Last week, ITV aired Britain’s strictest headmistress. It told the story of Katherine Birbalsingh, who founded a free school in 2014. As Toby young describes, Birbalsingh is a passionate advocate of the ‘no excuses approach’ to education, applying the ethos of 1950’s grammar schools: with ‘uniforms, strict discipline, plenty of competition and a knowledge-based curriculum.’
Watching Birbalsingh brought back memories of my maths teacher, Mrs Sheppard. Mrs Sheppard is what many of us would call ‘a battleaxe.’ Her teaching was explicit. She taught, and you listened. Then you sat in silence and completed the sums. And she was mighty strict. I remember not having my calculator after an older boy nicked it. While sympathetic, Mrs Sheppard didn’t accept excuses: Two hours detention. Once a boy wore an illegal T-short under his uniform. Mrs Sheppard made him take it off and spend the lesson standing topless.
We might have been terrified of Mrs Sheppard, but boy did she get results. Entire classes got A’s. Parents would threaten to take their kids out of the school if they were not put in her class.
As fourteen year olds, our end of year exams were littered with A-Level questions. In the year below us, the duffers in the fourth set (taught by Mrs Sheppard) beat the top set (not taught by Mrs Sheppard).
Educational fads come and go, but when it comes to teaching the basics, strict education works. That involves no excuses, tough discipline, and direct instruction. Direct instruction is “call a spade a spade” teaching. The teacher clearly explains the concept, demonstrates what they want the students to do, and then gets them to do it.
We have known since the 60’s that direct instruction works fantastically; especially with troublesome kids from underprivileged backgrounds. The reason it has been neglected is that many teachers ideologically would rather be ‘down with the kids’, chatting to them like some ‘cool dad’ figure. We all remember teachers like this, hopelessly trying to be popular while the entire class messed about.
But after the human catastrophe of lockdowns, the Overton Window has been blown wide open. We can no longer let the fragile egos and fantasies of a few destroy the prospects of an entire generation. What we need is a no-nonsense approach to basic education staffed by Sheppards and Barbalsinghs. One that hammers home the rudiments of maths, reading and writing, until they get it right.
This might sound antiquated, but it’s the opposite. If you want to progress in this word you have to be able to communicate and understand. We do that with words and numbers. Get that right and the world is your oyster. Get it wrong and you’re stuck.
In our rapidly changing world, we constantly need to learn new skills, and those skills change all the time. We have no way of knowing what will be needed in the future. When I was at school no-one cared about Mandarin or coding. The only solution is to give our children a good grasp of the three R’s. Then they will have the tools to learn whatever they need throughout life. I know plenty of friends who have, as adults, learnt Mandarin and coding. All of them have a decent level of Maths and English.
And here’s the best bit. If you could have a super-strict system that guarantees every child a solid grounding in the three Rs, you can de-regulate the rest of the school system.
Such a proposal, based around vouchers and massive expansion of free schools, has already been developed by the Adam Smith institute. It would create a Darwinian meritocracy in which educators can create the best schools possible, tailored to different children’s needs and giving more choice to parents. You can offer phonics, practical science and creative expression. You can have forest schools and online schools. You can try different curriculums or exams. But only if you nail the basics. Just like meal-time bribery, you can have whatever you want for dessert, but only after you finish up your meat and veg.
And there is one thing we do know: in a free system, we parents and our children will make sure the best schools rise to the top. Just look how we spend weekends rifling through league tables and Ofsted reports, mortgaging ourselves to the hilt for a good catchment area or foregoing a decade of summer holidays to pay school fees. If little Johnny can earn a hundred grand after two years at plumbing school, you bet it will be oversubscribed. If the local maths academy gets 50% into Oxbridge, parents will walk over hot coals to get on the waiting list. And equally, when schools do not deliver, parents can desert them and we can let them fail.
But you can only deregulate like this if your can be sure that every child – no matter how vulnerable - is confident in reading, writing and maths. Basic education is just too important t be held hostage to academic fads and ideologies.
And that is how to fix education at this crisis point. A two-speed system with a super-strict approach the three R’s as its basis; and where pupils stay till they pass. Outside that, it’s open season. Expand the success of free schools and let educators try their luck in a meritocracy in which parents and children vote with their feet.
And here is a last thought for teachers who might balk at this: A year ago I met up with some of my old school mates. We recollected the usual tails of mischief, but the only teacher we got talking about was Mrs Sheppard. During her time thousands of boys went through her class. We may not have loved it at the time, but we left with outstanding grades and numeracy far beyond what we deserved. Those who would have never taken A-level maths took it, and got A’s. We went on to enjoy university places, job opportunities, and a lifetime of numeracy. Decades later, it is Mrs Sheppard who commands more respect and more affection than all the ‘cool’ teachers combined.