Chris McGovern: Time for fightback in battle to rescue education

CHANCELLOR George Osborne assures us that, on the economic front, Britain can look forward with some optimism in 2014.

This is good news. However, if we look further ahead, things appear somewhat less rosy. We have recently been given a glimpse of the future.

It came in the publication of the latest school test results from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Commonly known as the PISA tests (Programme for International Assessment), they cover the attainment of 15-year-old schoolchildren in maths, science and reading across 65 ‘developed’ countries.

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Andreas Schleicher, who has responsibility for the tests, warns: “Your education today, is your economy tomorrow.”

Alarmingly, the countries of the UK fail to scrape beyond 20th position for any of the three subject areas tested – maths, science and reading. Worse, our pupils are up to three years behind pupils in parts of eastern Asia.

In other words, long term, the likelihood of our remaining competitive in the global market place is very much in doubt. We are in trouble. The best we can hope for is that our economy will continue to be bailed out by well-educated immigrants.

Countries at the top of these latest education league tables are also some of the most successful economies – China, Hong Kong, Macau, South Korea, Japan, Singapore and Taiwan.

Amongst European countries there are a few that have not totally lost touch with the ‘big boys’ from Asia, but we are not amongst them. Poland is a particular success story. It has improved sufficiently since the previous tests in 2009, to scrape into the top 10 for both maths and for science.

Estonia is another European success story, reaching sixth place in science and attaining 11th and 12th position, respectively, for maths and reading. Finland, Germany, Ireland, Liechtenstein, the Netherlands and Switzerland also make the top 20 for all three subjects. Australia, likewise, makes it into this group.

However the UK and, notably, the USA, fall into the ‘also ran’ category of mid-table mediocrity and stagnation. We are unable, even, to come near matching the emerging economy of Vietnam, a nation that can afford to spend only a tiny fraction of what we, or the Americans, spend on schooling.

Amongst all this gloom, however, some encouragement might be drawn from another OECD report; one that preceded the latest PISA results by a few weeks. It was the first ever OECD international “Survey of Adult Skills”. While, unsurprisingly, it placed our 16 -24 year-olds towards the bottom of the league, our 55- 65-year-olds came near the top of the international table for its age group. This is the generation educated in the
1950s and 1960s, where
traditional and rigorous whole-class teaching was the norm, whether at grammar school, technical school or secondary modern school.

In those days, for example, children were given text books to assist their learning. Shockingly, a recent study showed that these days only 10 per cent of our 10-year-olds are issued with text books, as against 99 per cent in high-flying South Korea. At secondary level, only eight per cent of our pupils are provided with science text books. In Taiwan it is 88 per cent!

For the UK, at least, the time has come to fight back. In 1914 the country had to be put on a war footing to fight the Kaiser. It is ironic that 100 years later we need to prepare for war once again. This time, however, the opponent is closer to home. It is our educational establishment – those well-intentioned idealists who have ensured our relative educational decline.

It is not too late, but delay is not an option. Education Secretary Michael Gove is already a bloodied and battered figure. Nevertheless, there are major battles yet to be fought and some, such as curriculum reform, examination reform and teacher training, are a long way from being won.

This was vividly illustrated last summer by what the editor of “Labour Teachers” wrote about the new national curriculum for history, a subject especially close to Gove’s heart. He compared the Education Secretary to a defeated First World War general and stated “…make no mistake, the new history national curriculum… is as near identical to the one most English schools have been operating off for a decade, and entirely unlike the Department for Education’s initial offering…It would seem history teachers have won and Gove has lost. Some might say he has more than lost: he has been humiliated, just punishment for wasting our time”.

Gove’s promise to his party conference in 2010 that he would stop the “trashing of our past” in school history lessons now rings hollow. He has suffered a significant reversal.

As a consequence, the coalition Government will mark the 100th anniversary of the Great War this year by removing any requirement in the new history national curriculum to teach either about the First World War or about the Second World War.

Quite a victory for the educational establishment, but not the first and not the last. You may register a protest in favour of teaching children about those who ‘fell’ in both world wars, by signing a petition at: http://tinyurl.com/ungove

Where do we go from here? Is there a way back to the top end of the international league table for our schools? The same question might have been asked after our poor performance at the 1996 summer Olympic Games in Atlanta. We gained just one gold medal and only 15 medals in
total, finishing in 36th position, overall.

However, in 2012, we won 29 gold medals and 65 medals in total, finishing third in the medals table. Yorkshire made a sizeable contribution. The lesson to be learnt is that it is never too late.

So, in 2014, let’s declare war on low standards in our classrooms and let’s make sure that our children, like our Olympians and, indeed, our Paralympians are fit to compete with the best in the world.

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