40 years ago, when I was head of the remedial department at Stepney Green School, a colleague passed on a request from a local vicar to help his son with French. He was attending Pimlico School, and had been refused entry to GCE O level for having scored nine per cent in his mock examination. Our first lesson had me wondering where the nine per cent had come from. He did not know any French, and told me that his French class was riotous. Starting from scratch, I thought through with him how we adjusted our thinking to communicate in French rather than English, built up the grammatical skills and vocabulary he needed to do this – in writing as well as orally – and he got a B after three months’ work.
We like to think of things getting better, and in one respect they have. We now have very few children starting secondary school completely unable to read. However, yet again this week, I found myself teaching a bright ten year old his two times table – he had “done” tables in his maths lessons without actually learning them; and teaching French to bright sixteen year old who was no better placed to learn French than my pupil from Pimlico 40 years earlier. The only trace of improvement was that the misbehaviour in his class was messing about rather than rioting. His school has been rated outstanding by Ofsted.
The two cases had me close to despair. Since James Callaghan rattled the progressive cage with his “Secret Garden” speech in 1976, sensible politicians from both main parties have understood that we need wholesale reform to restore schools to their proper purposes. Only Lib Dems and Nationalists are proceeding along the old paths. Despite growing evidence of an educational disaster in Wales, they have hired the main author of the failing Scottish “Curriculum for excellence ” programme to redesign theirs.
So why have we made so little progress? The reasons are complex. First, the leaders of teacher education have earned the description of “the blob” – or, more accurately, octopus – many times over. They have formed an informal network based on shared progressive values, and their control of promotion has sustained it. Most of the people who are appointed to teacher training share these values – criticise mixed ability teaching and you won’t get an interview – and the good and honest lecturers who focus on the practicalities of teaching remain good and honest lecturers rather than professors.
Professor Geoff Whitty, a former director of the London Institute of Education, made the clearest defence of these people’s right to defy governments in this speech when he was President of the British Educational Research Association. It is an abuse and distortion of academic freedom. Professor Whitty and his colleagues have every right to think and say as they choose. They do not have the right to train teachers in their own image. Their unique asset lies in their ability and resources to do the reading necessary to back up practical work in teacher training. Teachers in school do not have the time – or in some cases, the academic ability – to do this. The National College does, and should be used to fill the gap.
The next two obstacles have been local authorities, which became adept at defending incompetence and low standards while covering their own backs, and corrupt examinations. The government has made good progress in both of these areas, and Kate Chisholm, of Skerne Park Academy in Darlington, is the latest in a line of heroic headteachers who have stood up to anti-social attitudes from parents where local authorities have backed down. Examination reform will not be fully in place until the end of this parliament, and in the meantime cheats continue to prosper at the expense of the honest teachers and headteachers we should be supporting.
The most common form of cheating is “deep” marking and rewriting that is regurgitated the next morning in a controlled assessment. Grade Cs gained in this way are the teacher’s work, and, with the phoney assessment leading up to them, are their biggest source of overwork. Teachers’ planning, preparation and assessment should not be a matter for headteachers to inspect without very good reason. Heads are defending this micromanagement to the utmost but the government should put a stop to it. The solution is for them to monitor pupils’ work.
The final and greatest obstacle is one of knowledge. Our understanding of the working and development of the brain, in terms of what initiates, fosters and develops the neural networks that are the physical manifestation of educated intelligence, is not feeding into schools quickly enough. Hirsch is becoming more widely known, thanks largely to the work of Nick Gibb, but Kandel’s work on memory is not, and even The Learning Brain, published in 2007 and still the best introduction to current brain research, has not been read by most teachers and trainers.
Phonics specialists have won their argument against look and say and guesswork, but most are still not presenting children with a full and accurate account of English spelling, which leads to the misleading simplification of “sight” or “tricky” words where the sounds represented by letters do not give us the full picture. Reading difficulties will persist until this issue is tackled.
Which brings me back to Ofsted. Matthew Coffey made a seriously misleading statement to the House of Commons Select Committee when he said that Ofsted did not inspect “every single subject.” The truth is that it is not inspecting any subjects at all, but relying on the phoney data I’ve described above. It has even abandoned its surveys of work in individual subjects, not least because it no longer has the staff qualified to carry them out. Ofsted has at least started to ask primary schools whether or not they are doing languages, for example, but does not have staff qualified to assess how well they are doing them, which is what it was set up to do.
The formation of intellectual capacity proceeds differently in different subjects, and without expertise in these subjects you do not have the understanding necessary to inspect teaching. Mr Coffey gives an account of his career here and it includes no school teaching experience. It is simply not acceptable for someone with no direct experience of the work to “quality control inspections” of schools, and this goes to the heart of what went wrong with Ofsted in 2005, when MrCoffey was appointed to inspect prison education as part of David Bell’s year zero.
The error that lost Ofsted the confidence of teachers in this destructive fiasco was that any inspector could inspect anything, whether they knew anything about it or not. Teachers do not accept or respect this view, and they are quite right. I’ve heard enough about languages teachers being “inspected” by physics specialists who don’t even know the language they’re supposed to be inspecting. Ofsted, from the very top, thinks this is acceptable, and Ofsted, from the very top, is categorically wrong. Ignorance is no basis for inspection.
David Bell’s New Ofsted is a creation of New Labour and is still marching to its drum. It is not a school inspection service, but a national management consultancy, with virtually unlimited powers and no right of appeal even when it gets things wrong. It is a tyranny, and the work of putting right the errors that have led to it has barely begun.