The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

December 4th, 2005

The inspectors who praise bad schools

f Her Majesty’s inspectors were to assess the progress of Her Majesty’s government in education honestly, they ought by rights to give it an extremely bad report. National literacy strategy — failed. Sure Start programme — failed. Achievements for children in care — very poor indeed. Planning — weak and inconsistent. Spending — ill considered.

Two major reports published last week have shown that both the national literacy strategy and the Sure Start programme for young children have proved to be worse than useless. In particular they have failed the most vulnerable 20% of children, whom this government had most intended to help. It is hardly an exaggeration to call this a national scandal.

Unfortunately, however, one cannot rely on Her Majesty’s inspectors to give the most objective of reports. One of the many unpleasant facts to emerge last week about the mess the government has been making of our children’s lives is that Ofsted has failed to sound alarm bells. On Thursday Jim Rose’s eagerly awaited literacy report pointed out that Ofsted has somehow managed to find no fault with some of the country’s worst-performing primary schools.

On the contrary, Ofsted inspectors have heaped praise on the dozen primary schools at the bottom of the performance tables. Schools at which only a tiny minority of 11-year-olds achieved the standard expected for their age were described as effective and good value for money. None was listed as seriously weak or in need of special measures — a list that Ofsted has been under government pressure to reduce. As I said, it is hardly an exaggeration to call this a national scandal.

To be fair to the government, it did, presumably when panicked by educational realities and the outrageous cost of the remedial reading recovery programme (£2,500 per child), commission this review. The Rose report has overturned 30 years of fashionable and failed orthodoxy, and new Labour’s botched attempt to reform it through the much vaunted national literacy strategy. Rose recommends a return to phonics, now rather irritatingly called synthetic phonics, to distinguish it from less effective phonics teaching. It simply means your child learns to read by decoding words, putting each sound together as in th-a-t.

Many people have imagined that the national literacy programme was doing this. No, it was undermined from the first by squabbling, and reduced to a hodge podge of different methods used all together, none of which is teacher-proof or child-proof, and all of which fail to teach the simple, essential skill of decoding words by sounds. Today 30% of children fail to learn to read properly by the age of seven, which almost every child ought to be able to do, if correctly taught, including the very slow learners.

At the same time, reports by various authors at Birkbeck College (coyly sneaked onto the internet at the same time as the headline-grabbing Turner report on pensions) argued that the ambitious Sure Start scheme to provide care and early education for children from conception onwards has harmed more children than it has helped.

Either Sure Start has made little difference, or in the case of children from problem families — teenage mothers, single mothers and jobless parents — those who have been through Sure Start scored worse on verbal ability and social competence, and higher on behaviour problems, than similar children who hadn’t. It defies belief. More than £3 billion has been spent. Many billions are earmarked for future spending.

Given new Labour’s high ambitions and good intentions for children, its failure to “deliver on” its promises — to use its annoying expression — is all the more remarkable. The government is failing in its top priorities and not for lack of spending. Child obesity is worse, truancy is shocking, classroom disruption and bullying are shameful, exam standards are collapsing, the brightest children have been failed as well as the least able, testing is at best dubious and the illiteracy level, masked by years of ill-conceived testing, is simply unacceptable. Nothing could be more disastrous.

To send a poor child into the contemporary world illiterate and ignorant is like sending him naked into a Dickensian storm. It is to push him into unemployment, poverty, rage, crime, drug abuse, Asbos and jail. An illiterate girl might just as easily fall into all that and into single motherhood as well, condemned to breed more underclass babies and antisocial teenagers.

There is a perfectly obvious connection between social fracture like this and the killers of Anthony Walker or of Stephen Lawrence or of baby James Bulger; all came from broken, troubled, dysfunctional homes, from the overlooked, under-educated underclass. It is perhaps unfair to blame the government for every social evil, but one can truly blame it for the failure of its education policies and the contribution of that failure to wider social problems. The central question for new Labour now is, or ought to be, what went wrong? And will it go expensively wrong again?

My view is that the problem has been old-fashioned ideology, so long a-dying, and the government’s failure to recognise it, or when it has recognised it, its moral failure to stand up to it, not least because various cabinet ministers have shared the ideology.

Synthetic phonics was condemned by the “progressive” orthodoxy as regimented, repressive, uncreative, old-fashioned and involving grouping according to progress. In practice it has been almost impossible to fight this orthodoxy. Even now most local authorities are unwilling to accept independent new synthetic phonics programmes with clearly proven success records, because they are “commercial”.

Similarly with Sure Start, the need to “target” the most needy was undermined by the terror of “stigmatising” them. As usual, the mothers and children in most need have got least out of it, and indeed have been rather wary of it, whereas the aspirational middle classes have taken full advantage. Sure Start has distracted professionals from the most needy, enticing them into brightly coloured and comfortable Sure Start centres, and away from the hard-to-find families in need in the mean streets.

If the government cannot find ways to bypass left-wing orthodoxy, it is condemned to more of the same disgraceful failure.