Educashun, Educashun, Educashun innit?

“Sorry Braithwaite, Im on strike”
In the Guardian this week, Philip Beadle came out with a priceless line; “The issue with importing the views of the private sector is not so much with the structures they might implement, but with the fact that they know nothing about our core business – teaching”. Bearing in mind the fact that our teachers have succeeded in turning out a generation of illiterates, you would have thought that they would be desperate for all the help they can get.

According to a working group chaired by Sir Claus Moser in 1998, the adult rate of functional illiteracy in Britain is a staggering 20%, that is 1 in 5 adults who cant read or write after 11 years of state schooling. For numeracy the report claims that “Some researchers suggest that nearly half of all adults in Britain have numeracy skills below the level expected of an 11 year old”. Science teaching is as bad. According to one report “both school students and science graduates have a considerably lower age-specific average science attainment than did the smaller and more elite cohort of thirty-plus years ago”. Likewise, history is a total washout. When I was at school we were taught about World War One, then Indian Independence, then how the Romans built roads, a bit about the Industrial Revolution, a little bit of the Vietnam War…there was no idea of history of a constant flow which has brought us to how the world is today.

You might think that such underperformance would result in radical structural reform, sackings or pay cuts, certainly that would be the case in any private sector enterprise. But no, teachers have been awarded pay rises and seen their generous pension arrangements left untouched. The average teacher earns £26,460 after five years while the national average is just £22,411.

How is it that the providers of such an obviously useless service manage to get away with it? More than that, how come they are rewarded for it? Well, on the surface the results look impressive. In 2005, no fewer than 97.8% of students who sat GCSE exams passed with 61.2% of them getting grades A* to C. A level results the same year saw the 23rd consecutive increase to a whopping 96.2%.

However, there is very good reason to believe that these children are not passing exams because they have been schooled particularly well but because the exams themselves have become so much easier. According to a report released in 2005, some candidates who got an A grade at A level would only have been awarded a C or D as recently as 1988. A science GCSE is now a multiple choice test and GCSE examiners are told not to mark a paper down “solely because of the existence of an error”. A survey by the Russell Group carried out in 2004 found that “A survey of 100 academics…found that 90 of them believed that an A grade at A-level was worth less than it was 10 years ago.” When presented with the three propositions that A-Level standards were falling, modular A-Levels were easier to pass and examination papers are less demanding, one teacher respondedthat “As an A-Level teacher of some 16 years experience, I have to give a resounding Yes to each and every one of these hypotheses”. Faith in the rigour of exams and the worth of the qualification has been so badly shaken that, according to the report by Reform quoted above, 43% of 18-24 year olds think exams have got easier to pass.

Not surprisingly those who benefit from being so well rewarded for doing such a bad job are reluctant to see the gravy train hit the buffers. Take a look at Tony Blair’s pretty modest education reforms. Not only are teaching unions opposed but so are the Labour backbenchers who owe so much of their support to unions such as the National Union of Teachers and National Association of Head Teachers. Blocking every type of reform, these unions must be some of the most reactionary forces outside of Saudi Arabia. And it is the ill educated children who suffer.

This is not to lay the blame at the door of the rank and file teachers. They may well strike to get more money from the taxpayer and preserve their generous pensions but who wouldn’t in their situation? The syllabus wasn’t degraded by teachers but by ‘educationalists’ who believed that teaching was somehow oppressive to pupils and various socialist tinged governments who do not like the idea of failure. The fact that schools are such violent and anti social places was, again, not down to teachers but the parents who cannot bring their children up and the same socialist tinged governments who didn’t think that crime was something to be punished but ‘understood’ and ‘empathised’ with.

The blame for the abject failure of state education lies at the door of the government and teaching unions and their symbiotic relationship. Unions bank roll the Labour party and so, in government, Labour will do little to anger them. If it tries to enact necessary reforms, as we have seen recently, the unions will call in their support and scare enough Labour MPs into rebelling. By this simple mechanism any real reform of state education is still born and it is the children of the poor who suffer, the children whose parents can’t afford to send their children to public schools unlike the expensively educated offspring of the Labour elite.

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3 thoughts on “Educashun, Educashun, Educashun innit?

  1. There has been a marked decreece in standards but this to do with two things – the Major and Blair governmetns policys of increasing student numbers at the inevitable expence of quality and the introduction of a market into both universities and A-levels. If exam boards set there exams to hard then schools won’t use them and they will go under. Likewise with universities there is a grade inflation. League tables mesure both compleation rates and ‘good degrees awarded’. giving students low marks or failing them not only causes teh student (who has payed a large ammount of money) to complain but also damages teh universities reputation and standing. Because desisions are taken on a short term indevidalistic basis market forces drive standards down, no one is going to maintain standards when it has a negative impact for them. Soon it will get to the stage where it was n the 19th century where the wealthy can swan around socialising at the best universities (which they can afford) and not have to face anything as presumtious or taxing as examinations and be awarded the degree fo their choise at the end. After all they are the customer and they have payed for it.

  2. The existence of exam boards in competition need not be a bad thing. For example, a pupil with a good A level grade from a tough exam board will look better to an employer than a pupil with an exam grade which was a doddle. People going for the easy option of getting a grade by sitting a crap exam will suffer themselves.The same goes, I think, for universities. Its clear that someone with an A grade from Durham or Oxford is going to look better to an employer than someone with an A grade from Lampeter. A university is likely to damage its reputation more by giving out degrees to anyone who turns up than by maintaining academic standards and awarding a meaningful degree.

  3. While true that the some places have a reputaion that effects the value of their degree (especially with universities) I have never heard of anyone being asked what exam board they did. And even with universities reputations don’t change significantly over time. For intance Exeter is still held in higher regard than it deserves to be. People don’t have time to examine the detail of what any of the 106 universities are doing indevidually and so become more reliant on league tables to help them decide, hence my earlier comment about the way the system favours a gradual drop in standards.

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