Editor-At-Large: Illiterate school kids? It's the politicians who get the F-grade

Janet Street-Porter
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The Independent Online

As predictable as August bank holiday traffic jams, weather forecasts of heavy rain, and the news that one in three men will soon be clinically obese, are the headlines announcing a rise in GCSE passes. Fan-bloody-tastic! Another bumper year for school leavers it seems, who can feel proud that they've racked up bucket-loads of supersonically brilliant exam results. Everyone can pat themselves on the back - we are told that boys are doing better, the government can breathe a sigh of relief there have been no marking scandals, and teachers can feel proud of their achievements.

Weird then, that about half of our young people are leaving school virtually unemployable. How can they be passing exams, but not really be fit for anything useful that would justify a minimum-wage pay packet? The simple reason is the word "choice". The moment the government decided to make modern languages optional, kids stopped learning them - hence the disastrous decline in the number of people studying French, German and Spanish. Now teenagers learn rubbish like home economics, drama, business and communication systems (whatever that is). We are so politically correct that no one really fails any more - they just get an F or G grade.

The hot subjects that have really become popular are statistics and media, film and TV studies - doesn't that just tell you how secondary education these days is geared to being enjoyable and "fun" rather than useful and focused. I would never employ anyone with any qualifications in media studies: they are useless. The moment you give someone aged 14 a choice, they'll generally opt for the easy way out - and who can blame them.

Employers say that school-leavers must have achieved a grade C in English and maths at GCSE level to be employable - around half managed that in maths and only 60 per cent in English. So our education system is a total failure for almost half of it's customers, no matter how many brainy kids are getting A grades. The gap between the achievers and the dullards is increasing, not decreasing.

My old grammar school, Lady Margaret, in Fulham, west London, is now a highly regarded comprehensive, one of the 15 best in the country when it comes to getting results. It has a strict uniform policy and loads of rules. The girls who attend it are under no illusions why they are at school - it is to learn the stuff they need to get good jobs and have careers. I happily studied Spanish, French, Latin, English and maths; there wasn't any choice. School was about passing exams, full stop. Self-expression was something you did in the time left over after getting on with the basics.

Young people are not like a work in progress - there for succeeding generations of political theorists to try out different concepts on - they have the same basic needs in 2006 as when I attended Lady Margaret all those decades ago. English and maths are essential skills for life. Languages are fundamental to operating in modern society. But, somehow, we rate a pass in media studies or the ability to iron a pinny just as highly. Primary schools are still not reaching the designated standards in English and maths, and the rot continues throughout secondary education. The sooner a second language is taught at eight, the better.

Both Tony Blair and David Cameron have made plenty of speeches about disaffected youth. But if you can't read and write and add up by 14, then you really have no future. And at the moment, whichever way you look at it, we are failing almost half of all our school-leavers. I don't blame them for one minute. I blame politicians who are too feeble to bring in a tough, no-choice, no-messing core syllabus. They can invent new exams, call them what they like, but until all youngsters master the basics, we have failed.

Why I'm happy to chomp on veal

According to The Daily Telegraph, I have altered the nation's eating habits. As a result of a report I filmed for Gordon Ramsay's The F Word television series, sales of veal have risen a whopping 45 per cent! All I did was point out that veal calves are a natural by-product of the dairy industry, and that at present many are being slaughtered for pet food, or will be exported to the Continent, because the British public don't eat veal for all sort of reasons, mostly just plain ignorance. Our "Rose" veal tastes delicious, and the animals live a normal free-range life - and are slaughtered when slightly older than spring lamb.

Whilst making the film I was depressed to discover just how incredibly stupid most people are about what they eat. They whinge on about "cruelty" and yet seem oblivious to the fact that farmers have to rear cattle under incredibly strict guidelines. The days of veal calves in crates have long since gone. And if we drink milk and eat cheese, what do we think will happen to the male calves produced by a dairy herd? Surely you'd rather eat a delicious veal chop than condemn an animal to a journey over the Channel?

Right as rain: A weather presenter finally tells it like it is

Bank holidays mean a plethora of weather forecasts, and BBC radio seems to specialise in really irritating young women who deliver their pretty meaningless reports in a sing-song monologue, rendering the information virtually incomprehensible. Why can't these so-called experts ever be honest? So three cheers for weather presenter Joanne Malin, who managed to tell Central TV's viewers "it's pissing down" the other night when she was caught in a downpour during a live report and her script disintegrated.

It's a shambles: Pete seems to have the parents from hell

It is possible to feel sorry for Pete Doherty - he seems to have the parents from hell. Doherty 'mère' has cashed in on her errant son's success by writing a tome entitled 'Pete Doherty: My Prodigal Son', which is being published in a couple of weeks and has just been serialised in 'The Times', of all places. Doherty's father was in the Army for 30 years and reached the rank of Major. Judging from 'The Times', he spouts pedestrian drivel, suggesting that "Pete's greatest misfortune was to become famous". Hmmm. They're hardly shunning fame themselves.

Cash flash: Green Gwyneth gets caught with the surf up

Poor Gwyneth Paltrow - she just can't win. No polluting jet planes for the environmentally aware Martin family; they have chosen to take a holiday in Cornwall. Gwyneth pops on an unflattering wetsuit and bravely goes for a surfing lesson, only to get "papped" by a passing swimmer who just happened to have a digital camera handy and who then sells the pictures to the national press. Sometimes there's a lot to be said for crossing the world and hiking along a deserted beach.

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