British Education – dumbing down or smartening up?

John Parsons

Growing up in the post war period; educational expectations were limited for the majority of people.

The most coveted education was to obtain one of the very few Grammar School places by taking the 11+ exam. Future social mobility was almost guaranteed if you gained a place.  It led to a university place or training for a profession such as law or teaching.  This was unless your parents were sufficiently wealthy to afford a place at an independent, or so called ‘Public School’, in which case access to such social mobility was probably not necessary.

All other children were placed in less academic secondary modern schools or sometimes technical schools if they had a particular aptitude for this.  Only a handful of these pupils went to university, they took lower level exams called CSE’s as opposed to ‘O’ levels taken at grammar schools.  The majority went into industry, trade or construction.  The more able took apprenticeships to become skilled artisans.

It was essentially an elitist system, not perfect, but such selection recognised intellectual ability early on and gave those with ability the opportunity to advance in society.

In many ways grammar schools were more academic than independent schools as they relied on merit rather than money. It was an aspirational approach but meant of course that children were labelled intellectually from a young age.

George Orwell’s quote in the 1950s: ‘all animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others’ encapsulates the concept.

Socialist governments in the late 1950s-early 60s felt that this elitist approach was no longer either desirable or appropriate for the 20th century and probably wasted talent by early exclusion from advancement.

The Comprehensive School was born and it is all in the name.  It was expected that everyone would have the opportunity to shine in this brave new system.

The problem was that there was no consistent approach to introducing these schools across the country. The process was fragmented and many of the schools were so large that the management of them initially was by trial and error-often error. A catch-all examination; GCSE at the end of secondary education was introduced.  This was supposed to be an amalgamation of CSE’s and ‘O’ levels, but never had the cachet of ‘O’ levels with employers.  The early comprehensive schools were problematic.

Over time comprehensives have improved as systems to lead and manage such large organisations have been developed.   They have become co-educational instead of single sex.  Some have established a real identity and focus and do a good job.

However, instead of the raising overall standards of the majority, which was the original aim, too often these schools chugged along in mediocrity.  This was mentioned recently by David Cameron.   Really gifted and talented student are too often allowed to drift through their education without achieving their full potential.

The educational system has always been a political imperative.  Remember Tony Blair in the early days of Labour rule saying that their manifesto was ‘Education, Education, Education’.  This has always been the case; successive governments have tinkered with the system for the last half century or more.

That is not to say that it has been all bad.  When I started teaching the only compulsory subject in primary schools was Religious Education!

The introduction of the National Curriculum was a good idea if rather restrictive and aimed at raising standards of the majority.  It had little thought for those children who had particular talents or gifts.  It also meant that teaching became a bit ‘samey’.

The individualism and eccentricities that enriched the tapestry of school life in the past were squashed.  However, it did mean that some schools that completely ignored the teaching of basic skills had to fall in line.   Gradually this curriculum has been refined and improved.  Gifted and talented children and those with special educational needs have been better recognised.  The curriculum now works well; it is constantly being modified and is much more flexible.

The introduction of OFSTED was another good idea.  Prior to its introduction the average period between inspections by Her Majesty’s Inspectors was about twenty years!   Although initially not popular with teachers regular inspection has improved the quality of teaching and learning significantly and is now a recognised part of the structure of education.

The concept of reinventing failing schools by renaming them is another success.   The reorganisation, often putting a ‘Super Head’ in charge, improving staffing and facilities seems to make a very positive impact on raising standards.

At the other end of the spectrum the most important recent initiative is emphasis on developing the Foundation Stage, for children under 5.  At last the realisation that the key to a really good education is to give children a strong start in life.

The snag is that political imperatives only last for the lifetime of a Government, five or ten years, not really long enough for initiatives to really bear fruit before they are tinkered with by an incoming government.

This is why independent schools fare so well.  They can cherry pick the best of the initiatives (paid for by the state) without having to change established, successful systems.

Immigration has made a major impact on education. It is now established that England is the most densely populated country in Europe due to recent immigration policies.

In the post war period many of the immigrants to the UK were from former colonies so often had English as one of the languages spoken.  In more recent years this has changed and many arrive with little or no English.  The combination of this and the clustering of immigration in cities such as London and Birmingham have put significant pressure on schools there.

From my experience these schools often do a remarkable job, but nevertheless when the majority of children in a school (sometimes more than 90%) do not speak English this poses difficulties both from a teaching and progress point of view.  Strangely enough it appears that it is often white children from working class back grounds who often achieve less well. Children from immigrant backgrounds often do well once the language barrier is overcome.

The most radical shake up in the last two or so decades have been the opening up of university education.  Of course this was another political imperative.   Britain has a declining status in the world.  It is no longer a colonial power and has little in the way of material resources.

Britain’s main resource now is its people; high technology and intellectual property.  The need to have a highly trained, skilled workforce is seen as essential for the long term future of the country.

Consequently, successive governments have allowed every available tertiary establishment to turn into a university offering a bewildering number of courses and degrees. Inevitably this has meant that the intellectual level of the ‘gold standard’ A level examinations has had to be reduced to enable more students to gain access to a university place.

There are still some excellent long established universities that offer very effective and meaningful degrees which lead to well paid and fulfilling careers.  Their requirements for entry are just as rigorous as ever.  However, it is the independent schools that provide much of the intake since the decline of the nationwide grammar school system.

Many of the newer universities offer degrees that lack rigour and any real relevance to students.  This blights future prospects for a meaningful career and earning power.  The introduction of ever higher fees means that we are moving closer to the American model.

The expectation is that this level of education is now the responsibility of the individual and not the State.  So many young people are taking a university degree almost as of right.  This is especially so with the lower entry standards now required.  The result is that the whole cost of universal tertiary education has become unaffordable for the taxpayer. Hence the recent riots about increasing fees.

So it is a mixed bag.  There have been really significant developments, some good, but there are now too many graduates with mediocre degrees.  It is these who find it difficult to get work or are employed in jobs which do not use their skills to the full or relate to their expectations.

Over the past half century there has been considerable progress in the development of education and we know much more about how children and young people learn.  Certainly overall literacy and numeracy levels are higher than in the past.  Expectations of young people are greater in a society which is ever more complex.  This technological age has imposed increasing requirements on the individual. Education responds to these requirements but it is inevitably below the curve, especially as the rate of progress increases.

Despite OFSTED indicating that a third of schools are failing,   I am optimistic that the drive for improvement is strong.   Education is smartening up in terms of technological innovation and is slowly adjusting to the needs of society. There are still too many ‘soft’ degree courses, that are no doubt great fun for the participants, but do not prepare students for the world of work.

The Government needs to review all the offerings of universities and incentivise them to provide really relevant courses to individual and society’s needs.  It also needs to make sure, through appropriate support to companies, that students can find jobs when they leave university.  Otherwise we face the grim prospect of a lost generation in these straightened times.

John Parsons is a guest contributor at Facilitate Global.  John spent most of his working life teaching overseas, leading as Principal of the international school formerly the British School New Hebrides, Headmaster of the British – Dutch Section of a Saudi Arabian International Schools (also known as Jeddah Preparatory School), Director of a teachers’ centre in Wokingham and latterly as Inspector and School Improvement Partner. John was part of an OFSTED’s School improvement Team, specialising in improving leadership and management in schools. Facilitate Global is most grateful to John for contributing his knowledge and experience of Education.

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