Why our schools have plunged in world league tables despite billions being spent

10 June 2009
The Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday
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Rising school standards were meant to be at the heart of the New Labour project.

"Education, education, education" was the famous mantra of Tony Blair, who promised that his Government would transform the quality of British schools.  When he succeeded Blair in the summer, Gordon Brown promised exactly the same driving commitment.  "Education is my passion," he announced in his first days in office. It was a sign of his focus on the subject that he made his closest ally, Ed Balls, his Education Secretary. But earnest political rhetoric from two successive prime ministers has not been translated into results.

Indeed, all the reliable evidence shows that far from driving up standards, the Labour Government has actually presided over a worrying decline, particularly in the basics of literacy and numeracy. A decade of Labour rule has left far too many British pupils illequipped for the world of work, without essential skills or knowledge.

Yes, the Government has poured billions of taxpayers’ pounds into the system. But, as a string of independent surveys now reveal, much of that cash has been squandered. Labour’s spin machine keeps telling us that standards are improving. Ministers point to ever higher grades in GSCE and A-level examinations.

Data compiled by the Department for Children, Families and Schools seems to show that more pupils than ever can read and write properly.

But as a teacher myself, working in a comprehensive school in Essex, I know that so many of these official findings are nothing more than hollow propaganda. They are not matched by the reality of the education system, where Government initiatives have only succeeded in breeding a culture of box-ticking mediocrity.

Many teachers are profoundly disillusioned with the extent of Labour’s failure. But it is not just my profession that has seen through the emptiness of Government’s claims to have achieved a revolution in standards. A host of respected international studies have also contradicted the official bombast from Labour.

A major report from the OECD published yesterday is just the latest – it shows that British pupils have a poorer grasp of literacy and numeracy than most other children across the developed world. It reveals that in the past six years, the United Kingdom has fallen from eighth to 24th place in the international league table for maths, with British 15-yearolds said to be "below average" in comparison with their peers elsewhere.

And the news is just as bad on reading standards, where the UK has plummeted from seventh to 17th place.

In science, there has been an equally disturbing fall, from fourth to 14th place since 2001.

The Government has already been engaged in spin, dismissing the OECD evidence and continuing to trumpet its own bogus statistics. But this will not wash. Anyone who works in the education, like me, knows that the system is failing.

Pupils can go through 11 years of schooling, even pass exams, without an understanding of core subjects.

They are spoon-fed information, assisted with their coursework, and held by the hand through every test, so that schools can meet targets and boost state figures. But that does not mean that the children have mastered the basic skills or genuinely enhanced their knowledge.

The old Soviet Union was notorious for the gap between official statistics and the reality of production levels. In the Thirties, the Politburo would boast every year about record increases in the manufacture of tractors, ignoring the fact that most of the machines were so badly built that they were useless on the farms.

Today, there is a whiff of the Soviet’s infamous tractor production statistics when it comes to Britain’s education, with ministers boasting of record grades achieved every year, just as employers complain of the chronic lack of basic skills among school leavers. So what has gone wrong with our schools? Why has all the extra spending achieved so little? As a frontline practitioner, I think there are a number of problems.

First of all, the Government’s obsession with the micro-management of education is partly to blame. Schools are so bogged down in responding to endless ministerial initiatives and programmes that they do not have the time, energy or funding to concentrate on actually teaching. Throughout the past decade, ministers have refused to trust the professionals. Instead they have indulged in constant tinkering and structural change, seeking to impose themselves on the schools’ system through sheer weight of bureaucratic intervention.

So we’ve had the Academies, specialist schools, the literacy hour, the Work Related Learning and Every Child Matters initiatives to name but a few of the myriad schemes, all of which have detracted from basic teaching. Exam grade inflation has also been rampant over recent decades – despite ministerial denials.

This is partly because the emphasis on coursework – in which pupils’ performance in class counts towards their exam grade – has made it too easy for pupils to succeed without a real comprehension of their subjects. In practice, Labour has created a climate of institutionalised cheating.

I admit that, in the past, I have helped pupils with their coursework, even writing it for them – something of which I am now ashamed. But the sad truth is that Labour’s emphasis on targets and league tables in schools has made this a common practice.

Over the past ten years, so many school qualifications have been discredited because of their concentration on coursework, where pupils are often guided by the teacher. Even the new revised A-levels, supposedly the re-establishment of the exam as the gold standard, include up to 40 per cent of coursework. How then can they be a true test of ability?

But there is another problem.

Today’s approach, so geared towards passing through exam hoops, means that teenagers are fed tiny, bite-sized chunks of information which they regurgitate on cue. It’s ridiculous that a pupil can now sail through GCSE English without ever having read a book. But I promise you they can. As a result, they have no ability to read difficult texts by themselves and work out what they mean. Added to all this is the modern day fear of ever challenging any youngsters, telling them that their work is simply not good enough.

We live in an age of victimhood, and teenagers are universally portrayed as victims of poverty, or racism, or social exclusion, or adult arrogance. So the entire emphasis of the system is to meet their needs, not to demand a sense of responsibility from them. They have to be praised constantly, never criticised because that might lower their fragile sense of self-esteem.

This outlook has contributed to the disastrous fall in discipline in schools. All too often teachers are no longer figures of authority, while the idea of self-improvement through learning is now treated with contempt in the macho, bullying world that prevails in too many of our inner-cities. According to one recent survey, 66 per cent of teachers think that discipline is in crisis in our schools, while 2007 has been the worst year for teenage violence in the history of our country. It is a tragic irony that the real losers from Labour’s failure are the poorest in our society.

Education should be a way for them to escape the bonds of their background, but the decline in standards has meant that they trapped. What a bitter indictment of ten years of Blair-Brown rule that social mobility is now lower than it was in the Fifties. A century ago, before the era of constant tinkering, spin and dumbing down, we had one of the best education systems in the world. Now, despite spending a fortune of taxpayers’ money, we are fast heading for one of the worst.

Francis Gilbert is author of The New School Rules – A Parents’ Guide To Getting The Best Education For Your Child.


  1. Surely we should not expect politicians to improve schools. To improve schools would require a scientifically based process based on understanding of education from working in the sector. No politicians have this or are the slightest bit interested in the scientific method or indeed the real world and its real needs.
    Their interest is in their political dogma and applying it everywhere. This is extremely unlikely to work since the probability of the dogma filled politically correct world mapping onto the real world and real problems is vanishing small.
    This has never been any concern to politicians because they always have new policies in waiting and failures are explained away by spin. They avoid references to school international comparison tables such as PISA because these show the UK falling rapidly down the tables for the last decade.
    It’s a joke to think of politicians as solvers of real world problems. They are not, they are followers and implementers of rote dogma and political correctness. Politicians have no real world skills to bring to bear on real world problems

    from Derek Emery
  2. It’s interesting that you mention the figures from PIRLS. There were 35 countries included in the original 2001 study, whereas the 2006 PIRLS was administered to 45 countries. There are TEN more countries in the 2006 study, so perhaps a change in rank shouldn’t be surprising. It seems implicit that there should be a universal system of teaching literacy across these countries and that direct comparison is not only fair but fruitful, an idea I find hard to accept.

    Your ‘appeal to standing’ (that you have specialist -and anecdotal- knowledge since you teach) just makes your tired ‘Golden Age of Literacy’ argument even more indefensible.

    from Mr. Nice
  3. Point taken, but I suppose I was looking at the big picture here: I don’t think the learning objective approach to learning literacy has worked. I don’t think I was particularly appealing to a Golden Age of Literacy, merely pointing out that schools achieved similar results with much less resources because teachers were freer to think up their own solutions.

    from francisgilbert

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