We are doing better, but not as quickly as our main rivals

Click to follow

International comparisons are notoriously difficult to make and disgruntled governments are always quick to protest when the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development produces one of its reports. The statistics are highly sensitive and governments may ask to have figures in any table withdrawn if they believe they are unfair.

Yet the thrust of the OECD's arguments and statistics about our lack of success in achieving a basic level of secondary education for all our pupils rings true. For years, Britain has done well in educating its above-average young people, and neglected the bottom of the heap. David Blunkett, with the possible exception of one of his Conservative predecessors, Sir Keith Joseph, is the first Secretary of State for Education to acknowledge the challenge.

This year, for the first time, the OECD has worked out how to compare the achievements of pupils in different countries at 16, and the picture for Britain is not flattering. As OECD officials chillingly point out, the statistics probably exaggerate our success. They assume, certainly, that the GCSE is as demanding an examination as its German and French equivalents. The OECD has chosen to use five good GCSEs (grades A through C) as its benchmark of achievement in this country because the success of pupils in the job market who score below a C grade is so limited.

Part of the problem is that we are peculiar in offering pupils a school-leaving examination at the age of 16. The GCSE is fast becoming an anomaly in an era when many countries assume their pupils will stay in education until they are 18. No other European country has a comparable exam.

As more and more people enter higher education, the contrast between the bright new generation of graduates and the unemployed, barely qualified school leavers is marked.

Ministers are right to claim they are working hard to improve education. Class sizes for infants are down. University numbers are up. More spending is promised. But are we moving fast enough when the pupil/teacher ratio is so much worse than that of so many of our competitors? The most salutary aspect of the report is the reminder that, though we are moving forward, others may be moving faster.