Tuesday, 3 December 2013

The education league tables are out. Everyone panics.

On the radio, a nice, intelligent, articulate man says: ‘I have worked with thirteen ministers of education and none of them has done much good.’ He is not making a party political point. He is making a why the children are not learning point. The international league tables are out and poor old Blighty languishes in the doldrums. The gnashing of teeth can be heard from three fields away.

The shadow education secretary was on the Today programme this morning, and all he could offer was his worry that teachers are not qualified enough. He had no explanation for why all the money and attention spent on education through the Labour years seemed to have so little effect. People got terribly cross with Tony Blair about many things, but I remember my real rage being that the children still could not read. I was one of those who was all fired up about New Labour. I believed Blair when he said education, education, education. I was ready to be delighted, and then the great leap forward never came.

The good news is that the rankings themselves are not completely reliable. Statisticians are casting doubts. Perhaps Britain is not doomed after all. But at the same time, there does not seem to be the shining city on the hill that one hoped might be built, full of bright-eyed pupils in shiny classrooms, their teachers gleaming with enthusiasm and devotion.

All governments of all political kidneys have had a crack at it. Neither the left nor the right has any stranglehold on cleverness or correctness. My excessively unfashionable opinion is that most politicians and ministers are people of goodwill who want the best for the next generation. They study excellent models elsewhere; they get advice from brilliant experts in the field. They do not go into Whitehall in the morning thinking bugger it, who cares whether the children can read?

If it is not as simple as hopeless politicos or failed ideologies, I wonder whether it might be a more profound cultural problem. Britain is sharply contradictory when it comes to education and cleverness. On one hand, it is rightly proud of having Oxford and Cambridge, two of the best universities in the world, setting gold standards since the middle ages. On the other hand, there is little an Ordinary Decent Briton hates more than someone who is too clever for their own good. There are rumblings about elitism, which has become a dirty word; newspapers regularly run pieces about how the country is run by Oxbridge elites, who, apparently by definition, can know nothing of the Real World.

When I was a little girl, I was a swot. Even at the age of nine, I was keenly aware that this would make me hated. I compensated by becoming a jester. If I could make the class laugh, then I would not be persecuted for all that prep I did. On a wider scale, the British have always been intensely suspicious of intellectuals. We are not like France, say the old guard, laughing scornfully. Very few national treasures are beloved for their academic brilliance. I suspect that Britain would much rather win the World Cup than a Nobel Prize in physics. Cleverness generally should be covered up, hedged about with self-deprecation, masked by jokes or eccentricity.

And there is a broader argument still, about different forms of intelligence. Thoughtful people rightly make the point that empathy and emotional intelligence and creativity are as important to the good life as knowing what Einstein said or when the Battle of Hastings was fought. When these annual league tables come out, and hares are set running all over the shop, someone always comes up with the hoary old chestnut about this entrepreneur dropping out of school, or that brilliant musician never passing an exam. And then the whole thing falls into a mess of he said she said and no useful conclusions are drawn.

I am not certain I have any useful conclusions myself. I wish that dear old Britain was not floundering below Liechtenstein and Estonia and Slovenia. I do think there are severe problems in education here, and I believe in education as an article of faith. Yet America, which has more Nobel laureates than the next ten countries put together, is in an even more lowly position, nine full places below us. This makes me wonder whether a single test can really rank entire nations in any satisfactory sense. Perhaps the criteria are too narrow; perhaps the whole idea of grading in such a way is reductive and misleading.

What about the other things which make life worth living, like songs and novels and manners and the countryside and a sense of humour? If there were a league table for bands or comedians, Britain would be surely higher than South Korea, which beats us hollow in maths and science. Even those of us who believe passionately in learning must admit that learning is not the only thing which counts.
On that awful Friday night in Glasgow, ordinary citizens ran into the scene of the helicopter crash, to help their fellow humans without thought for their own safety. A sense of community, which the doomier commentators say is now confined to a mythical golden age, still coheres. People are kind and generous and good in this country. I believe this to be true on anecdotal evidence and personal experience, but there are objective proofs. Britons are the second most generous people in the entire world, with 76% giving money to charity. That good news never made headlines, but it is a keen reminder that competence in maths is not the only mark of a good life or a civilised society.

I do not have a nice, neat final sentence for this. I have no definitive conclusion. I think the children must read. But I also suspect that perhaps the picture is less bleak than it is being painted. I am channelling Dad’s Army, and saying quietly to myself: ‘Don’t panic.’
Today’s pictures:

Too gloomy for the camera today. Here are some snaps from the archive:

3 Dec 1

This one looks as if I have put it into black and white. In fact, those were the actual colours that day:

3 Dec 2

3 Dec 3

3 Dec 7

Can you believe I wrote an entire blog post without mentioning Red the Mare? Goes against all muscle memory. She was glorious this morning, before the rain came, doing her dowager duchess canter up the hill. She was happy too, deep in one of her Zen calm moods, the ones which make me love her more than almost anything else:

3 Dec 9
3 Dec 11

Although I say Don’t Panic, I am of course in a small panic of my own. The panic is always that when I write a serious piece on a subject such as education, I may include a most uneducated grammatical error or typing mistake. And then people shall laugh and point. I squint at the text, desperately searching for howlers. I know I will have missed one. Ah well, I think – I must publish now and risk it for a biscuit.


  1. I think you are right about the cultural problem, Tania. It's not regarded as 'cool' to be clever or a swot. However, since I returned to teaching, just in time for the beginning of the National Curriculum, I saw our professional lives being blighted ever after by a succession of Education Secretaries and their department seeking to score points over their predecessors with a succession of poorly thought out changes. Mind you, I can go further back to those halcyon days of the 'Initial Teaching Alphabet' etc and one thing seems consistent. New initiatives have continually been introduced without being preceded by adequate research beforehand and the 'poor bloody infantry' (for which read 'poor bloody teachers' ) have been left to try their best to make it all work, preferably before it all changed again. I thank the Lord every day that I am now retired, but unfortunately, the problems continue. As regards the social aspect, we are now on our third generation of people who don't know how to parent properly and who are well aware of their rights but not of their responsibilities. I'll stop there, I think. Otherwise I'll get REALLY carried away! ;)

  2. The problems are ones of approach, process, semantics, creativity and social inequality. We provide a factory education - measured and prescribed with children as the sausage product. What we need is learning in all its guises where children create the sausage or the painting or the magnificent flying machine. Schools as places where children can create the people they can be. Reading is part of that but not all. Finnish children don't have formal reading lessons until they are seven. My Finnish friend says they pick it up between September and December - a matter of months. By this point they are very ready to read. Too much pressure turns kids off.

    I could go on. And on but The Spirit Level (Pickett/Wilkinson) and the RSA animate by Sir Ken Robinson shine light where there is darkness, better than I can.

  3. Okay, I'll bite.

    "On the radio, a nice, intelligent, articulate man says: ‘I have worked with thirteen ministers of education and none of them has done much good."

    Shouldn't it be "none of them have done much good"?

    There - my one swotty effort. But to be fair, the error was the speaker's, not yours. Your only error was calling him articulate. Ha!

    Had no idea what a "swot" was, either, but got the gist due to context.

    1. No sorry, Marcheline but 'has' is correct. Think of 'none' as being short for 'not one.'


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