Leading article: The lesson is clear: there is no room for complacency

Share

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Clinical Lead / RGN

£40000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: IT Sales Consultant

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT support company has a n...

Recruitment Genius: Works Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A works engineer is required in a progressive ...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Hire Manager - Tool Hire

£21000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client is seeking someone w...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

I don't blame parents who move to get their child into a good school

Chris Blackhurst
William Hague, addresses delegates at the Conservative party conference for the last time in his political career in Birmingham  

It’s only natural for politicians like William Hague to end up as journalists

Simon Kelner
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent