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Maria Montessori would have backed revival of phonics

BaldJohn Bald writes in praise of...Fiona Millar

Hats off to Elizabeth Truss for her riposte to the collection of early years specialists, academics and pundits who have  tried yet again to persuade us that the root cause of educational failure is too early a start to school.

As Ms Truss points out, the seeds of educational failure for poor children are sown early, and the later education starts, the more they will lose out. One of the ironies of the letter is that so many signatories are connected with the Montessori movement, whose key idea is to create a highly-structured environment that builds an educational outcome into whatever a child chooses to do.

Play it may be, but it is play on adult terms, and could not be further removed from the neglect that seals the fate of too many children before they have started school. Montessori, moreover, was an early and effective advocate of phonics as a means of teaching reading, and English Montessori schools were active in the phonics revival of the early nineties. Maria Montessori would probably have had more in common with the government than with its critics.

Scarcely less praise is due to the government's arch-critic Fiona Millar, for her admission in The Guardian that cheating at GCSE is sufficiently widespread to need urgent action. No system will be perfect, she says, but integrity seems to drain out of the current one on a daily basis and something radical is needed now.

There is a real problem in this situation for those who have uncritical faith in headteachers. The evidence from whistleblowers is that the pressure to inflate coursework grades is coming from heads - according to Ms Millar, unsurprisingly, from Academy heads - who are placing teachers in an impossible position.

The conflict of interest when schools are made judge in their own cause has simply become too great and Michael Gove is right to put a stop to it - I hope sooner, rather than in Ofqual's good time.

The sympathy I had for headteacher Jonny Mitchell (Educating Yorkshire, C4, Thurs) vanished this week when he excluded a pupil, as the boy's friends said, "for being bullied." The boy, like other "Swats and Geeks" (Mr Mitchell's words) was subjected to constant abuse from pupils who did not share his commitment to doing well at school, and would lash out at his tormentors when it became too much
to take.

Mr Mitchell acknowledged the problem, and said he was dealing with it. However, he was not doing so in a way that prevented it and gave a hardworking pupil the protection to which he was entitled.

Instead, the boy is given anger management counselling in order to make him tolerate the intolerable to the extent that he accepts the justice of his fate. Mr Mitchell's description of his school as "a nurturing environment" begs the question of exactly what he is nurturing.

We had a clue in the final comments of Georgia, who had run through the school's range of carrots and sticks to the extent that, like the boy in the final episode of Educating Essex. she was not allowed to attend the school's final prom. "I wish I could start again," she says, "but I can't."  In the end, tolerating her anti-social and anti-educational attitudes has not only made life a misery for other pupils, but left her in the lurch herself.

Mr Mitchell's failure to stamp out negative attitudes as soon as they come through the school gate leaves him with no option but to take action at the very end of the girl's school career, when it hurts her the most and when it is too late for it to do her any good.  The issue is at the heart of the conflict between Sir Michael Wilshaw and his fellow headteachers, and shows exactly why he must be supported.  Somehow, Georgia has managed to "pass" no fewer than thirteen GCSEs.


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