Richard Garner: An indictment of Labour, a challenge for the Coalition

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The Independent Online

The tale to emerge from yesterday's international study is almost an everyday story of UK education folk.

If you recall in September, the last major education publication from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development – its annual glance at world education statistics – showed the UK sliding down the international league table for graduates.

It wasn't that the UK was producing fewer or that people were leaving university with worse qualifications. Once again the UK wasn't improving as fast as its competitor nations.

The same is true of yesterday's study. Reading standards aren't plummeting and we're not going backwards in maths, no matter what some of the headlines might tell you.

It is, though, embarrassing for Labour that 13 years after Tony Blair's famous "education, education, education" mantra was propounded so magisterially, the country now has a lower international standing than it had a decade ago.

The truth is that a major leap forward in standards was made in Labour's first few years and from then on it became progressively more difficult to make further improvements.

John Bangs, the former head of education at the National Union of Teachers who is now visiting professor at London University's Institute of Education, has come up with an interesting take on why the UK is falling behind the others.

He believes Labour took its eye off the ball during Gordon Brown's premiership and that it should not have abandoned the national numeracy and literacy strategies that provided a blueprint for teaching the three Rs.

However, Mr Bangs also said he did not see the Coalition's White Paper on education as "a panacea".

Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, believes yesterday's report is a vindication of his Government's policies – showing that countries that focus on a proper balance between accountability through measures such as league tables and more autonomy for teachers are the ones to show most success.

It will be interesting to see whether his reforms do provide that balance. Some of his critics believe he is in danger of being as prescriptive as some of his predecessors with proposals such as his plan for a new compulsory national reading test for six-year-olds.