It’s grim up north! That, at least, is the conclusion reached by Ofsted chief, Sir Michael Wilshaw, in his latest annual report on education standards. In 16 local authorities fewer than 60 per cent of secondary schools are rated “good” or “outstanding”. Eleven of these authorities are in the north. Two others, Derbyshire and Stoke-on-Trent, are in the north midlands.
‘This gap is a worrying one,” observed Sir Michael. “We don’t want to see a divided country after the age of 11.” Any prospect of a ‘northern powerhouse’ will have to be put on hold, it seems, until we can generate an educated workforce. In the meantime, heaven help us all, north and south and midlands, if the current supply of educated immigrant workers ever dries us.
In truth, though, the more worrying divide is not north-south, but east-west. Rather than Bradford, Birmingham, Bromley and Bournemouth, it is more Singapore, Vietnam, Poland and Britain.
Schools in the south of England may, on average, be doing better than schools in the north but things look less than rosy for all of our schools once we look eastwards. According to the OECD, not only are some of our European neighbours doing a lot better than us, pupils in parts of the Asia-Pacific are up to three years ahead by the age of 15. Worse, a separate OECD report indicates that we are the only country among 24 developed states surveyed, in which 55-65 year-olds outperform the 16-24 year-olds. We come 22nd for literacy and 21st for numeracy – below Estonia, Poland and Slovakia. Not much of a return on the 900 per cent increase in spending in real terms since the 1950s!
Sadly, we have, in relation to other countries, gone backwards in recent decades. Today’s grandparents are at the top end of attainment internationally for their age group in terms of literacy and numeracy. Their grandchildren find themselves in mid-table mediocrity – more Millwall than Man U. Pointing this out should not be seen as a harking back to some mythical ‘golden age’ of education in the 1950s. Far from it! The post war English education system, for all its deficiencies, just happened to be more successful in international terms than the current system.
By focusing attention on a north-south divide in England the chief inspector is sidestepping the real and growing chasm that is developing internationally. That the quality of schooling in Blackpool and Bradford languishes behind Bromley and Bournemouth is rather less concerning than that attainment levels among even our highest performing pupils trail behind the lowest attainers in Shanghai.
If we wish to narrow this international divide we need to raise the quality of our teaching force. The persistent line from Government is that “we have the best generation of teachers ever in our classrooms”. Last month’s survey by the National Literacy Trust told a rather different story. A majority of teachers confessed to not feeling competent to teach the National Curriculum grammar, spelling and punctuation required of Key Stage 2 children (age 7 to 11).
I mentioned this particular example of teaching quality at a debate I spoke in a few days ago at King’s College, Cambridge. A leading figure from the “Teach First” programme responded. She stated it was of no real importance whether or not a teacher knew how correctly to use certain punctuation marks and she was sure that many of her student audience would have the same problem. This, apparently, is no impediment to being a good teacher. “Teach First” is an excellent initiative but I wonder if expectations are high enough, both at “Teach First” itself and among those at school who are charged with continuing the training.
A likely consequence of sloppy teacher training is sloppy teaching. If we are effectively to address the educational divide identified by the chief inspector, we need to recognise that the widest gap of all is international rather than national. In addition, and as a matter of urgency, we need to stop kidding ourselves about the quality of our teacher training and of many teachers.