The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

October 23rd, 2005

Improving schools is as easy as c-a-t

Education, education, education. How those words ought to haunt Tony Blair. Perhaps it would be naive to imagine the prime minister lost sleep over last week’s Ofsted annual report on the nation’s education. But he should have.

One in four schools in England, according to the chief inspector, offers nothing better than mediocrity. One in five children does not reach the expected level for English at 11, and about 30% fail to reach the expected level in both English and maths. Admittedly the Ofsted report is not all negative; 70% of schools were judged good or better.

But the inspectors found that the government’s secondary school strategy had not brought the promised “substantial transformation” in half of them. Children in greatest need of help were “too frequently” left with untrained classroom assistants and the expensive key stage 3 national strategy was said to be inadequate in one in five secondary schools.

Something else emerged last week that ought to have disturbed the prime minister’s sleep. A little cloud descended on the government’s claims about GCSE successes. It has become clear, largely thanks to a persistent BBC investigation into unpublished figures, using the Freedom of Information Act, that the “record breaking” improvement in school league tables over the past five years is not what it seems. The figures are inflated. They hide a decline in key subjects.

A school’s position in the league tables depends on how many of its pupils pass any five GCSEs at grades A*-C. So the government can and did truly claim that the proportion of children achieving that standard this year jumped by two percentage points to 55.7%, the highest rise for a decade. But bean-counting all depends on which beans you count and why. The GCSE beans have been very oddly counted.

The five beans that each child needs for league table success do not, strangely, have to include English and maths GCSEs. It is difficult to think of a good reason, since it’s obvious that English and maths are the gold standard of basic educational attainment at GCSE. Even more strangely, the vocational GNVQ qualification is now counted as equivalent to four GCSEs, no matter what the subject or grade. It is impossible to think of a good reason for that; it looks like the most manipulative egalitarianism.

Vocational courses are valuable and plenty of children should be doing them. But they are easier academically than GCSEs, they have a high pass rate and are simply not comparable. It is striking, too, that the GNVQ grades make no difference. One way and another, it makes perfect sense for head teachers to put as many children as possible down for them to inflate their league table figures. I don’t suppose the prime minister will lose any sleep about that, however, as according to Chris Woodhead, the former chief schools inspector, he knew about it at least four years ago.

When you count the beans scrupulously, things don’t look so good. When English and maths GSCEs at A*-C are included in the tables, the proportion of successful children drops from 55.7% to 44.1%.

According to last week’s BBC investigation, although 300 mainstream schools went up the league tables, their results in English and maths GCSE went down. And some schools at the top of the league table are getting only a third of their pupils through English and maths.

What is more, the percentage of children getting five or more GSCEs and the percentage getting English and maths have both been flatlining since about 2001. What on earth happened to all the extra millions that the government started spending at that time? And what on earth can Blair do, in the short time that remains to him, and on his own terms, about education? Given the forces of conservatism in the left-liberal teaching establishment, which have resisted most of what he has tried, the answer may be little. But if he is prepared for one last heave he should forget bold new initiatives and concentrate on what’s essential — the simplest standards. He should concentrate on literacy teaching and mixed ability teaching, which are more to blame than anything else for today’s low standards.

He should revisit the national literacy strategy. It was a good idea but it was undermined by educationists who don’t accept “synthetic” phonics (the good old-fashioned way of sounding out words, as in c-a-t makes cat), paid lip service to it but insisted on a dog’s dinner of conflicting methods, which doesn’t work. Unadulterated synthetic phonics does. The evidence is irrefutable.

The prime minister should drop the strategy in favour of a much more basic, universal, teacher-proof synthetic phonics method to be compulsory in all schools. Among other things it would mean teaching children to read with others at their own level, regardless of age.

All the evidence shows that, contrary to 40 years of dogma, careful setting and streaming are best for every child. Mixed ability teaching has been largely responsible for the collapse of English education and the extreme stress that many teachers now suffer, not to mention their pupils. Ruth Kelly, the education secretary, seems to accept this. In yet another education white paper this week (Labour’s wearisome 12th) she will make Labour party history by calling for more grouping by ability and “personalised” teaching.

However, an aide said that “setting is something we would want to encourage but not force on schools”. How feeble. It is high time that it was forced on all schools. Many teachers and educationists are still deeply opposed and will resist “encouragement”. And all schools are thoroughly sick of being bullied by Blair and his years of box-ticking.

He could offer a constructive deal. In exchange for accepting compulsory setting, streaming and synthetic phonics, Blair could agree to set schools free from huge amounts of unnecessary targets and paperwork and self-assessment. That would be a powerful sweetener; it would save schools a huge amount of time and money and misery.

Blair’s tragic error with education is not that he has imposed too much on schools, although he has, but that he has imposed the wrong things. Now is the time to impose the three right things.