Labour ripped the heart out of education

30 August 2009
The Guardian
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Scratch beneath the surface of successful GSCE figures and you’ll find a morass of ‘robot teaching’ that fails our children

So the first generation of students to be entirely educated under New Labour has just got its GCSE results. On the surface, the government’s achievements look fabulous: boys have caught up with girls in maths; more than a fifth of exams – 21.6% – were passed at A* or A following the 21st straight rise in the number of top grades; for the first time, candidates passed more than two-thirds of exams at grade C or above.

While pupils should be applauded for their performance, scratch beneath the surface and you find that everything is not smelling of roses. The number of them taking French and German has more or less halved since 2002, when the government scrapped compulsory languages for 14 to 16-year-olds, while progress in English is now declining, with 62.7% of pupils achieving the benchmark C grade against 62.9% in 2008.

More worryingly, only one in four pupils are now attaining five A* to C grades in what I would term “good” GCSEs, English, maths, sciences, a modern foreign language and a humanities subject such as history or geography. Over half of pupils are not attaining satisfactory standards in English and maths.

Even more disturbing is the fact that just 21.1% of children on free school meals – a traditional indicator of poverty – obtain the government’s benchmark of five A* to C grade passes including maths and English. This compares to 49% of those not on free school meals. New Labour has failed the very children that it set out to save. In the world rankings, English children are sliding down the scale. Figures from the Programme for International Assessment (Pisa) show England has plummeted from fourth place in science to 14th; from seventh in literacy to 17th; and from eighth in maths to 24th.

The fact is that New Labour has footled around with the system, endlessly tinkering, overloading teachers with initiative after initiative, burdening them with paperwork, without getting to the heart of the problem: we need more good teachers in the system and we need to motivate the existing, demoralised teachers in the system to inspire our pupils. The most significant research into standards showing that when you put aside parental influence (which is the biggest factor in a pupil’s attainment at school), it is good teachers that have the most effect. Countries such as Finland have the top schools because their teachers are taken from the top third of graduates.

Instead, New Labour has clogged up our schools with wannabe bureaucrats who tick all the boxes but fail to inspire. Even one of the government’s own advisors, Sir Cyril Taylor, admitted that there are about 17,000 teachers who are not up to the job. Moreover, I would argue that the government’s policies has led to the creation of the “robot teacher”, who is programmed to teach to a rigid format, drilling pupils for the test without imparting the enthusiasm and passion that’s necessary to inspire our young people.

What is more, in this atmosphere, passive, dull-eyed pupils have become used to being spoon-fed, expecting the top grades to be handed to them on a plate, with a worksheet or revision guide that explains everything. New Labour has truly returned us to the days that Dickens writes about in his book, Hard Times, where Thomas Gradgrind insists upon that pupils are taught nothing but “facts”. Replace the word “facts” with “assessment objectives” (the rules which all pupils must obey in order to pass their exams) and you have a carbon copy of Gradgrind’s techniques. The corollary of this is that our pupils have become overly exuberant outside the classroom; a Unicef study in 2007 found that British teenagers were more likely to binge drink, have underage sex and commit vandalism than their European counterparts.

Blair’s children are truly the yob generation; a generation which has been drip-fed appalling reality TV shows like Big Brother and is keen to imitate the antics of the worst of the inmates. A generation which revels in public displays of aggression and riotous living, posting photos and videos of themselves intoxicated on social networking sites like Facebook. A generation which uses mobile phones to take videos of hapless victims being beaten and intimidated. A generation which despises people who don’t have the latest trendy gear. It’s no coincidence that New Labour thrived at this time; it set a yobbish example for the young to imitate, with the deputy prime minister punching someone in the mouth and staying in post, with its closest advisers swearing at and bullying anyone who got in their way, with its electoral machine sending texts during one election urging people to vote for them if they didn’t give a XXXX for closing time, with its prime minister caught lying over the Iraq war but never being censored.

What parents want is to have their children taught by inspiring, passionate teachers, not demoralised automatons. What teachers like me want is to be freed of the shackles of an over-prescriptive, leaden curriculum and be freed to teach children the essentials they will need to live fulfilling lives.

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