Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Things have got better – The Myth of a “Golden Age” of Education

It must really stick in the gullet of everyone who got their results recently to see the nonsense being put about over so-called “easy exams” and falling standards in education.

I think that this carping every August has gone on for too long. In recent years it seems to have become increasingly nasty and snobbish. It is also used as shorthand for an attack on comprehensive education by those who support academic selection and privilege.

Personally, I think that while there are still many problems to be overcome we have the best education system for the majority that we have ever had in this country.

An anonymous (naturally) commentator in this post claims “…GSC pass rate is an improbable 98.4%. Trying to suggest that this is the result of hardwork and excellent teaching is equally improbable. Most knowledgeable commentators working in education know this to be true. This is not to detract from the effort of many students but the sad fact is that the examinations have become a lot more predictable and therefore easier. Whereas 20 years ago in a modern history exam you had to study 200 years of history and could be asked questions across a wide you know that there will always be a question on the origin of the First world war etc - makes the revision easier to target and the result predictable".

Right, let’s take this statement apart. I went to a large secondary modern turned comprehensive (Elfed High School) and took my “O” levels, CSEs (now combined as GCSEs) and "A" levels in the early 1980s. Which were apparently some sort of long lost halcyon days of high exam standards?

What rubbish, there has always been a very high “pass” rate for O/CSE/GCSEs, that is if you consider a grade D and E to be a “pass”. Rightly or wrongly, most employers don’t. In my day it was very rare for anyone to get a fail (or “unclassified”) since if you were expected to do that badly then you were not entered or didn’t turn up. I expect this is still true today.

Don’t for one moment fool yourself that we didn’t spend at least the last 2 terms before our exams going through old exam papers. You could predict questions in the same way then as today. Take history, you always knew you would get some version of “was the American War of Independence inevitable” or “was the industrial revolution really a revolution”. My British Constitution teacher “guaranteed” everyone on the course, if they were not an idiot, turned up for class, did the home work and concentrated on the questions he thought would be on the paper – we would get at least a “C”. He was right.

The quality of teaching is nowadays is superior to the 1980s. That is not to say that there were not inspirational teachers at my school then, there were, but we now have a graduate teaching staff. Pay has also risen. Since 1997 we have 172,000 more teaching assistants, many of whom are now trained. Staff also now have ongoing professional training and assessments.
During the last 10 years under Labour funding for pupils has doubled, over 36,000 more teachers in England alone; 274,000 more support staff/teaching assistants; over 1,100 new schools and over 1,300 Sure Start children's centres. This has made a huge difference.

But to me the greatest improvement in education in this country is still comprehensive schools. That nowadays it is not the norm to write off working class kids and let them leave school at 16 with little or no qualifications. My high school was in a largely working class area. There was on one level still an unspoken expectation that the best you could get in school is to leave at 16 and get a “good” apprenticeship if you were a boy or a secretarial job is you were a girl. This was a hangover of the secondary modern days. I can remember career teachers droning on about apprenticeships at the local steelworks or textile factories. I was always completely useless and kack handed at either metal work or woodwork so from an early age I realized that I had to find an alternative. Very luckily I had supportive parents who didn’t expect me to leave school as soon as possible, find work and hand over my wages to them to help support the family. This is what happened to them at that age.

At 16 I was astonished at the number of pupils who I knew to be far cleverer than me who left school and did not go on to further education.

It’s topical at the moment to muse upon the selection by Barack Obama of Joe Biden as his vice presidential candidate. Joe’s own chance of standing for the Presidency in 1988 was scuppered when he supposedly plagiarized Neil Kinnock’s famous speech to the Welsh Labour Party conference in 1987

"Why am I the first Kinnock in a thousand generations to be able to get to university? Was it because our predecessors were thick? Does anybody really think that they didn't get what we had because they didn't have the talent or the strength or the endurance or the commitment?

While the talented miner’s son in the 1950s was able to use the Grammar School path to go to University, Neil would be the first to admit that he was one of the very lucky ones of his generation.

At the end of my primary school I had a pretty poor assessment and I am sure that I would have failed the 11 plus if there was still selection. If that had been the case I would not have been the first in my family to go to university.

The BBC has an excellent article by Mike Baker where he examines the results from a survey of 17,000 children born in 1958 that have been tracked ever since. This survey found that class sizes for these children were very large (37) and by age of 33 only 14% of males and 11% of females had obtained a degree. Graduates would earn on average £332,000 more over their lifetime than their peers who left school with no qualifications.

Nowadays the great majority of kids stay on at school until aged 18 and 40% go on to university.
Mike also reminds us that there was no such thing as a “golden age” of apprenticeships. Only 15% of those left school to take one up (nearly all male) and a third failed to complete. This generation also had poor basic skills. Aged 37, a sample tested revealed almost half had 'very poor' numeracy skills and 6% had difficulty with reading. So much for the CBI constantly moaning about the poor basic skills of the current generation of job seekers.

Okay, I fully accept that a relatively small number of our schools are failing their communities and a minority failing badly. Action does need to be taken. Despite being in a knowledge based economy, there does need to be a greater vocational emphasis on education and training. But we need to make decisions on future improvement based on facts not make believe or nostalgia.

Mike sums it up very well by saying what we do not want is to “return to a past system which served the few very well and the majority poorly”.

Caption is of circular 10/65 which marked the end of many Grammar Schools and Secondary Moderns.


Robert said...

Now all we need are the jobs to go with the great education they have.

Anonymous said...

Gordons Nazis</a

Anonymous said...

Apart from the fact that these politicians are all socialists and in the cabinet what do they have in common?
Ruth Kelly, Tessa Jowell, Janet Royall, Geoff Hoone, Jack Straw, Alistair Darling, Ed Balls, James Purnell, Lord Malloch Brown, Janet Royall - that's right - they were all privately educated. Seven other cabinet members went to selective shcools...what does this tell you? How many of them do you think send their children to comprehensive schools? Comprehensive educashun is a curse.

Anonymous said...

Practice what you preach Labour!

John Gray said...

Hi Anon
Kids generally don’t have that much choice when it comes to choice of Schools. So you can hardly blame them for being sent to private schools. Your point is?

Actually, I am pretty sure that none of them send their own children to private schools (apart from Ruth Kelly’s child who is disabled, but for obvious reasons I can respect that decision and any similar ones).

Anonymous said...

Ruth Kelly..Tony Blair selective school..Lord Falconer private school for all his kids, Dianne Abbot....even the former Labour deputy chief whip Keith Bradley sends his child to an independent school..and so on...its a great shame because the Grammar school system was based not on the wealth of your parents but on ability..if you would have failed to get in John it would be because you could not pass the exams, not on the wealth of your parents...the resulting Labour eradication of Grammar schoos has meant that the Middle classes send their children to the independent sector and the pooer kids are condemned to Comprehensives.

John Gray said...

Hi Anon
So apart from Ruth Kelly, none of them. BTW Since when have all faith schools been grammar schools?
Grammar school selection is\was based on your “ability” to pass an exam aged 11. Wealthy middle class kid’s were\are disproportionately represented at Grammar schools. Not least because their parents pay for tutors to coach them for the exam. Grammar schools failed ordinary kids and “Comps” (bog standard or otherwise) have proved to be a lifeline.

Middle class parents are starting I think to see they are wasting their money on private schools. This is one of the reasons for the “backlash” against improved results in the state sector.

Anonymous said...

Paying for tutors likely Tony Blair did with his kids?
Backlash from parents leaving private education? I'd like to see this bold statement backed up with some hard facts.
You wrote a few weeks ago that Mr.Bean was going to win the election? You don't have a great deal of solid judgement do you?
Do you want to put some money on it.

John Gray said...

Fair point Mr Anon. I will admit that this what I think is going on – nothing to back it up, except that I have friends who really struggle to put their kids through private schools and I just wonder why? The majority of state Schools are producing excellent results and give kids a really good education.

I did owe one “anon” a Curry over the London Mayor result but anon did not collect! So same terms– Next general election Labour win, you pay for a curry in London – Labour lose I’ll pay (booze separate, loser chooses curry house, must be decent)
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