Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, has announced that a taskforce of 1500 SAS-style elite teachers are to be recruited and parachuted into weak schools. In addition, she has set schools the target of raising from 39 per cent to 90 per cent the percentage of pupils taking the so-called English baccalaureate of five core academic subjects. Meanwhile, a return to externally marked tests at the end of Key Stage 1 (age 7) is on the agenda.
The Secretary of State seems to be putting the education service on a war footing. Her predecessor, Michael Gove, had already created an atmosphere of confrontation between government and teachers; not least over his decision to ‘beef up’ both the national curriculum and public exams. Nicky Morgan’s new initiative has heightened the tension.
Is the truth about educational attainment in this country finally beginning to hit home with our politicians? Certainly, beneath the usual veneer of self-congratulation, a rising sense of panic appears to be hitting the Department for Education. It is not clear what may have finally tipped the balance in favour of some bold action. Last week’s revelation that 78 per cent of white working class boys from deprived backgrounds are effectively unemployable when they leave school only added to existing concerns.
A most interesting statement by the Education Secretary in her announcement referred to the debasement of public exams between the years 2000 and 2010:
“Teenagers got more certificates, and school results seemed to improve. But the qualifications weren’t credible in the jobs market – they weren’t real. They were, to be frank, a fraud on the young people taking them.”
Disingenuously, she is referring only to the Labour government’s failings in education policy from 2000 to 2010 and only to vocational exams. She rightly describes many of these as being “pseudo qualifications, which claimed to be equivalent to academic qualifications.” She could, equally, however, be describing the ‘academic’ GCSE examination brought in under a Conservative government in the late 1980s. It is a shining example of dumbed down standards and grade inflation.
As teachers we are forever telling children about the importance of honesty. Had I taught Nicky Morgan I would, now, be disappointed by her propensity to allow political point scoring to get in the way of telling the whole truth. Children deserve better. The whole truth is, of course, that we are now paying the price for the dumbing down of educational standards for at least 25 years.
Alarmingly, a survey just published by the National Literacy Trust reported that 52 per cent of teachers admit that they lack the ability to improve pupils’ literacy. Since such an admission is embarrassing for teachers to make, the real extent of ignorance is likely to be somewhat higher.
In order to raise standards we need competent and confident teachers. Many teachers who have been educated over the past quarter of a century have huge gaps in their knowledge. Ignorance of English grammar is but the tip of an iceberg. That most teachers today were subjected to a sub-standard national curriculum and a dumbed-down public examination, both of which have now been confined to the dustbin, is hardly their fault.
The inability of many teachers to teach confidently, even at the mediocre level required by the recent curriculum reforms, is the real challenge facing the Education Secretary. She has started to recognise the problem of under-achievement in many of our schools. If she is to find a solution, she needs to ‘come clean’ about the causes.