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

The courage of Katharine Birbalsingh

Five years ago, I put my friend Nell Butler in touch with Katharine Birbalsingh, Britain’s most outspoken headmistress. I was hoping Nell, who runs a TV production company, would persuade Katharine to let ITV make a documentary about Michaela, the free school she opened in 2014 and which she’s led ever since. I was director of the New Schools Network at the time, a free schools charity, and was convinced there could be no better advertisement for the controversial educational policy. At the time, Michaela had yet to be inspected by Ofsted and didn’t have any exam results, but knowing Katharine as I do, and having visited the school a

What the new GCSE in global warming should teach

For years, environmentalists have campaigned for children to study global warming as a subject rather than simply as a part of geography. Their wish has now been granted in England with a new GCSE in natural history, starting from 2025. We know nothing yet about the syllabus but it’s quite the opportunity to ask what our planet’s problems really are, and how effective the net-zero agenda is as a solution. Rather than be scared to death about the future of the planet, pupils should instead be encouraged to take a rationalist approach. They might ask whether the obsession with climate change in recent decades has taken attention away from the

The dos and don’ts of school tours

There are moments in life that serve as a wake-up call to adulthood. Perhaps, the first was sitting in the beige office of a mortgage broker, wondering how my soon-to-be-husband and I had made the leap from meeting on a sweaty Durham dance floor to this airless room in Holborn. More recently, it was looking around a primary school for our four-year-old-son. Mindlessly staring at wall displays of woodland animals, you’re racking your brains as to how you will finish work at 3pm for pick up come September and scramble enough childcare for a six-week summer holiday. Goodbye 52-week-a year nursery.  But book yourself enough tours at enough schools, and

What happened to Tory radicalism?

Whatever advantages money may have brought Rishi Sunak as he rose to become Chancellor of the Exchequer, his wealth has now become a serious hindrance to his career. Whatever decisions he takes, everything is seen through the prism of his personal financial situation. If he rejects demands for greater public spending, he will be accused of throwing the poor to the lions. If he raises taxes, he will be accused of failing to understand how ordinary people are struggling. If he cuts them, he will be accused of pandering to his rich friends. Even acts of private generosity by Sunak seem to arouse suspicion when made public. This week it

School trip: My déjeuner sur l’herbe

In 1966 we were 17 and about to do A-levels and leave our convent school for ever at the end of that summer term. Two girls were having a lesbian affair, another had been tempted to sleep with a boy, dramatically confessing this to our head nun, Mother Benedicta, in Mother B’s terrifying private room halfway up the staircase. Our head girl, Vanessa, had an older sister who would roar down to the school on the back of her boyfriend’s motorbike along with his friends, known as ‘leather boys’. Vanessa was worried about her sister living in sin. ‘The sins of the flesh are not the worst sins my child,’

Schools portraits: a snapshot of four notable schools

Colville Primary School Based just off Notting Hill’s Portobello Road, Colville Primary School occupies a Victorian Grade II-listed building that was once a laundry. Today, it accommodates pupils up to the age of 11 who are taught under the school’s ‘three key values’: respect, aspiration and perseverance. Colville also says it believes in the British values of democracy, individual liberty and tolerance. The school’s performance has shot up over the past decade: three years ago, it was rated ‘Outstanding’ by Ofsted. Despite its setting in the heart of London, there’s plenty of area for play — the playground facilities are new, and there’s also a large ball court and running

Masks in schools: how convincing is the government’s evidence?

Why has the government changed its mind and asked children to wear masks in school? When Plan B was announced last month, there was no requirement. But that has changed. Nadhim Zahawi, the Education Secretary, was asked why on Monday. He replied that ‘we conducted a small observational study with 123 schools who had followed mask-wearing in classrooms before and saw that they made a difference’. He suggested it was quite a significant study. ‘If you just think it through, with a respiratory disease that is aerosol-transmitted, if you are asymptomatic but wearing a mask, you’re much, much less likely to infect other people.’ The government has now published an ‘Evidence Summary’

My dog and the NHS have a lot in common

We are considering privatising or selling off our dog, Jessie. She seemed a rather wonderful idea when we got her nine years ago. But since then she has become a hideously bloated, entitled creature who almost by herself determines how we live our lives. In winter she is particularly tyrannical — she has three walks a day, and with darkness falling at four o’clock that means almost every hour of daylight is spent servicing her needs. We cannot go out by ourselves without ensuring she will not be unduly inconvenienced, and as she has grown older so the costs of keeping her have spiralled — and will continue to spiral.

Why Sunak’s wrong on teachers

Pupils lost around a third of their face-to-face teaching during the Covid lockdowns. Downing Street has promised an extra £3 billion of catch-up funding, on top of around £100 billion spent on education in a normal year. Fixing a lack of teaching should involve doing a bit more of it — but when asked if he would extend the school day, Rishi Sunak said longer hours wouldn’t provide ‘value for money’. It’s one of few areas where, in tomorrow’s Budget, the spending taps will be turned off. But why, as the Children’s Commissioner recently noted, are British state schools routinely closing their gates at 2.30 p.m.? The length of the

Will education be the big Budget loser?

Which departments will fare the worst from this week’s Budget? It won’t be the Department for Health and Social Care. Over the past few days, new funding announcements have appeared in the papers meaning the NHS will be handed another £5.9 billion. That’s in addition to the £12 billion a year investment it will receive as a result of the health and social care levy. Meanwhile, Whitehall sources suggest that Michael Gove has had some luck in his push for more funds for the levelling up agenda. Where the mood music is less positive is education. When Sir Kevan Collins stepped down from his role as Boris Johnson’s education catch-up tsar over the

Virtue signalling is really status signalling

A £19,000-a-year London day school was in the news this week because it has started instructing its pupils about ‘white privilege’ and ‘microaggressions’. Apparently, St Dunstan’s in south London, which boasts Chuka Umunna among its alumni, teaches its well-heeled students that the royal family bolsters expectations of ‘inherited white privilege’, asks them to ‘explore’ why Meghan Markle faced ‘additional challenges’ compared with Kate Middleton when she married a prince, and tells them why it’s important for the National Trust to examine the colonial past of its country houses and links to the slave trade. I was surprised this story attracted so much press interest. Surely a majority of top independent

Letters: In defence of GPs

Out of practice Sir: GPs are not ‘hiding behind their telephones’ (Leading article, 4 September). In-person appointments are the core of general practice, and practices have been delivering millions of them throughout the pandemic. GPs share patients’ frustrations with the limitations of telephone consulting, which can often take longer than a face-to-face appointment, and with longer waits to be seen. However, as with other areas of the NHS, practices continue to follow national infection control guidance to keep patients and staff safe. You talk of pubs and nightclubs reopening — but how many nightclubs force very sick people, many of them elderly and living with a number of long-term illnesses,

Ian Williams

How ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ is taking over China’s classrooms

From this month, in an extension of a personality cult not seen since Mao Zedong, ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ is being incorporated into China’s national curriculum. School textbooks are emblazoned with Xi’s smiling face, together with heartwarming slogans telling readers as young as six that their leader is watching over them. ‘Grandpa Xi Jinping is very busy with work, but no matter how busy he is, he still joins in our activities and cares about our growth,’ reads one. ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ must be taught at all levels of education, from primary school to graduate programmes, and there is special emphasis on capturing the minds of the youngest children. ‘Primary schools

Can schools return without disruption?

A lot of people won’t want to take much notice of Mary Bousted, joint-general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), who warns today that schools face significant disruption by the end of September as Covid-prevention measures have to be reintroduced. It was the NEU, after all, which not only opposed the return of schools after the first lockdown, but simultaneously advised its members not to take part in online lessons either. The NEU has often given the impression of being motivated first and foremost by a desire to obstruct the government’s plans. Sir Patrick Vallance’s original verdict on the virus – that it is not possible to stop it

Will Knowland, Eton and the problem with the teaching misconduct panel

When Eton master Will Knowland was sacked last year over anti-feminist views contained in a YouTube video which he refused to take down, alumni and others rightly called out Eton’s small-mindedness and intellectual conformism. If the best-endowed schools in the land can’t stomach unorthodox opinion, what hope for UK education generally? They were, of course, entirely right. But there is a further, more serious, side to the story. This week’s widely-welcomed victory by Knowland is not the end of the matter. Eton, as it was required to do when dismissing a teacher for gross misconduct, had reported the circumstances to the professional body for teachers, the Teaching Regulation Agency. The TRA was

When will exams get back to normal?

It wouldn’t be credible to say that this year’s A-Levels grades are comparable with 2019’s: almost 45 per cent of entries got an A or A* compared to 25 per cent two years ago. But, as I say in the magazine this week, the problem is that you can’t simply snap back to normal next year. Many of those who got their grades this year won’t go to university until next year. This — and the fact that the education of those in the year below has been disrupted too — means it wouldn’t be fair for exams to return to normal next year. That would leave the class of 2022 competing for

Letters: Let the housing market collapse

Treading the boards Sir: As a teacher, I was sorry Lloyd Evans did not include school productions in his excellent assessment of the cultural devastation inflicted by Covid-19 (‘Staged’, 3 July). While cancellation of West End shows is a tragedy, far more damage will be done to the thousands of children whose one chance to watch or perform in a play or musical has been taken away. These humble, often cheerfully disastrous, amateur productions bring pupils together in a way nothing else can. W. Sydney Robinson Oundle, Northamptonshire Big bad builders Sir: I enjoyed Liam Halligan’s comprehensive assessment of the appalling state of the UK building industry and the dire

It’s time to repair the damage done to the Covid generation’s education

Aswitch of personnel at the Department of Health this week has brought a welcome change in the government’s tone. No longer, it seems, are ministers looking for reasons to delay the final stage of lifting lockdown restrictions. After 16 months of curtailments on liberty, 19 July is inked in as the day when society and the economy will finally throw off the shackles of Covid restrictions. The vaccines mean that the virus has been downgraded to the status of flu and pneumonia: nasty bugs, sometimes fatal, but not enough to warrant locking down society with all the immense collateral damage that entails. Yet as pubs, theatres and concert halls are