Monday, April 15, 2024
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Chris McGovern: If our schools are so wonderful, why are we thrashed by Poland and Estonia?


According to Ofsted, schools in England are getting better and better. Almost nine in ten (89 per cent) are now either “good” or “outstanding”. This progress in our education system is surpassed only by the spectacular improvement in public examination results in recent decades.

The recently published triennial OECD PISA ranking of educational attainment (2015) for 15-year-olds, however, tells a different story. It reveals how our ‘success’ story translates into educational performance in an international context. Looked at from this global perspective, it turns out that, in reality, our “good” or “outstanding” means nothing of the sort.

If the OECD were to use Ofsted terminology, the UK would, at best, fall into the category of “requires improvement” for its attainment in science. We may have risen to 15th position from 21st in 2012 but our attainment score in the subject actually fell by two points. More or less, in terms of our international ranking in science, we are back to where we were in 2009 when we came 16th. In other words, we have been treading water.

Our performance in literacy and mathematics causes rather more concern and would probably qualify us to be placed in “special measures”. Our attainment in literacy is stagnating in a lowly 22nd place while in maths our 27th position takes us to a new low. We trail the likes of Estonia and Poland by some distance. Indeed, Estonia sits comfortably in the top 10 for all three of the subject areas tested.

Ofsted’s boss, Sir Michael Wilshaw, has tried to put a gloss on his own performance by claiming that the rest of the UK has dragged down his ‘patch’, England. He is correct to point out that Scotland’s trendy new “Curriculum for Excellence” is leading to a freefall in standards and that Welsh education is even more of a basket case. In terms of the UK’s position on the PISA tests, however, it has made little difference.

Ofsted’s self-delusion, alone, with the regard to the quality of the schools it inspects would reinforce the case for England, as well as the rest of the UK, being placed in “special measures’.

True, England’s new National Curriculum is of higher quality than the pretentious, cross-curricula, theme-based and knowledge-lite ‘tosh’ masquerading as curriculum reform in Scotland, in Wales and, even, in Northern Ireland. Indeed, we can expect to see the current gap in attainment between England and Scotland/Wales, widening. Northern Ireland, with its grammar schools, has, for years, outperformed the rest of the UK at GCSE and A-Level but could do no more than match England on the PISA tests for maths and it fell behind in literacy and science. With its new dumbed-down curriculum and with its grammar school’s under sustained pressure within the Province, its educational prospects, too, are heading south.

The OECD’s education director, Andreas Schleicher, describes the UK’s PISA results as “flat in a changing world”. Our economy may be the world’s 5th largest but is over-dependent on skilled immigrants and an older generation of British workers, mostly educated before the ‘education rot’ set in. A previous OECD report pointed out that Britain is the only country in the developed world in which grandparents outperform their grandchildren in terms of the basic skills of literacy and numeracy.

Seventy years ago most Singaporeans were illiterate. Singapore now tops the global league tables for educational attainment, miles ahead of the UK and, for the foreseeable future, out of reach. Our educational establishment, the ‘Blob’, is in denial of its failure and regularly ‘rubbishes’ the PISA tests and similar reality checks. Many of today’s schoolchildren in Britain are going to pay a very high price for this blindness and for the educational delinquency of these so-called experts.

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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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