The evidence paints a worrying picture of sliding educational performance. A study of 15-year-olds in 57 countries by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development shows that UK secondary schools have dropped down the international league table (known as the Pisa rankings). The relative performance of UK students in reading, maths and science has declined. Seven years ago, the UK was eighth in maths and seventh in reading. Now we are 24th in maths and 17th in reading. In science we have fallen from fourth to 12th. And there seem to be problems among younger children too. According to another credible international study released last month by Boston College in the United States, the reading performance of 10-year-old children in England has fallen from third to 19th in five years.
How can we square this depressing news with the Government's optimistic pronouncements? Ministers point to the soaring GCSE and A-level pass rate as evidence of success at secondary schools. And they herald the rising numbers of pupils attaining centrally-set literacy standards at primary school. So what is the truth about our schools? Are they getting better or worse? It would be wrong to attach too much weight to these surveys. International learning comparisons can never be an exact science. Tests can play to the strengths of a certain country's system. But they are still the best tool we have. And ministers cannot easily brush off these studies. Tony Blair used the UK's good performance in the Pisa assessments in 2000 to praise our education system. Ministers did the same when the UK did well in the Boston survey's literacy report five years ago. They have an obligation to take seriously their less comfortable findings now.
The truth is that the education garden is nothing like as rosy as ministers are prepared to admit. Take the improvement in exam results. There seems to have been considerable grade inflation in public examinations, particularly at GCSE level. Whether this is down to more generous marking by examiners or more "teaching to the test" is a moot point. But it is now pretty clear that the rise in the pass rate does not reflect the steady increase in educational achievement that it ought to. Ministers are justified in pointing to some real improvements in primary school literacy rates. But this does not seem to be enough to keep up with other developed countries; something we can ill-afford in an increasingly competitive global market for skills.
What these surveys also demonstrate is that there are wide disparities in student performance within countries. And this is certainly true in the UK. Our best schools, both primary and secondary, are world class. But we are tolerating too many failing institutions. And those are bringing our international ranking down.
There is no simple solution to these problems. Funding alone is not enough. Spending on education has risen substantially over the past six years, but without a corresponding improvement in performance (although this is a trend mirrored in most other developed countries). The managerial techniques of targets and constant testing favoured under Mr Blair have not delivered the improvement we need either.
The most sensible way forward is an emphasis on best teaching practice and more flexible structures. There are some encouraging signs. Primary schools have been persuaded to return to the "phonics" method of teaching reading. The Government has also begun to give secondary schools and heads more control over their own affairs, which should help them to improve. But the underlying and inescapable message from these reports is that complacency about the state of our education system would be completely inappropriate.