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Chris McGovern: Our school leavers do no better than their parents despite vast increases in classroom cash


The late and much lamented Ronnie Corbett might have described standards of literacy and numeracy in our schools today as the strongest in the developed world. On international league tables, after all, we are holding up the rest of the developed nations. Sometimes, only humour will suffice to deal with stark reality.

The latest depressing report is the OECD’s “Building Skills for All: A Review of England”. It compares basic levels of literacy and numeracy amongst 16 to 65 year-olds in England with the same age group in other developed countries.

It estimated that 9 million adults in England have low basic skills. This is not quite as bad as it may seem since older workers are, more or less, equivalently skilled to those in other countries. The bad news is attached to the basic skills of the more recent products of our education system:

“While overall, the performance of England is not much behind many other countries, England’s young people lag much further behind their counterparts in other countries….”

Alarmingly, it is our 16 to 19 year-olds that do least well. Compared with high performing countries, we have three times as many low-skilled young people. Only in England and the USA has the OECD detected little difference in the basic skills level of 16-24 year-olds and 55-65 year-olds. In other words, after a 900 per cent real terms increase in educational spending since the 1950s in England, we have, at best, stood still in terms of the standard of literacy and numeracy attained by school leavers. The report notes:

“In most countries, but not in England, younger people have stronger basic skills than the generation of people approaching retirement”.

The report warns that we could fall even further behind in years to come.

Is it ‘curtains’, then, for our education system? Is there any prospect of recovery for a school system that appears to be on life support?

The problem facing our country (ditto, the rest of the UK) is not simply to improve standards but to do so at a faster rate than our economic competitors. Quite a challenge for an ‘also ran’ in the educational stakes.

The good news is that the Government is more aware of the problem than was once the case. It has attempted to insert some rigour into both the National Curriculum and the SATs tests. We have, also, been promised tougher GCSEs and A-Levels alongside worthwhile apprenticeships and vocational training. So far, so good, then!

The bad news is that, in terms of an under-performing school system, effective remedies take years, even decades, to have a real impact. It takes a child 15 years to pass through the school system from nursery to school leaver. Add on post-18 education and ‘on-the-job’ training and we soon clock up a couple of decades. By 2036 we might be able to evaluate the impact of current educational reforms. It may take longer.

And just suppose that the education reforms being made today turn out to be no more than ‘sticking plaster’ backed up by government rhetoric. We were, after all, promised something similar back in the 1970s and 1980s as we moved towards the ‘promised land’ of all-ability schools and all-ability exams and an all-ability curriculum.

As Ronnie Corbett might have said: “20 years or 30 years? It is along time to wait in order to find out you made some wrong decisions!”

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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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