Election fever is in the air and education is currently taking centre stage. Secretary of State, Nicky Morgan, kicked off by telling The Sunday Times that she wants a “war on illiteracy and innumeracy”. Tough talking at last and, doubtless pour encourager les autres, she has warned that primary school head teachers may be replaced if they fail to ensure that every 11 year-old knows their times table off by heart.
Nicky’s ambitions for arithmetic are, if anything, surpassed by the attainment she is demanding pupils reach in English. The Sunday Times reports that, “this weekend, Morgan sets a new target for England’s schools to be the best in Europe for English”. Aside from the Welsh, the Scots, the Irish and the Channel Islanders, I wonder which countries Nicky sees as our main competitors in this area – Scandinavians certainly, Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium probably, the east Europeans possibly, but presumably not the French or the Greeks?
As far as I know, Europe’s top educational performers rather take it for granted that their pupils will speak their national language rather better than non-native speakers.That this is not, necessarily, the case here is a sad and rarely admitted truth.
Now, the Prime Minister has stepped into the debate by proclaiming his backing for the Education Secretary: “We’re waging an all-out war on mediocrity.” He has declared that schools rated by Ofsted as “requiring improvement” face being forced into new leadership. This translates into 19 per cent of primary and 29 per cent of secondary schools. By “new leadership” Mr Cameron is indicating conversion to ‘academy’ status, free of local authority control. He is less clear about what will happen to current academies that are ‘below-par’ but, presumably, control will transfer to more successful academy chains.
In many ways, of course, all of this is good news. Both the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Education are pledging themselves to the cause of raising educational standards. However, we need to be asking ourselves, as a nation, how on earth have we got into a situation where many of our schools appear to be on ‘life support’? As the comedian might say: “If you want to improve your schools, I would not start from here.”
Over the past three decades we have seen a host of initiatives to raise educational standards. We started with new GCSE 16+ exams and followed this with a National Curriculum and National Tests (SATs). Both of these have, subsequently, been revised several times. We have had new teaching methodologies imposed on teachers and an explosion in the use of computers and other related forms of information technology. ‘Personalised learning’ has pushed out much tried and tested ‘whole class’ teaching. In addition, money has been poured into schools at an unparalleled rate. All of this has been accompanied by a revolution in the structure of schools, with academies and free schools breaking the monopoly of local authorities. Teacher training has been overhauled and politicians persistently tell us that we have the “best generation of teachers ever ”.
After of all of this change, reformation and transformation in our schools, we now have the Secretary of State telling us that children need to learn their times tables and the Prime Minister declaring war on “mediocrity”.
The ‘slow learning’ curve of successive governments in relation to education has proved expensive for the younger generation. Uniquely amongst developed countries, according to the OECD, our youngsters lag behind their grandparents in terms of basic numeracy and literacy. The best that can be said for the latest utterances is that possibly, just possibly, a little more honesty is creeping into the debate…but don’t hold your breath.