Wednesday, 18 December 2013


The fashion for league tables is understandable in this day and age when everything seems to be compared with everything and everyone else. So when a table comes out that shows Britain’s youngsters are only 29th in the world of educational attainment, it shocks. Commentators and hacks are virulent about our fall in the world rankings. Experts are called in to give explanations and there is much wailing and gnashing of teeth particularly amongst the politicians. From them the answer is predictable and always the same. They are sorting it out, it takes time and things are better than they were. This is, of course, to lose sight of the fact that they are the main problem.

Going back to the immediate post Second World War period, a Labour government introduced a two tear system of education. This was the grammar school, which already existed, and secondary modern system with selection by 11 plus examination at the end of primary school. The idea was a good one except for the 11+. The grammar school education was exam orientated. The secondary modern schools were supposed to be for pupils who were more inclined towards technical and engineering careers and who did not want to follow the normal GCE route or go to university. Where the secondary modern system failed was firstly, in its appointment of head masters and staff and secondly, the way governments allocated money. Most of the head masters and teachers originated in grammar or private schools and entered the profession via college or university. They wanted to turn their schools into grammar schools because that was all they knew. Then the governments decided to fund schools on the number of GCEs they attained. So instead of following technical subjects, the pupils were being forced to take the normal GCE subjects. This resulted in the secondary modern becoming a second class grammar school. The whole system became a nonsense.

In the 70s when Labour came to power again they could see the system was failing children and furthermore, believed that the grammar school was elitist. This led to the whole system being scrapped and replaced by the comprehensive system. This was the socialist ideal. Everyone was educationally the same, should have the same opportunities and no one would be left behind. Unfortunately, whilst the sentiments may be laudable in reality it was unworkable. Different levels of ability go with life, that's the way we are. Once again, most of the teaching staff of these schools came from the grammar school tradition and were not sympathetic to the comprehensive idea. Streaming, which was supposed to be abolished in comprehensive schools came back in various disguised forms.

Governments struggled on with comprehensive schools and successive ministers of education fiddled with the organisation and curriculum to try and improve it. Then in the 90s a Labour government once again, decided that the system needed improving and in 2000 introduced a new idea called the academy or free school. This was supposed to allow schools more freedom to do and teach what they liked. They are controlled by governors and they are funded directly by the central government and not local government which was deemed to be too interfering. This was, however, a voluntary system and anyone or group could start a school and get government funding.

However, every new minister for education, and they change every time there is a government reshuffle, tries to put his or her mark on the system and so comes up with new ideas and things to changes. The poor teachers don't know whether they are coming or going. This is one of the main causes of educational decline, teacher moral is low. Way back at the beginning of the last century teachers were promised their own governing body as have nurses, doctors, lawyers etc., but successive governments have refused to honour the promise. Politicians feel this would give the profession too much power and that worries them. Finally, the countries that do so well and come at the top of the league tables are countries that don't have the safety net of unemployment benefit if you fail to get a job. Hence, their parents push their children to extremes. Interviews with the children produce evidence that they work up to 14 hours a day. They do extra lessons and homework till well on into the night then get up early to do more before heading off to school in the morning. Do we want our children to work that hard? Children need a minimum of 8 hours sleep and these far eastern kids don't get it. All work and no play does make Jack a dull boy and these countries are storing up trouble for the future. So let's calm down about league tables and stop politicians continually interfering with education and we'll get on fine.