If you want to see how to ruin a once-proud education system, you don’t need to look far. Only to Scotland, in fact.
For about a decade now, Scotland’s devolved government has overseen plummeting educational standards. Earlier this month, the Scottish National Party (SNP) government published the results of the latest Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy. They show a sharp decline in reading results on top of already weak numeracy results the year before.
The Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) results are no better. Whereas in the past, Scotland could justifiably have looked down on England’s lacklustre schools, now it’s the other way round. English pupils (still mediocre internationally) are increasingly pulling ahead of their peers across the border.
All of this provides a compelling counter-factual. At the same time as policymakers in England have placed more power in the hands of teachers and school leaders, a controlling Scottish government has centralised education policy, empowering fewer and fewer people who actually teach. It explains why Scotland’s hubristically named Curriculum for Excellence has been such a flop: its futuristic “skills-centred” phantasmagoria (soon to be rolled out in Wales) is totally at odds with what we teachers know about how children actually learn.
Daniel Willingham sets out the reasons for this in the most important book that wasn’t on your teacher-training course: Why Don’t Students Like School. In it, Willingham makes clear that it’s subject-specific knowledge that begets skills. Ask a chemist to think critically about the causes of combustion and they’ll do so with gusto. Ask them to think critically about the causes of the Franco-Prussian War and their critical-thinking faculties may quickly depart.
Ticking the box
And this, in a nutshell, is why – whisper it – many teachers will be ticking the Tory box in three weeks’ time. They probably won’t dare tell comrades in the staffroom but they know that the Conservative-led reforms since 2010 make England the best place to be educated in the UK.
Academies and free schools are giving greater autonomy to the people who really know what’s best for our children’s education – our teachers. Unlike in Scotland, headteachers in England can choose who they want to employ and how much they should be paid. Academies and free schools now mean that it’s easier than ever before for failing schools to be passed on to more exacting management.
New free schools, with effective accountability, can be Petri dishes for innovation and new ideas. Twitter and the blogosphere crackle and pop with the sound of contested opinion like never before.
Deep down we know that the old curriculum wasn’t good enough for our children. We knew we worked hard, but we weren’t duped into thinking that standards were rising just because pupils’ GCSE grades were going up. The Labour Party may have doubled education funding but we know that its largesse had little discernible effect on standards. As education professor Rob Coe put it when faced with the data, “The best I think we can say is that, overall, there probably has not been much change”.
Those of us who suffered through them know that part of the reason for this was that the GCSE “equivalents” were nothing of the sort. Gone are “nail technology” and “study skills”, but for the unfortunate few. In are maths, science, history and a language for the many.
Gone, too, is the panoply of inspectors, local authority advisers and consultants hawking their wares – learning styles, Brain Gym, learning to learn – which sensible teachers always knew were hokum. English teachers today are freer than they have been in decades to teach in the way that they think best. Scottish and Welsh teachers still suffer under the yoke of “progressive” fads foisted on schools from – dare I say it – “experts” on high.
The Conservatives are right to aim for 75 per cent of pupils achieving the English Baccalaureate by the end of the next Parliament. We know that, if it were our child, we’d want them to be able to contribute to the great cut and thrust of mankind. To know why Darwin was drawn as an ape. To know Oliver from Thomas Cromwell. And to do better than their parents at ordering steak haché seven miles out of Calais.
Finally, we know that behaviour in Britain’s schools is still scandalously poor. And that you won’t hear that said by those who defend the status quo. Schools are always paradoxical in that way: the higher you get, the worse the view. The Great and the Good may choose to look the other way, but they can never say again that they did not know.
For the thousands of pupils and teachers in disrupted classrooms, a recognition of the continuing behaviour crisis in many of our classrooms can’t come soon enough. At least the Conservatives have recognised the burden this places on teachers, offering forgiveness on student loan repayments as a small token for those who continue teaching for their career.
And don’t, for a second, think that a few more grammar schools will change any of this. There’s enough to be done in the thousands of comprehensive schools we already have.
The truth is that only the Conservative Party can be relied on to safeguard the reforms of the past seven years. A commitment to a genuinely teacher-led profession, a knowledge-rich curriculum and good behaviour in classrooms will always be a priority for Conservatives in the way that it isn’t for our left-liberal friends.
We believe that it is teachers who are best placed to run our schools, that deep domain knowledge is what begets skills, and that behaviour in Britain’s schools urgently needs to get much, much better.
Jonathan Porter is the head of humanities at Michaela Community School and a member of the Conservative Education Society