The triumph of Katharine Birbalsingh

There are two questions that need to be asked of any society: what is it that is going wrong; and what is it that’s going right that should be done more? It’s only natural to focus on the first question – not least because it is easier. But it is the second question that should be asked more. Whenever I think of the few things that are going well in Britain, I think of the Michaela Community School in Wembley, London. I have visited the school a couple of times. It sits in one of London’s most deprived communities. Set up under the era of Michael Gove’s free schools scheme,

Stop worrying if your child is a picky eater

One parent in our class WhatsApp chat raised a pressing concern: her daughter was coming home every day with a full water bottle. Were other parents faced with the same unsettling discovery? There followed a lengthy discussion of how much water was left in each child’s bottle. Some children, when confronted, testified that they had drunk water during the day and then filled up the bottle at school. Anyone who expects children to enjoy cooked courgette has forgotten what it was like to be a child This was not good enough for the concerned parent. She took the matter to the teacher. ‘I am concerned my daughter is not given

School portraits: snapshots of four notable schools

Queen Ethelburga’s, York Set in 220 acres of beautiful countryside between Harrogate and York, Queen Ethelburga’s College is an award-winning day and boarding school that welcomes girls and boys aged from three months to 19 years and boarders from Year 3. It is known for its high-ranking academic performance. College, one of its two senior schools, placed second nationally last year for A-levels and 18th for all-round academic performance. The other senior school, Faculty, which offers more ‘creative and vocational subjects’, climbed several places to third in the north for A-levels and seventh for overall performance. The college places emphasis on growing pupils into resilient, caring and confident adults. It

Sam Leith

Russia lives on in my mind

My kids, at our local comprehensive, go on school trips to Leigh-on-Sea. I went to a much fancier school, so I went on school trips to Leningrad and Moscow. The first time must have been in 1990. We were all going through dramatic changes; and so was Russia – not that as cossetted, self-absorbed 16-year-olds we were able to take much serious notice. We joked, nervously, gauchely, ahead of our departure about the likelihood that an Aeroflot flight could be relied upon to get us there in one piece. We practised our rudimentary GCSE Russian: ‘Chto eto? Eto GUM!’ (What’s that? That’s [the department store] – GUM.’) ‘Gdye Dom Knigi?’

Portrait of the week: A concrete crisis, Labour reshuffle and Gabon coup 

Home More than 100 schools were told to close buildings before the new term because they contained the wrong kind of concrete. The Health and Safety Executive said that reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (Raac) ‘is liable to collapse with little or no notice’. In total, 156 schools are affected, of which 104 require urgent attention and 52 have already received repair works. But in Scotland, where 35 council-run schools had been found to contain Raac, none had to close. In July, NHS Scotland had also identified 254 buildings that ‘have two or more characteristics which are consistent with the presence of Raac’, vulnerable to ‘catastrophic failure without warning’, but a

From ABC to AK-47: Russia’s new wartime curriculum

Russia’s education system is about to undergo a radical transformation. Next month, when the new academic year begins, classes will be required to teach teenagers how to assemble, handle and clean Kalashnikov rifles, how to use hand grenades and how to administer first aid in combat. This military training for sixth-formers – 16 and over – will be taught as part of their ‘fundamentals of life safety’ classes. Such classes have existed in various forms since the 1980s. In the past children have been taught quite practical skills, including how to stay safe in terrorist attacks, deal with radiation poisoning following the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and, more recently, the basics

The politics of exam results

August always means an anxious wait for results days, but this year pupils will be feeling particularly apprehensive. England’s exams regulator, Ofqual, has said that national results will be lower than last year’s and are expected to be similar to those before Covid. Some reports estimate that around 50,000 A-level students will therefore miss out on getting the A* and A grades they could have expected if they took their exams last year. They will also face intense competition for top university places given the record numbers of international students applying too. Readjusting after the grade inflation of the pandemic was always going to be painful. In 2019, 25.5 per cent of A-level results were grades

Britain’s schools are facing an epidemic of bad behaviour

Something troubling is happening in Britain’s schools. This week, the government released its findings from the first national survey into pupil behaviour in classrooms. The results are a hard lesson to learn. But, as a teacher who has witnessed chairs being thrown and pupils urinating on teachers’ cars, it doesn’t come as a surprise. Over 40 per cent of students say that they feel unsafe each week because of poor behaviour, according to the survey. Students have the lowest perception of how well behaviour is going in school. This suggests that teachers and school leaders have normalised lower standards and expectations, to the point that roughly six weeks of lesson time is lost

Why are my son’s teachers constantly on strike?

It is a bright Wednesday morning in May. My son, T, a Year 8 pupil, should be at school and I should be working, but instead we are playing tennis. We are also listening to ‘Romeo and Juliet’ by Dire Straits because he’s supposed to be studying the play in class so I figure I can cover both PE and English literature in the next half an hour before we head home and I start the work I’m meant to be doing. For them academies are a Tory ruse designed to hand over control of schools to nasty capitalists My son isn’t ill and isn’t playing truant. His school, along

How to bag the best spot in the supermarket car park

Our local Sainsbury’s, though admirable in every other way, has a slightly inflated estimate of the disabled population of Seven-oaks, with all the plum parking spaces near the entrance reserved for blue badge holders. Every time I drive in, a voice from my inner bastard says: ‘Jeez, if it weren’t for all these bloody disabled spaces, I’d be able to park right next to the door.’ This of course is rubbish, because if those spaces were not designated as disabled, other people would have parked in them first. It is a perfect example of asymmetry of perception. In fact, next time you go shopping, it might pay to adopt the

How to succeed in exams

Exams start on Monday. Thousands of A-level and GCSE pupils will be swotting hard for them right now. Some will do well; others won’t. Knowledge and ability are the two obvious keys to success. But there’s another factor that’s often overlooked: exam technique. Having taught thousands of students of all abilities at several leading schools, I know this is a vital reason why some teenagers are more successful than others: they use the right exam techniques under pressure. So what are these techniques?  First and foremost, arrive early. Exams need a clear head and turning up at the last minute is certain to be stressful. Once in the exam hall (which

Bring back the handwritten school report

The end of term is here and parents up and down the country will be awaiting the arrival of their child’s end-of-term report. But I hope they won’t be expecting too many pearls of wisdom from the impersonal emails that will ping into their inboxes shortly.   Ten or a dozen years ago (the exact date varied, school by school), in an act of educational vandalism, handwritten school reports were abolished. Edicts were issued by school ‘senior management teams’ and grudgingly, reluctantly, teachers put their fountain pens and little bottles of Quink back into their desks, never to be taken out again.   The personal touch in the reporting process disappeared with

What teachers really want for Christmas

As the end of term approaches parents may be wondering what to buy their child’s teacher for Christmas. It’s the season of goodwill, after all. It’s also a golden opportunity to win a way to Sir or Miss’s heart, so they’ll continue to take good care of little Olivia or Oliver in the new year. The days of apples left on desks are long gone, so what to give teacher might cause some confusion. Money is tight this year, an added complication – although at some of the independent schools where I’ve taught gifts seem to become more extravagant each December. So what kind of presents do we teachers really

Does Britain care more about pubs than schools?

Politics is about priorities: what do we consider to be important? I worry that Britain doesn’t attach enough importance to children and their education. As the first lockdown eased in the summer of 2020, I was unhappy that pubs reopened before schools. I thought that said something about our priorities as a nation An interview by Liz Truss in New York gives me no reason to change that gloomy view. During the interview, atop the Empire State Building, the PM was naturally keen to talk up the benefits of the energy price support package to be set out on Friday. That package, she was keen to say, will cover not

The Roman roots of Tony Blair’s approach to education

Sir Tony Blair’s Tone-deaf suggestion that Stem subjects should dominate the curriculum of all schools would paradoxically take education back to the ancient world, when education was designed to benefit only the few. Take Rome. Wealth in the ancient world lay in land, which the rich exploited for all it was worth. Needing to protect their investment, Romans used their power to ensure that it was they who governed the state. The education system was designed to train them in winning arguments in the Senate and to protect themselves and their money in the courts. That left the remaining 90 per cent to fend for themselves, most trying to survive

How to run a school

Taking a short break from persecuting Roman Catholic faith schools for ideological reasons, Ofsted has stuck the boot into the Abbey School in Kent. This school, in Faversham, has been given the lowest possible ranking of ‘inadequate’. The report bemoans the fact that pupils are expected to do as they are told, be polite and behave themselves, and describes the atmosphere within the school as ‘oppressive’. By a winning coincidence, Ofsted’s report was published in the very week that the Abbey School reported by far its best ever A-level results. What, Ofsted sees as ‘oppression’, then, is more commonly known as ‘running a school properly’. In 2017, before the fascists

Svitlana Morenets

What’s on Ukraine’s new school syllabus

For the first time since Russia’s invasion, schools in Ukraine are starting to re-open. For many parents, including my own, this presents a dilemma. Is it safe for pupils to return? My brother is seven and has spent the past year doing ‘remote learning’, which is hard enough in countries at peace, let alone those fighting an invasion. A return to school would be good for his education, but then again, might there be the danger of Russian air strikes? Parents at my brother’s school have been asked to vote on whether they would prefer pupils to continue with online learning, or return, with all the risks involved. It’s estimated

A-level results: has government reversed grade inflation?

As A-level results come out today, we will find out if the government has made any progress in stemming exam grade inflation. As always, some candidates will celebrate while others will be disappointed. This year, though, the latter group is expected to be more numerous because exam boards are supposed to be clamping down on the implausibly high grades awarded during the two years when school exams were suspended due to lockdowns. Anyone looking solely at exam grades without other information to hand might wonder: what was it about Covid that appeared to boost the educational attainment of so many 18-year-olds? In 2019, the last normal year, 76 per cent

Boris, Sherwood and the politics of the past

It feels like the end, but we’ve been here before. The past months of Boris Johnson’s teetering administration have felt like the final act of a Shakespearean tragedy and yet the curtain just won’t fall. This week saw one of those rare electric nights of drama when a prime minister looks set to be toppled. At least, they used to be rare. In the first 25 years of my life I had only three prime ministers. The past chaotic decade looks to be about to produce its fourth. The axe hovered in the air for Johnson, but was prevented from falling – at least at the time of writing –

The Blob is back with a vengeance – and the Tories aren’t ready for it

In what I supposed we should see as a sign of progress, the government has decided not to destroy its own school reforms, by revoking the first 18 clauses of the recently-published Schools Bill. I disclosed two weeks ago in the Daily Telegraph that many ex-ministers were up in arms at what they saw as the revenge of ‘The Blob’, the bureaucratic forces that have been against school reform. My concern is that rushing out legislation that is not ready shows a wider government meltdown, happening at quite a pace The Schools Bill said that, rather than be self-governing, academy schools would lose control over the ‘nature and quality of