IS THERE a more useless Commons select committee than the one that ‘monitors the expenditure, administration and policy of the Department for Education and any associated public bodies’?
For decades this ‘select’ group of 11 back-bench MPs has been charged with safeguarding the educational best interests of our children. For decades it has been failing. Complacent, ill-informed and incompetent, it has been the watchdog that rarely barked. Instead, it has presided over failed revision after failed revision of the school curriculum and of public examinations, a continuing crisis in standards of basic literacy and numeracy, and an epidemic of dissatisfaction amongst teachers.
On the authoritative OECD so-called PISA assessments of 15-year-olds we trail the best education systems around the world by up to three years. We are well behind much poorer countries such as Vietnam, Estonia and Poland. Employers’ groups complain that around 20 per cent of school leavers are unemployable, and it is difficult to find a good university that is not offering remedial catch-up courses for first-year undergraduates. Even Oxford and Cambridge have had to move along that pathway.
Furthermore, and again according to the OECD, we are the only country in the developed world where grandparents out-perform their grandchildren in basic employment skills. This tidal wave of failure is set against the head of the government’s exam regulation body, Ofqual, explaining away manipulation of examination grades, aka ‘cheating’, by explaining that ‘all our kids are brilliant!’
And what have successive education select committees being doing in response? Disgracefully, next to nothing in effect.
I recall, a few years ago, tipping off the Daily Telegraph about cheating in public exams. Teachers who paid to attend exam board training days were being told what questions would come up. Much to the astonishment of an undercover reporter, the newspaper was able to record on film an examiner’s admission to an assembly of fee-paying teachers that the information he was passing on was, indeed, ‘cheating’. It was headline news for some days and, under enormous pressure, the education select committee felt obliged to investigate.
Sadly, its cross-examination of the exam board ‘cheats’ was pitiful to behold in its amateurish and ignorant incompetence. Those in the ‘dock’ were easily able to massage the egos of the assembled select committee members and reassure the MPs that there was nothing to worry about. Any slight mishaps in exam board procedures could readily be corrected and future quality was assured.
A new concern that faces the select committee has been expressed by its chairman, the Right Honourable Robert Halfon MP, in a piece for the Conservative Home website.
Like many of his predecessors in the chairmanship role, Robert Halfon was educated at a leading public school. Lucky Bob! This background does not, unfortunately, mean he is especially well equipped to deal with classroom disorder and knife crime in our neighbourhood comps. Of course, it should not exclude him either, but one does despair to read his bland, inconsequential and spineless treatment of a very serious issue.
In sum, he wishes to keep everyone happy and, therefore, all Bob has to offer is more or less summed up in the blog’s headline:
Excluded children should be safe and secure – not left vulnerable on our streets.
Well, who would have thought that? Not that Bob wants to upset teachers. Those pupils who are really, really disruptive may, indeed, have to be excluded. In other words, uncontrollable behaviour and knife crime in our schools is a problem and soothing the symptoms is Bob’s way forward. Inclusivity is the educational paracetamol that he wishes to apply. He wants to stop kids from being excluded and from joining gangs. Unless, presumably, they do something really bad such as murdering their teacher, as tragically happened in one school a few years ago.
Let’s be honest, Bob, if that is the best that you and your committee can come up with, you are in danger of being labelled, like your predecessors, a gang of educational charlatans.
Bob, I feel that I need to hold the hands of you and your committee members and to provide you all with an induction course on what you are up against and where you need to go.
Your starting point should be to deal with the causes of pupil violence and their disengagement. Try ensuring that the disaffected kids can read, write and add up before they leave primary school. The quality of teaching matters. Good teachers have fewer problems of classroom order and great teachers have hardly any such problems at all.
But, if you really want to solve the problem, start with the mums and the dads and, most of all, the babies. And here is a starter clue: teach mums and dads to read. Go on, Bob, give it a try! Everything else your committee has done, for years and years, has been an abject failure, which is why we have so many illiterate parents in the first place.
Try breaking that cycle! Go for it, Bob! Rattle a few cages amongst the educational establishment, the Blob! What do you have to lose? Save our kids!