Christina Patterson: Not just unprepared for university, but for life

You don't need to be a 'tiger mother' to think most children are not being stretched enough

Share

They're usually blonde. They're usually these girls who whoop and leap for the cameras, blonde, and pretty, and thin. There must be some short, fat, spotty, and even male 18-year-olds who do so much better than they expected. Who do, in fact, so well that they behave as if they've won The X Factor, or the lottery. But usually it's girls, and blonde, pretty girls, who give us the message that A-level results are better than they've ever been before.

And they are. They always are. There were, last year, like the year before, and the year before, record numbers of A grades. Average scores have gone up by almost 25 per cent over 15 years. They're brilliant. They're amazing. They're just not, unfortunately, much of an indication of how much the people who took them have learnt.

You can, according to the Cambridge Assessment exam board, get the kind of results that make you whoop and leap, and still not know how to spell, or structure a sentence. You can, apparently, get the kind of results that make your parents proud, and still not know how to think. And because so many students can't spell, or think, universities are having to teach them. Sixty per cent of them are putting on extra courses to teach undergraduates what they should have learnt at school.

Perhaps it's not surprising that the man who's in charge of education in this country is a little bit worried. "I am increasingly concerned that current A-levels," said Michael Gove, in a letter to the exam regulator, "fall short of commanding the level of confidence we would want to see." It is, he said, "more important" that students start their degrees with "the right knowledge and skills" than that "ministers are able to influence the curriculum". He was, he said, going to hand control of the syllabus to exam boards and academic panels made up of senior dons. He hoped, he said, that the new A-levels would start in two years. He hoped, and so do I.

It's lovely, of course, to have so many pretty girls so happy to have done so well. But it isn't lovely that so many of them are struggling at university, and it isn't lovely that so many people with good GCSEs are having to be taught basic numeracy by employers shocked to find they can't add up. And it isn't lovely that this country is slipping down the world education league tables. In the last one, Britain had dropped to 25th place for reading, 28th for maths, and 16th for science. For the sixth biggest economy in the world, that doesn't sound all that good.

There are all kinds of reasons why standards have dropped. It would, for example, be quite strange for academic rigour in our schools to have increased at a time when academic rigour in our culture has shrunk. It would also be quite strange if schools that are judged on their performance in exam league tables didn't encourage their students into media studies or drama, rather than Mandarin or maths.

There were good reasons for widening the scope of subjects taught in schools, and giving more options to students who didn't look as though they were going to shine academically. It's surely better to leave school with a piece of paper saying you can do something than to leave with nothing at all. And there were good reasons for introducing league tables. If you want people to raise standards, you need them to show they have. But it does mean they're likely to focus less on learning, and more on results.

Whatever the intentions, the result has been that too many of our children aren't prepared for university, or life. The ones who are going to university aren't doing the subjects, like science or engineering, we need them to do if we don't want all our industries to go to China. The ones who aren't going to university aren't getting enough skills to do much at all. And if the ones who do go to university don't develop our industries, the ones who don't will be fighting for even fewer jobs.

"Children," said a man at a conference I went to last week, "aren't the problem. They are," he said, "very interested in anything that adults do. Teenagers," he said, "are desperate for direction. When they ask 'why should I do this?' you have two choices. Either walk out of the room, or tell them."

The conference was on "the manufacturing economy", and the man was a head of physics at a big South London comprehensive, called David Perks. They had, he said, managed to get 100 pupils to do A-level physics. There were, he said, equal numbers of girls and boys. Many of them, he said, were planning to go on and study engineering.

Educating children in a culture that doesn't seem to value academic achievement isn't easy. Nor is motivating them when, if they don't work, they won't starve. But you don't need to be a "tiger mother" to think that most of our children aren't being stretched enough. And, in an increasingly cut-throat global marketplace, it's our children who will suffer, not us.

Do we really believe the toffs who are running this country are brighter than the rest of us? Or that more money means a higher IQ? Do we really want state-educated pupils, who are 93 per cent of the population, to be let into the best educational institutions only through social engineering?

If we don't, we need to start believing that all our children can do better. And you don't help children do better by feeding them lies.

c.patterson@independent.co.uk; twitter.com/@queenchristina_

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Volunteer Trustee opportunities now available at The Society for Experimental Biology

Unpaid Voluntary Position : Reach Volunteering: Volunteer your expertise as Tr...

Early Years Educator

£68 - £73 per day + Competitive rates of pay based on experience: Randstad Edu...

Nursery Nurse

£69 - £73 per day + Competitive London rates of pay: Randstad Education Group:...

Primary KS1 NQTs required in Lambeth

£117 - £157 per day + Competitive London rates: Randstad Education Group: * Pr...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The victory of the NO campaign was confirmed at 6.08am on Friday morning  

Scottish referendum: Partisan fallout, Gordon Brown's comeback and Elizabeth, the Queen of unity

Jane Merrick
The central concept of Death Row Dinners is an interesting way  to make us think more about our food  

Out there: A death row diner, the other musicians taking a leaf out of U2's (i)book and rolling up my CV for a smoking hot job opportunity

Simmy Richman
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam