In a country as rich as ours, which has recently spent vast sums on education, is it not a shame and a disgrace that nearly half of all 16-year-olds are functionally innumerate and illiterate? According to the Department for Education itself, 300,000 (47%) of 16-years-olds leave school without having achieved level 2 in functional maths, and 265,000 (42%) of them fail to achieve level 2 in functional English. In other terms, 42% of school leavers finish 11 years of compulsory education without achieving at least a grade C in GCSE, debased though that standard is. It is even said, with justice, that the Poles and Russians and Hungarians who come here write better English than the natives.
In England, Scotland and Wales the proportion of pupils from state schools gaining university places has been falling for two years, according to figures announced on Friday by the Higher Education Statistics Agency. So is the proportion of students from low-income families. What’s more, the proportion of students from state schools getting places at 14 of the country’s leading 19 universities was actually lower last year than in the past two years. Education, education, education? I don’t think so.
University drop-out figures are also up, particularly among students from poor homes. In the worst universities about a third of undergraduates fail to finish their courses, The students most likely to drop out, unsurprisingly, are those with “vocational” qualifications or low exam grades or — astonishingly — with no qualifications whatsoever.
You might well ask what a student with no qualifications is doing on a degree course in the first place. The government aspires to “excellence for all” and therefore everyone has a right to a degree — or, according to government targets, at least 50% of the 18 to 30-year-old population have that right. When you consider that almost 50% of school leavers are functionally illiterate and innumerate this seems quixotic at best.
At the same time it has emerged in a study by Harrow school that pupils with very poor spelling and grammar are still able to gain top GCSE grades in English. The school introduced a basic literacy test after teachers noticed that even children who had achieved As and A*s were making glaring mistakes — confirmation, if any were needed, of the debasement of standards in GCSEs.
Meanwhile the government is anxious to abolish grammar schools in Northern Ireland. It has emerged that the three universities there have by far exceeded their targets for recruitment of students from the lowest socio-economic classes. Whatever the rights and wrongs of grammar schools, they did provide opportunities for bright children from the least privileged backgrounds. In fact, recent research from the London School of Economics shows that the abolition of grammar schools here has reduced the opportunities for society’s poorest to work their way up. Yet grammar schools are to be abolished regardless — personal opportunity sacrificed to egalitarian orthodoxy.
In comprehensives in England, by contrast, bright children are being failed again and again; only half of our cleverest 11-year-olds go on to get three As at A-level, and some do not even attempt to go to university.
Partly because of ideological objections to the very idea of “gifted” children, about a third of schools never send very bright (or indeed any) pupils to the annual sessions run by the National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth at Warwick University — a clear sign, according to Sir Cyril Taylor, one of the government’s senior education advisers, that “some very able children are being badly let down . . . We are talking about 10,000 to
15,000 of our most able children in each age cohort who do not fulfil their potential”. It is hardly surprising in such a culture that social mobility has actually decreased under this government and is lower than in comparable western countries.
Need one say more? A-levels have been debased. Previous O-level papers are now used at A-level. Course work can be and is abused by parents and even by teachers. Science courses and even music exams are being dropped. Employers are appalled by the low educational standard of school leavers and of graduates. Degrees have been debased and no longer offer the promise of good jobs and good salaries, but simply years of debt. Universities have to do a great deal of remedial teaching. Soon we will have Poles and Russians teaching British children remedial English. What is going on? The simple truth is that all too many state school teachers can’t teach or don’t teach, so their pupils can’t or don’t learn. The reasons are legion but one big reason is that the educational establishment still clings to the blindly egalitarian educational theory of the 1960s and its determined social engineering, which still pervades schools and teacher training colleges. It is a theory which despite all the facts refuses to accept that children’s innate abilities vary.
A second reason is the demoralisation of teachers by Whitehall micromanagement. Another, perhaps, is the quality of women going into teaching — and most teachers are women. Before they got (nearly) equal opportunities, one of the few careers open to very bright women was teaching. Now they are able to look elsewhere, very much to the detriment of teaching in the state sector.
What state sector reformers should do is to analyse the success of private schools. Rich parents can have dim as well as bright children, and many private schools have developed to educate non-academic or more average children; they get excellent “value added” reports from the Office for Standards in Education, meaning that they have made the most of each child, irrespective of ability.
Like high-flying private schools they believe that children do best when taught with those of similar ability and they are not afraid to impose reasonable discipline. They accept ideas of competition, difference, success and failure, which all children must soon enough encounter in real life, but in a civilised and protected atmosphere.
In the state sector today countless children — about half — are having their prospects blasted and their youth blighted. As I think John Stuart Mill said, an education ought to be very good to justify a child’s loss of liberty. British education isn’t; I wouldn’t object to my children playing truant from a bog standard comprehensive.