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Chris McGovern: Don’t blame lack of funding for learning problems. Blame feckless parents


Last year the OECD reported that 16- to 19-year-olds in England are bottom amongst developed countries for literacy and second bottom for numeracy. It also noted, ‘England has more university students with weak literacy and numeracy skills than most countries’. The publication makes grim reading. It provides an insight into what lies behind the façade of self-congratulation emanating from the educational establishment:

‘There are an estimated 9million working aged adults in England (more than a quarter of adults aged 16-65) with low literacy or numeracy skills or both . . . They might, for example, struggle to estimate how much petrol is left in the petrol tank from a sight of the gauge, or not be able fully to understand instructions on a bottle of aspirin.’

It was not always so:

‘ . . . adults approaching retirement age (55- to 65-year-olds) in England compare reasonably well with their counterparts in other countries, [but] younger people are lagging badly behind . . . Other things being equal (including migration) this means that in time the basic skills of the English labour force could fall further behind those of other countries. In many countries rising education attainment has driven better basic skills. But while in England many young people are more likely than their parents’ generation to continue to further and higher education, too many still have weak basic skills.’

Those who deny that our education system is failing have been wilfully ignoring such evidence for many years. Instead, they exude delusional self-confidence and self-congratulation. Although our educational spending per head exceeds most other countries, the only failings they will recognise are related to lack of funding.

These reactionary forces of the educational ‘Blob’ have been thrown another lifeline, a new excuse for failure. The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry has published a series of ‘expert’ opinions that helps explain our educational under-performance. Their ‘discovery’ relates to literacy and has been given the name Developmental Language Disorder.

This is described as a genetic defect affecting at least 860,000 children in the UK – 7.5 per cent – of whom around half are undiagnosed. Its symptoms include a limited vocabulary, difficulties in sentence construction, disorganised story-telling and an inability to follow simple instructions. It is separate from dyslexia, dyscalculia, attention deficit disorder, non-Asperger autism and other ‘conditions’ that may inhibit learning.

I do not wish in any way to belittle or downgrade the extent to which neurological conditions may inhibit learning. Nevertheless, it would defy rational thought and common sense to suppose that there can be anything new in such impediments to learning. Why do 55- to 65-year-olds in this country do so much better on international comparisons of literacy and numeracy than the 16- to 19-year-olds? Remarkably, compared with their grandparents, our younger generation have had around nine times as much money spent per head on their education!

And how do we explain away the damning statistic that the bottom 10 per cent in terms of social background in Shanghai out-performs our top 20 per cent on the international Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests for 15-year-olds?

There is a tendency in the UK to blame educational under-performance on lack of funding and on the increasing number of children who are identified as having special educational needs. This is a specious argument. Our relative decline internationally tells the true story.

I recall a visit I once made to a Year 1 class of five-year-olds in Brighton. I was shocked to find that several children could not speak. The teacher informed me that these infants were ‘plonked’ in front of a TV at home and rarely spoken to by their parents or guardians. I tried to visit their homes, but got no further than front gardens that were piled high with household rubbish including mattresses and carpets. I learned that there was also a problem of rat infestation.

A side of Britain today we wish to ignore? Yes. And, perhaps, a foretaste of what is to come, of what happens when welfare-addicted parents hand their children over to the state.

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Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. A retired head teacher with 35 years’ teaching experience, Chris is a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street under two Prime Ministers.

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