Thursday, April 8th

Yes, you read that right. David Blunkett, education secretary from 1997 to 2001, used characteristically blunt language to describe the state of teaching at the start of his period at Sanctuary Buildings, as he saw it, in a recent interview with MPs.

His comments were made in an evidence session to the House of Commons Children, Schools and Families committee, under its inquiry into the “foundations of the education system”.

The session, in which three other former secretaries of state appeared alongside Mr Blunkett, also saw Charles Clarke, who led the schools department from 2002 to 2004, lament the Government’s rejection of the central recommendation of Sir Mike Tomlinson’s inquiry into 14-19 reform in 2005. Mr Clarke said it was the Labour government’s biggest failure in education at that time.

Mr Blunkett’s statement came under questioning from the Liberal Democrat MP, Annette Brooke, who wanted to know if he had been guilty of “initiative overload”, bombarding schools with too many reforms.

He replied: “I plead guilty to initiative overload, because there seemed to be so much that needed tackling all at once.  Most of the criticisms afterwards are, as ever, that you did not do enough on this or that area, particularly in relation to secondary.

“I suppose that we could have eased off a little bit in relation to what we were doing in demanding changes in teaching, but if we had done that, we would have reduced the change on quality.

“We were demanding the most enormous amount of change from teachers, but frankly it was needed.

“I am a trained teacher. It was just desperately needed. We had a crap teaching profession. We haven’t any more.”

Whether or not one believes that teaching has improved in the last 13 years, this does seem, shall we say, an extraordinarily sweeping statement. Maybe my experiences of education are not representative, but I would struggle to think of a single one of my teachers from the 1970s and 1980s whom I’d describe, genuinely, as “crap”. Many were excellent. And was the profession as a whole “crap”? Well, to put it mildly, I don’t think that’s a very insightful word.

Nevertheless, his fellow interviewees did not demure, Mr Clarke, indeed, appearing to back him up. He said: “Unfortunately, I share David’s view.  The issues that needed to be addressed in 1997 were very deep. I had a school in my constituency that was in the worst five – not per cent, but five – primary schools in the country, where all the teachers, when you went in, said, ‘It’s nothing to do with us – it’s the parents’….it made me weep.”

The session was remarkable for a number of other comments. If some of Mr Clarke’s offerings might not win him many plaudits from teachers  – he suggested the profession was “extremely conservative and inflexible”- his regrets over Tomlinson are widely shared.

He said: “The biggest failure over this period of the Labour government is that we didn’t finally implement the Tomlinson proposals on 14-19. We should have done that just before the 2005 general election, shortly after I left office, for a variety of reasons. Actually, that was largely associated with…people’s attachment to A-levels.”

“People” might include, of course, Tony Blair. Mr Clarke was moved from the Department for Education and Skills to replace Mr Blunkett as Home Secretary in 2004, and there was speculation at the time and afterwards that Tony Blair had been keen to move Mr Clarke and his deputy, David Miliband, in part because of their support for the Tomlinson reforms, which would have seen A-levels and GCSEs subsumed into an overarching diploma system. Instead, A-levels and GCSEs were retained to run alongside the new diploma in a decision overseen by Mr Clarke’s successor, Ruth Kelly.

Mr Clarke was also scathing about work experience, describing it as a “fly-by-night operation: it is not done properly and it is not carried through effectively”. Baroness(Estelle) Morris, another of the interviewees, argued that GCSEs should be abolished, with tests only at 14 and 18.

Mr Clarke also talked about his belief, which I reported  on back in 2003, that supporting the teaching of individual subjects, in secondary schools, was a priority for him. He said: “When I was Secretary of State, I gave responsibilities for subjects to ministers and developed the principle of subject advisers…

“My answer for secondary education, in particular, was to try and enthuse teachers by reference to their subjects…I thought that enthusiasm was far and away the most powerful mechanism [to improve secondary education].”

For what it’s worth, I thought that was a strong argument at the time, and I still think it now. Teachers’ subject associations, in particular, I think, are very much a good thing.

Finally, of course the politicians were quizzed on the effects of high-stakes testing, which has rightly served as one of the central points of the committee’s inter-related investigations on assessment, accountability and the curriculum.

All four were intransigent, arguing that testing was vital. Lord (Kenneth) Baker began this defence by arguing there was nothing wrong with testing, saying that in many parts of the United States, they tested every term and that in his own primary school he had been tested that regularly. The others agreed that “testing” was vital.

This, of course, is a complete red herring. It is not the act of testing itself which is the problem, but what gets done with the results, as all with experience of this system surely realise. Once you put high stakes on the outcomes of these assessments, for schools and other adults, inevitably the danger is that side-effects follow as schools feel under pressure to put their own short-term need to boost test scores ahead of their pupils’ long-term learning requirements. Essentially, the danger is that the relationship between teacher and pupil can be corrupted by the teacher’s need to look good to the outside world. Not to recognise this as a risk is naive. And to try to compare the current system with one in which teachers were not being judged by their pupils’ results is ridiculous.

The committee was told that good teachers did not need to teach to the test. But the fact is that some test-orientated teaching would seem, to me, at least to appear to have a likely pay-off in terms of better short-term results. If not, I struggle to see why the National Strategies has advised schools to go in for teaching test-preparation techniques such as encouraging pupils to tailor the length of their answers to the number of marks available.

The committee itself was unconvinced by the answers it heard, however. Its report, published on Tuesday, said: “We were surprised by the wholehearted support from former secretaries of state for the level of testing that we have now.

“We re-iterate that we are not opposed to the principle of national testing. Where we do have concerns is the use of the same test for a range of purposes that cannot all be met at the same time.

“If pupils’ attainment is used to judge teachers and schools, teachers cannot be expected to be dispassionate assessors of that attainment, and teaching to the test is a likely consequence.

“We therefore have reservations – as does Ofsted – about the effects of national testing in concentrating teachers’ efforts upon certain areas of the national curriculum.

“We disagree with the former secretaries of state, and we believe that there is clear evidence that current approaches to testing reduce teachers’ scope to use their skills in innovation and creativity.”

You can read the whole report here and the full transcript of the secretary of states’ evidence session here:

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