Talking standards: part seven of a conversation between educationalists Sir Tim Brighouse and David Cameron

11th August 2015 at 13:13
picture of brighouse and cameron
In the seventh instalment of our online conversation, former schools commissioner for London Sir Tim Brighouse calls for a better method of reporting a school's achievement, and asks Scottish educationalist David Cameron (pictured left) to reflect on 'British values'

Dear David,

As usual when you are on a roll, I am tempted to get carried away by your enthusiasm. But not quite.

For example, in the first of your two latest letters you wondered whether a particular school was right to want to improve A-level results when some students – I even accept “too many” – have been coached so rigorously to get the A-level grades they need that they flunk out at university.

Surely the fault in such cases isn’t in getting students through their A-levels, which have a currency in their own right for other career pathways, but that they were allowed or encouraged to set out on a university course for which they were ill-prepared or ill-suited?

(As an aside, when I was professor of education at the University of Keele in the early 1990s, I met many excellent mature students who had achieved little at school. The history of the Open University, too, is witness to the adage that you should never write off any student.)

So your illustration provokes me not to agree but to reflect that south of the border we seem to have created too many small sixth forms, tempted to boost their numbers (and therefore their budget!). In so doing, they are weakening the offer in nearby tertiary or sixth-form colleges.

Moreover, young people approaching post-16 studies are these days even less likely to get accurate career advice. That and the abandonment of the educational maintenance allowance by the previous government means we are wasting lots of talent. Do you do that post-16 transition better in Scotland?

As for your further elaboration of the sins of Ofsted, I entirely agree. But I’ll add one more. I hear that Sir Michael Wilshaw has told those on his “approved inspector” list that they must not on any account take part in “mock-Ofsteds” in case their verdict creates evidence for an appeal against the real inspection when it happens.

My impression is that on both exams and inspection, which have been the focus of our exchange so far, we might agree that the present format can distort the real purpose of education, in the sense that by concentrating so heavily on what can be measured – important as that is – schools may be tempted to neglect other crucial aspects.

You point out that pupil destinations are another important outcome, at present neglected by those who attempt to hold schools to account. We were both impressed, for example, by South Wigston High School's Bayeux Tapestry-type display of the achievements of past pupils when we visited the Leicestershire school: we agreed it would be difficult to be a student there without seeing that you could achieve anything you wished if you had the resolution and resilience to do so.

As for my old secondary school in Lowestoft, it sends out an electronic newsletter, the Ormiston Denes Diary, which brims with information about current students and pen-portraits of former ones.

So, yes, we need a better way of reporting on what schools achieve and I agree with you that the word “outstanding" as an Ofsted descriptor should be scrapped. (After all, the inspectorate eliminated “satisfactory” so it has a track record of getting rid of unhelpful language.)

But all this is diverting me from what might be our next item for discussion. We have exchanged views on exams and inspection but in the process skirted round what we think should be the overall purposes and aims of schooling – a topic that goes all the way back to the ancient Greek philosophers.

Recently, as you know, (the other) David Cameron pronounced that one of the aims of schools south of the border should be to promote “British values” – which incidentally have been defined as including “respect for English (sic) law”. Do you subscribe to that aim in Scotland and how do you define it? And if you do something different, should you in a supposedly United Kingdom?

There, that should get you going.

Kindest regards,



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