John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector. He is Vice-President of the Conservative Education Society.
As The Guardian complained about a return to normal examination grading, and Justine Greening criticised the Government for not putting a failed Labour strategist in charge of recovery from Covid, Katharine Birbalsingh, her colleagues and pupils at Michaela Community School celebrated another series of brilliant results at GCSE and A level. Having followed her progress from her 2010 Conference speech, through the obstruction, sneers, and abuse that preceded her triumphs, I repeat my assertion that Birbalsingh is the most important person in British education, and Michaela the most important achievement of the Conservative government. To understand why, we must dig beneath the surface of the debate prompted by Labour’s imposition of comprehensive schools on most of the country in 1965, and to understand why the earlier successes of Sir Rhodes Boyson and Sir Michael Wilshaw are best seen as steps on the road.
Labour fought the 1964 election with a pamphlet showing the ten smiling children, eight of whose faces were crossed out in red. These children, they said, never got a chance to show how good they were, adding that “the boy who is top at metalwork can be as proud as the boy who is top at Latin.” This equality of status reflected the wording of the parliamentary resolution authorising the policy, which expressed the hope that the values of the grammar schools would be maintained.
For most Labour educationists, however, the schools were an interim target. The two-tier school system was, for most, the gateway to a two-tier life, one path leading to prosperity and home ownership, the other to poorly paid work and a lifetime paying rent. But beneath this was the social system that valued academic attainment above all else, and this would not be changed by re-badging the schools. Their goal was to reduce the advantages enjoyed by the children of highly educated parents, whether or not they could pay for top-up tuition and private education. They used all means at their disposal, including reducing the content and demands of examinations, tolerating the disruption to learning caused by poor behaviour, and, above all, promoting mixed ability teaching by avoiding all research that might show its weaknesses. An example of this thinking is the endorsement by Professor Becky Francis, former Director of the London Institute of Education, and now director of the government-funded (Why is it government-funded?) quango, the Education Endowment Foundation, of the idea that grouping children by ability and learning needs is “symbolically violent.”
Professor Francis and her fellow progressives, now joined by the Woke, base their arguments on sociology. Since 1958, research into grammar schools has shown a strong correlation with parental occupations, and similar evidence is to be found across the developed world. An inspector colleague, who had been head of a girls’ grammar school that had topped the league tables, put it to me simply – “selection benefits those who are selected”. Michaela, though, is not only not selective – its intake is determined by the local authority – but headed by someone who is the most consistent and vigorous opponent of selection that I have ever met. She has good reasons. Most of Birbalsingh’s pupils could not compete in the 11-plus, and have had their primary education disrupted by poor behaviour and what Michael Gove has correctly called “the soft racism of low expectations”. Without Michaela, they would have joined what Blair’s aides termed “bog-standard comprehensives”. With it, they are happy and confident, knowing that they can face the world on equal terms. Birbalsingh and all associated with Michaela have closed the gap.
How they have done this is set out in two books – edited by Birbalsingh, but largely written by colleagues and pupils – and it is not just a matter of strictness. Michaela’s motto, “Work hard, be kind,” implies a purposeful and co-operative culture that all concerned sign in to. Watching her interview of a new pupil, excluded from a neighbouring school for violence, we see her not confiscating a smartphone, but persuading the pupil that it is in her own interest to give it to her. A similar process occurs with all pupils and staff, and they accept the bargain because they know it will lead to success. This has been so since the beginning, and pupils are pleased to tell visitors how they have changed their ways and bought into the new regime. A key improvement on the success of Boyson and Wilshaw, from my observations, has been an even closer match of teaching to pupils’ learning needs, whatever their starting point. For over 20 years, I have offered free teaching to anyone with a learning problem, and most of my pupils have suffered from having learning difficulties neglected in mixed ability classes.
The award-winning teacher Phil Beadle said on Channel 4 – he tells me he was told to say it – that a child entering his English class with a reading problem was likely to leave with one. This is what usually happens, as the teacher is unable to focus fully on dealing with the problem. Michaela’s system of grouping according to learning needs – we can never be sure of a person’s ability – avoids this, but the school avoids the stigma that can occur in setting by ensuring that all pupils receive teaching of the highest possible quality, and are respected. Visitors are reminded not to mention the set of any class they visit, “because we would not like to have to ask you to leave”. I invite anyone who sees this approach as violent – symbolically or otherwise – to visit and see for themselves. Most of Michaela’s critics don’t, because they know that what they will find will defeat their preconceptions. Micheala has defeated the sociological determinists that dominate the academic side of British education, and they don’t like it.
On the international plane, the most important person is the French neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene, whose book, How We Learn, I reviewed on publication. Dehaene has a high reputation among British neuroscientists – I was introduced to his work by a Fellow of the Royal Society – and he warmly welcomed my review, which I take to mean he saw it as accurate. His key idea is that, from birth, we form ideas and expectations based on our experience, and constantly adjust these to take account of new elements that don’t fit. This is consistent with the work of Vygotsky and Montessori, but not with the ideas of incidental learning that characterise progressive education. The wider the degree of ability or prior knowledge within a class, the harder it is for the teacher to pitch work at the precise area the child needs to learn, which is one reason for the importance of individual teaching, where teachers can focus entirely on the pupil they are working with. The argument for mixed ability is based on sociology rather than analysis of intellectual development, and it does not work. Michaela has proved this. Birbalsingh’s opponents do not care, and I fear for the fate of Michaela if they return to power.