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

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.

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