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Chris McGovern: The more ministers boast of success, the faster we slide down the global maths and science league table


The director of education of the OECD has been shining a light on the teaching of mathematics and science in our schools. The British curriculum, he has told the Global Education and Skills Forum in Dubai, is a “mile wide and an inch deep”.

He noted: “The typical problems that students encounter in maths in England are relatively simple mathematics, embedded in a…complex context.” In contrast, pupils’ knowledge and understanding of both maths and science in such countries as China is much deeper because “they really understand the subjects.”

There is nothing new about any of this, of course. A recent OECD report on educational attainment among developed countries placed us second from bottom in numeracy. While this was better than the bottom place we achieved in literacy, it was a clear indication that all is not well. The last set of the so-called PISA global league tables of pupil performance (2012) had us coming as ‘also-rans’ in 26thposition – well behind the likes of Vietnam, Poland and Estonia.

This dose of reality about school standards is not something that most of our political leaders have been keen for us to know about. Indeed, the conclusion to be drawn from their self-congratulatory pronouncements over the years is that everything is going very well.

In response to the latest revelation about mathematics, the DfE has issued this response:

“The quality of maths teaching is improving dramatically in this country.” DfE 14th March 2016

Four years ago it was much the same:

“The fact that we are attracting more, high-quality maths specialists into the classroom is excellent news and will help to raise attainment in maths in our schools.” DfE 14th August 2012, quoting “Lin Hinnigan, chief executive of the Teaching Agency.

A year earlier (2011) we had this from the chief executive of the Training and Development Agency for Schools:  “It is thrilling to see maths teaching enjoying such a renaissance. We are determined to capitalise on the increasing interest … to ensure future economic prosperity.”

And back in 2008 Jim Knight, the schools’ minister, announced:

“I want to congratulate schools and pupils for all their hard work. Over the last decade there has been sustained improvement at Key Stage 2. Compared to 1997, 101,000 more 11-year-olds are now achieving the target level for their age in English and 93,000 more in maths.” 

Nor should we forget Prime Minister Blair’s crowing, even further back in time (2005):

“The best ever GCSE and “A” level results and record numbers going on to apprenticeships and on to higher education…This is the difference the Labour Government makes.” 

Joseph Goebbels believed that“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” He, also, understood that “a lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the…. consequences of the lie.”

As employers struggle to recruit ‘home grown’ school leavers with the basic skills to meet the needs of our economy we are beginning to see the consequences of living in denial of the school attainment problem for so many years.

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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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