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John Bald: “Points mean prizes” has to stop.

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

For decades, governments have tried to make schools do the impossible, using paperwork, statistics, and inspection as their weapons. Labour demanded reams of policy documents, imposed ill-informed Cromwellian “strategies”, and fiddled results when they didn’t work. In recent years, Conservatives have run them a close second, imposing arbitrary and unrealistic targets, nitpicking over Labour’s cumbersome safeguarding systems, and abusing inspection findings to fast track schools into academy status without giving them a chance to improve.

Tests for 11-year-olds (SATs) are pivotal, as they are both the key indicator for primary schools, and the baseline for setting GCSE grades. The government has correctly dismissed Labour’s call to abolish SATs, because this would return us to the position we had before they were introduced. In the authority I worked for, some schools had under ten per cent of pupils reaching the standard needed for success at secondary school, and no-one was doing anything about it. Follow these pupils through to 16, and their secondary schools had five or six per cent, with five GCSEs at Grade C. Go back to the infant school, and scores on the authority’s reading test showed a steady decline of three-quarters of a percentage point each year over a ten-year period, a fact hidden from elected members by officials, until I published the figures in The Guardian.

But where there is a figure, there will be someone looking to fiddle it, which is probably what Churchill meant by “lies, damned lies and statistics.” Labour again led the way. When test scores dipped, they lowered the pass mark (2000), sacked the markers (2005), or, when even that didn’t work, in tests at 14, abolished the test. That one put them in a bind. Around 1998, a dip in test scores that put Labour, and progressive English teaching, in a bad light, was followed by crazy marking, that credited pupils whose writing was at 7 year-old level with the expected Level 5. These pupils had no chance whatever of making the expected progress to GCSE, which would have looked even worse, and so the tests were scrapped. Points only mean prizes if you can get the points.

Since 2010, our Conservative ministers have had much success in reforming tests and exams. The non-qualification of AS at 17 has been abolished, and external marking at GCSE has left outright cheating as the only, risky, opportunity for fraud. The phonics check for six year olds has a stable, child-friendly format, and focuses attention on the key skill of using information from letters, rather than guessing, to read words. The new multiplication tables check for eight year olds should be as good, and the reformed SATs for 11-year-olds have been more sensible than had been predicted from some of the non-statotory guidance.

And yet we are still in deep political trouble in education, and point scores are at the heart of it. Our coalition partners did not like Ebacc, or Michael Gove’s plans for further reform of GCSEs, and forced through a system called “Progress 8”, which measured a pupil’s best eight GCSEs against their SAT scores in English and maths. How English and maths were to provide a baseline for a GCSE in subjects that have little to do with English and maths is a question that can only be answered by a statistician or bureaucrat. They provide a baseline because we say they do. If they didn’t, we wouldn’t say it. And of course, they reduce everything to a point score, and points mean prizes, in the form of continued employment.

This thinking, in which all subjects are equal, but some are harder than others, has had a distorting and damaging effect on education that affects every 16-year-old in the country. Ofqual, the guardian of standards, interprets this role as the prevention of grade inflation, which it does by applying statistical formulae, based on SAT scores, to all subjects. If a subject, such as German, attracts a large number of higher-attaining candidates, Ofqual maintains standards by giving them lower grades than they would have received in subjects attracting less able pupils. The result of this even-handedness is that German candidates in 2018 were overall one grade lower in German than in their other subjects, and French nearly as bad. I founded the British Association of Teachers of German, which has 280 members, partly to campaign for fair testing and grading, and Ofqual’s stonewalling response would have made the Kremlin proud, if not jealous. Niet, Non, Talk to the Hand. Ofqual is right, and if German dies out at A level and in state schools, it’s not their fault. Statistics can’t lie. They shall not pass. I’m informed that Ofqual is now stonewalling over A level, even though this is now described by Professor Katrin Kohl as harder than Oxford’s first year examinations.

And of course, if heads don’t win enough points to win the prize, they get the sack, and know it. So they go for easy subjects, and are dashing to Spanish, as they think it’s easier than German or French. The statistics prove this under the current system, although Spanish has also stalled, with entries falling in each of the last two years. In the meantime, Ebacc, rightly seen as the core of education, is suffering. Its subjects don’t necessarily count in the progress 8, and, while around 38% of pupils are taking Ebacc, the pass rate is around 23%, which puts the qualification in a precarious position. The point system of Progress 8 is at the heart of it. Heads, and academy chains, look for the best chances of getting points to boost the score, and think of little else. This may be an unintended consequence, but it is a pernicious relic of the coalition and we need to get rid of it.

The solution is simple. Return to the requirement for all schools to publish their grades and entry numbers in all subjects, so that people can see what is really going, on and schools can’t hide weaknesses behind point scores in softer subjects. Then consider these scores in the context of the school. This is, I believe, the principle behind Amanda Spielman’s reforms in Ofsted, and Edward Timpson’s excellent review of exclusions for the DfE, a brilliant analysis that takes full account of the context and reasons for exclusion rather than focusing only on the numbers.

Sir Bruce Forsyth was much loved, and points mean prizes was a great slogan for his game show. It does not serve the needs of children, teachers and schools. It must be scrapped.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

Suella Braverman: What Johnson learned from a London school amidst deprived communities

Suella Braverman is a former DexEU Minister, and is MP for Fareham. She was Chairman of Governors, Michaela Community School, 2013-2017

312AD? Or was it 313AD? Forget questions on Brexit: I know this is what many of us spend hours pondering: what was the date of the conversion of the Holy Roman Empire to Christianity?

It’s a question that Boris Johnson debated when he visited the free school which I co-founded in 2015. The 12 year old pupil at Michaela Community School was adamant that it was 313AD. Johnson – with his Oxford degree in Classics – was convinced of 312AD. A subsequent Google search confirmed that the Mayor of London was indeed wrong, and our Year 8 pupil correct on this point of Roman history – The Edict of Milan being the authoritative source.

Such was Johnson’s very gracious admission later that day when he talked about the pioneering teaching methods that are being deployed at Michaela. For, as one of the early free schools, Michaela is a beacon of empowerment and aspiration in Wembley, a community marked by social deprivation and under-achievement. It’s my home town and, had Michaela been around when I was a child, there is no doubt that I would have attended.

Michaela intakes generally consist of approximately 50 per cent children on Pupil Premium, 10 per cent eligible for Special Education Needs support and over 50 per cent with English as a second language. In some years, a third of pupils arrived with a reading age below their chronological age, or two thirds below the national expectation in maths. Some of our children have been under child protection, in care or excluded from previous schools.

But our robust knowledge-based curriculum, coupled with high standards on behaviour and discipline, is the way forward, as the ex-Mayor himself attested. He said this of Michaela: “I saw the way forward for our city and our country. I have never seen any other single institution in London that was so dramatically transforming the problems of our society. I’ve never seen any single programme that would reduce inequality and encourage social mobility.”

We opened the school in 2014 and, after much opposition from left-wing ideologues, proved the critics wrong. Thanks to the freedoms allowed to these schools, Michaela was rated outstanding by OFSTED in 2017. Seeing some children make two, three, four or even five years progress in reading and maths in the space of a single year, or others metamorphose from out-of-control and excluded into studious and respectful has only been possible thanks to greater autonomy enjoyed by teachers, like our inspirational Headmistress, Katharine Birbalsingh. Children enjoy a bully-free environment, aim high and their teachers have instilled in them perseverance and stoicism. Just as Johnson did, visitors from all over the country marvel at what they see.

How is this working? Johnson summed it up perfectly: ‘These children are learning natural self-esteem that comes from genuine academic achievement. They are learning not only how to achieve and use knowledge but they are learning to want to achieve. They are learning aspiration…With discipline, competition and the acquisition of knowledge, they are putting on a suit of armour and bit by bit becoming stronger and intellectually resilient to take on anything that life throws at them.’

That is why Johnson’s commitment to increase spending on our primary and secondary schools is a real reflection of his passion for social justice. The extra £4.6bn per year into our schools that he will deliver will help to re-energise them. Under his plans, primary and secondary school pupils will receive more resources than they do today. This is a welcome step-change in education funding which will help break down barriers in our society.

If we want to restore trust in the power of what Conservative policies can achieve we need to deliver Brexit by October 31st, and it is only Boris Johnson who will do this. If we really want to tackle that poverty of aspiration, let’s make him Prime Minister. If we want to create a nation where it truly doesn’t matter what your parents did, or which side of town you came from, but where you have learnt to want to achieve and are resilient enough to take on what life throws at you, Boris Johnson is the man to make that a reality for our children.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

Joe Baron: The case of Starbank School teaches us one thing: Ofsted can’t be trusted

The author is a teacher. Joe Baron is a pseudonym.

Yesterday, beleaguered teachers at Starbank School in South Yardley, Birmingham, will go on strike for the second time in six days in response to the school’s abject failure to protect their health and safety at work.

They are working in truly appalling, inhumane conditions. Indeed, according to Paul Nesbitt, the NASUWT national executive member involved in the dispute, the teaching staff are being subjected to feral pupils carrying weapons, daily threats of violence, verbal abuse, and regular brawling in the classrooms.

In one incident, some kids were caught in possession of three knives, one of which had a 12 inch blade; another saw a teacher punched in the face by a Year 7 boy and, as if these examples aren’t shocking enough, every Thursday is now referred to as Thursday Fight Day.

Needless to say, teachers are scared to leave their classrooms. They’ve even been issued with panic buttons. That’s right, the headteacher refuses to ensure the safety of his staff by permanently excluding violent children, but he has given them panic buttons, presumably to press after they’ve been stabbed. I’m sure they will be eternally grateful.

The school contends that only 16 out of 122 teachers have taken action, meaning that, according to them, the rest of the staff must be happy.

But this fails to take into account the courage it takes to go on strike. These individuals know what’s at stake. They are now targets. Their careers at the school are, at the very least, in jeopardy. They may even be over. Senior leaders and school governors will do everything in their power to force them out – an objective that, in the present climate of unmanageable workload, won’t be difficult to realise.

Every single teacher in every single school in the country could be the target of a disgruntled senior leader at any time, desperate to place them on capability in a sinister bid to force them out. There’s simply so much work to do, nobody’s able to keep on top of it. We’re all vulnerable.

So these teachers, the ones with the audacity to strike, will now be the targets of the leadership’s wrath, have no doubt. In light of this depressing reality, most of their colleagues will – understandably – be unwilling to make the same sacrifices, especially if they have families to support. So yes, there may be only 16 members on strike, but you can bet your life on it, many of the remaining teachers will be with them in spirit. I mean, there’s even video footage of ‘Fight Thursday’ for anyone who doubts the veracity of the strikers’ claims.

The most interesting and revealing aspect of this particular case, though, is Ofsted’s sparkling, yes sparkling, review of what is, in reality, a violent dystopian snake pit. Starbank school has been rated ‘outstanding’ since 2012. Last year, moreover, it was described as having an ‘exceptional ethos, care and quality of education’. For whatever reason, the inspectorate failed to spot the school’s myriad shortcomings. And it wouldn’t be the first time.

Ofsted’s judgments, in my experience, aren’t worth the paper they’re written on. I recently taught in a school with appalling levels of what is euphemistically described in the teaching profession as ‘low-level’ disruption. In layman’s terms, that means that, although the kids don’t throw chairs at you, they talk incessantly. In fact, it’s impossible to complete a sentence without being interrupted. This was so bad that the other, more senior teaching staff at the school advised me not to initiate whole-class discussions. It’s pointless, they said. Just do as we do, give them the work and get used to the relentless chatting.

When Ofsted came in, however, just after Christmas, they judged the school and the behaviour to be ‘good’. How is that possible? I thought.

Over the course of my career, I’ve had similar experiences in lots of different schools, some, unfortunately, very much like Starbank. Actually, I don’t think I’ve ever concurred with an Ofsted judgment. They’ve always been, in my view, far too generous, demonstrating low expectations of pupils and teachers, especially when it comes to behaviour for learning.

The former advisor to Michael Gove, Tom Richmond, contends that Ofsted’s grades are wrong in up to half of cases. He recently cited two international studies that concluded that different inspectors reached different judgments about the same schools in up to 50 percent of instances.

This surely brings into question the Government’s oft-repeated claim that, due to its education reforms introduced in 2010, nearly two million more children now attend ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ schools. In short, the claim is bunkum. As demonstrated in the case of Starbank School, Ofsted’s judgments can’t be trusted.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com