Chris McGovern: Our schools fail to make the grade by world standards

Pupils celebrate GCSE results  - does there need to be a leap of faith in education policy?
Pupils celebrate GCSE results - does there need to be a leap of faith in education policy?
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ANOTHER school year is upon us! What lies ahead for our children?

After three decades of concern about standards of attainment, are things at last moving in the right direction? Are we about to see an expansion of grammar school places?

Will the new set of international league tables, based on the so-called OECD PISA tests, due in December, show us closing the attainment gap between ourselves and the educational superstars such as Shanghai, Singapore and South Korea?

Will we be able to recruit and retain enough good teachers as the school population swells?

Justine Greening, the new Education Secretary, has plenty on her plate.

The latest set of public examination results have been widely seen as putting a cap on the grade inflation that began to take off in the late 1980s. This year’s pass rate at A-Level has stabilised at 98.1 per cent.

In other words, there is very little room for any further inflation. Clever! Ditto GCSE where, more or less, every candidate passes. At the higher A*-C grade, there was a slight fall but still two thirds attained the higher grades. Congratulations to the pupils concerned, of course. They can only sit the exam paper put in front of them.

We should not fool ourselves, however, that our exam grades reflect academic rigour in the sense that ‘rigour’ is understood in the best performing education systems around the world.

Our Maths GCSE for example is similar to the level taught to 12-year-olds in several Asia-Pacific states. The sad truth is that anything but a top grade in GCSE Maths would likely be regarded as a certificate of incompetence in some parts of the world. Our new National Curriculum is supposed to bridge this attainment gap but any real improvement in attainment will depends on the quality of our teaching force.

Understandably, teachers are feeling under siege from a Government that has, for some time in my experience, been in a state of panic about standards. Morale within the profession is generally low many teachers are beginning to feel a sense of panic, too. They have been, and continue to be, inadequately trained and, as a consequence, are too often failing to raise standards to the level the government is demanding.

A report just published by the York-based Joseph Rowntree Foundation paints a damning picture of literacy and numeracy standards in England. Around 28 per cent of adults lack the basic skills to read a bus timetable or a wage slip. One in 20 struggle to write a short message or to select a floor number in a lift.

We are the only country in the developed world where the older generation (55 to 65-year-olds), educated in the 1950s and 1960s, out-perform the younger generation (16 to 18-year-olds).

In summary, our 55 to 65-year-olds are around the top of the international league table of literacy for their generation whereas our 16 to 18-year-olds are around the bottom of their equivalent league table – the dunces of the developed world.

Katie Schmuecker, head of policy at the aforementioned Joseph Rowntree Foundation, put it like this: “In a prosperous country like Britain, everyone should have the basic skills they need to participate in society and build a career. But these shocking figures show millions of adults are being left behind in the modern economy, holding back their potential and the productivity of our businesses suffering as a result.”

How on earth did we get into this situation? Fashionable but flawed dogma about ‘child-learning’ continues to hold sway in our schools and is so ingrained that it has become part of our educational culture.

It is based on an unshakeable belief in the virtues of group work and exploratory ‘fun’ learning. This has a part to play in the classroom, of course, but not at the expense of the traditional ‘whole class’ teaching methods we ditched here in the 1970s but which characterise teaching in the Asia-Pacific region.

Ironically, traditional whole class teaching makes life much less stressful for both teachers and pupils because it is a whole lot more effective both in terms of learning and, consequently, in terms of maintaining good behaviour.

Too often, the culture of ‘child-centred’ learning is used as an excuse for poor attainment. Overcoming this culture of low aspirations will be the greatest task facing Rotherham-born Justine Greening.

In addition, she must strive towards ensuring that children are educated in line with their aptitude. Academically-able children need an academically- demanding education such as is the test provided by grammar schools, even if it does not always actually need to be in a grammar school. Equally, youngsters whose aptitude is less academic, need a gold-standard vocational or technical education.

We should be debating the age at which academic or vocational pathways should open up. Age 11 is probably too early but age 13 of 14 is about right and is common enough elsewhere around the world. The target should be for the GCSE level to be reached by the age of 13 or 14 via an extended primary school education – common enough in the private sector. This would close the gap between us and the best education systems internationally.

The implementation of such proposals would represent quite a challenge for Justine Greening and it would demand considerable bravery. If past experience of education secretaries is anything to go by, it is not a challenge she is likely to take up.

Placating the teacher unions and keeping a lid on things is the far more usual course of action. The education portfolio she has been handed is something of a poisoned chalice. The educational establishment, the ‘Blob’, has seen off all of her predecessors. Indeed, if she wishes to understand the ‘achievement’ of previous secretaries of state, she need only read the Joseph Rowntree report. It should stand as a warning that appeasing the ‘Blob’ has terrible consequences.

* Chris McGovern is chairman of the Campaign for Real Education.