this country. It isn’t ‘anti university’ to be asking whether the current system provides the best opportunity for those going through it, for the businesses who will employ them, and for the taxpayer. It’s making an argument for a world class higher and further education system for everyone, in a wider variety of forms.

And when we think about what that looks like, we don’t have far to go. We should take inspiration from one of this Conservative Government’s proudest achievements – Free Schools. These schools, often set up in the poorest areas of the country by innovative teachers and heads, were distinctive not just because they were new, but because they offered something different.

Like the best businesses, they spotted a gap in the market and they provided a solution to fill it. And many of them – such as Michaela Community School, run by the outstanding Katharine Birbalsingh – have been successful precisely because they have maintained this focus over time, rather than doing everything.

We have some of that in higher education, but not enough. In my constituency, for example, the Open University does a brilliant job because it focuses on a specific remit – providing flexible distance learning to those who don’t want to, or aren’t able to, undertake traditional three year full time undergraduate degrees. To adapt the Steve Jobs maxim, it does not try to do everything – it does one thing, and does it well. But we need more innovation from the higher education sector, not more of the same.

It’s why I’m such a strong supporter, alongside my fellow Milton Keynes MP Iain Stewart, of the new proposed technical university in my constituency, Milton Keynes University (MK:U). This institution, modelled on the best technical universities in Germany and the United States, has identified a clear gap, which is the shortage of digital and STEM skills in the economy throughout Milton Keynes. I’m privileged in my constituency to sit in the middle of the Oxford to Cambridge Arc – a zone of immense prosperity and economic growth that is home to world class businesses and innovation.

But what Milton Keynes needs is people who can work in these businesses – and who have qualifications that are industry ready. And that’s what MK:U will deliver. By 2021, MK:U plans to be delivering degree apprenticeships in the critical shortage areas of data science, cyber security, digital technology, and management. By 2024, when the university is fully on stream, it will continue to deliver at least half of its provision via degree apprenticeships.

It will also work closely with the new South Central Institute of Technology to deliver high quality technical qualifications at what are called Level 4 and 5 – above the level of school qualifications, but quicker to achieve and more industry-focussed than traditional degrees.

The reason I’m so confident in the success of MK:U is that the team there have been overwhelmed by interest from businesses. Over a hundred major employers, who between them employ over 700,000 people in the UK alone, are backing MK:U, including top-level support from Arriva, Bosch, BT, Capita, Grant Thornton, Network Rail, PwC, Sainsburys, and Santander – who specifically cited MK:U as a key element in its decision to locate its new £150 million Digital Hub in Milton Keynes, and has committed £10 million capital funding and £20 million of in-kind support, to MK:U.

MK:U is backed by Cranfield, the world recognised postgraduate university with a long track record in scientific and business research, and another example of an institution that knows what it does and does it well. Like Cranfield, and like the OU, MK:U will keep to its mission. It won’t offer a wide range of liberal arts and humanities degrees. It won’t chase faddish new disciplines and courses merely to attract students. It will focus on driving prosperity in the Arc, and for the UK more widely.

I know that Ministers in the Education and Communities departments, and in the Treasury are studying the proposal closely as we approach the Spending Review. It has the potential to make a real difference – and to provide a model that other, ‘Free’, universities could follow too.