Poor results of an elite system

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The Independent Online
BRITISH education has two silly seasons, both occurring when sensible people are on holiday. One is at Easter when the teachers' unions, at their annual conferences, scandalise the country with threats of strikes, go-slows and work-to-rules, almost none of which come to pass. The other is in late August, when GCSE and A-level results are announced. News sections suddenly look like the sports pages, displaying league tables in which, to nobody's surprise, selective and fee-paying schools are near the top. Well-groomed prodigies, who have achieved A grades in 10 subjects, are held up for admiration. The success of opted-out schools gives ministers an opportunity to witter on about the merits of parental choice. Thus we see, once more, the central weakness of British education: its obsession with elite achievement, not with the performance of the mass of average and below-average pupils.

We are less elitist than we were. Nearly one in three young people goes to university, against one in eight a decade ago. More than 40 per cent achieve five or more grades A to C at GCSE, against less than 25 per cent who used to get the equivalent five O-level passes. The numbers getting high A-level grades have also increased consistently. But old British habits die hard. When A-level results improve, examiners are accused of lowering standards. Public schools complain that their candidates are not being stretched and demand a "super" A grade. Meanwhile, the majority of the 262,000 students who registered to take a new vocational qualification have disappeared into an educational Bermuda triangle: only 62,000 are recorded as qualifying and only 41,000 as still taking courses. But few care whether these young people succeed or fail. Nobody compiles league tables about their results. They belong on the scrap-heap to which British schools, by long tradition, consign the majority of their charges.

And this is the trouble with the British attitude to education. The nation cannot rid itself of the idea that achievement must follow what statisticians call a "bell curve": a small minority do very well, a larger number just about scrape through, another large group just misses out and, at the other end of the curve (so called because it is shaped like a bell), lie the no-hopers. This, in the British mind, is part of the proper order of things: a rise in the numbers getting top grades constitutes an offence against nature.

But that is not how most of our overseas competitors see it, and particularly not how South-east Asia sees it. As David Reynolds, Professor of Education at Newcastle University, explains in the latest issue of Demos Quarterly, schools in such countries as Japan, Taiwan and South Korea dedicate their efforts to ensuring that all children achieve certain defined goals. "One can see entire classes," writes Professor Reynolds, "waiting for the last child in the class to work out how to do some problems before the whole class moves on." Such reports are greeted with incredulity among British teachers, as are reports of class sizes in these countries. They should reflect on what they might achieve if they were given a few simple goals and freed from the paraphernalia of examination, assessment and inspection to say nothing of edicts about anti-racism, child abuse, drugs and all the other social ills that schools are expected to cure.

The message from international comparisons is clear and consistent. The top British pupils - the ones you saw last week delightedly clutching news of three or four A-level A grades - are as good as any in the world. They achieve standards at 18, albeit in a very narrow range of subjects, that many of their overseas peers do not achieve until they have been at university for one or two years. But the gap between the best and the worst is much greater in Britain than almost anywhere else. On maths and science tests, children in South Korea, Japan and Taiwan achieve an average score three or four years ahead of our own pupils.

Britain will achieve neither social stability nor consistent economic success until it makes a better fist of educating what schoolteachers used to call the tail. We should not begrudge the glittering prizes and public acclaim that have gone to our brightest young people over the past 10 days. But the fate of those 160,000 who disappeared from vocational courses matters far more than whether Eton or Westminster tops the A-level results table.