Getting education on track

by Hugh Cortazzi

LONDON — British and Japanese governments face major challenges in funding and organizing education, which is key to a nation’s cultural and economic well-being.

At the next British election (expected in early May), the government will claim considerable improvements as a result of significant increases in the education budget and structural reforms. The opposition parties will dispute these claims, arguing that much of the increased funding has been misspent and that the emphasis placed on what is “politically correct” has been misguided and feeds the prejudices of egalitarian ideologues in the Labour Party and among teachers.

Labour Party ideologues, according to the Conservative opposition, believe that all children should be treated equally and that no child, however able, should be specially favored. For some, this implies that there should be prizes for all and that grading systems should be designed to encourage every pupil to believe that he can reach the top, irrespective of his innate abilities (or lack of them) and the personal effort made. Children with special needs, which is the politically correct euphemism for backward children or children suffering from behavioral problems, should be taught in the same classes as other normal pupils to ensure that they don’t suffer discrimination.

Some extreme egalitarians even frown on competitive sports, since some children inevitably can and do run faster than others! “Elitism” and even “meritocracy” are still seen by some as dirty words. Although these views are not shared by most ministers, parents or teachers, they still hold back educational reforms.

Standards appear to have improved in many British primary schools, but there are still too many children going on to secondary education with inadequate reading, writing and numerical skills. This has compounded difficulties for secondary schools, and employers continue to complain that the educational standards of their workforce hold back productivity growth and quality control.

All British schools, particularly those at the secondary level, combat increasing rates of truancy. A great deal of money has been spent trying to deal with this problem, but some parents do not cooperate or are unable to do anything to ensure that their children attend school because they have lost control of them.

Bullying in some schools is another serious problem, making some children afraid to go to school. The “yob” culture among teenagers in some inner cities with rundown housing, exacerbated by binge drinking and drugs, also impinges on schools and complicates the problem of enforcing discipline. Cases of boys and girls assaulting and abusing teachers are too frequent. Teachers are not able to retaliate with a hard whack or punch, as this would lead to their being suspended and probably sued by indignant parents.

Head teachers have been reluctant to suspend pupils for bad behavior, partly because the central and local authorities responsible for schools do not in many cases have an alternative place to which they can refer such unruly children for special control and teaching. This means that they are often kept with other pupils and continue to disrupt lessons to the despair of teachers and serious pupils.

Under pressure from parents and teachers, many of whom are taking early retirement because of stress, the educational establishment is trying to face up to the problem of enforcing discipline, but there are no easy solutions.

There is much talk about the importance of parental choice, but there are not enough good schools. Choice is usually very limited or, in some areas, nonexistent. Parents unable or unwilling to afford private education now compete for houses in areas where there are reputed to be good schools. Certain schools in the past were able to select their pupils according to their abilities, but “selective schools” are anathema to Labour Party ideologues. Some schools get around this to some extent by affiliating with specific religious groups. Some of the better ones are thus termed “faith schools.” This does not always help social cohesion.

Another acceptable way of selection is through specialist academies that have been set up in some areas with business firms. Such academies may specialize in languages, science, art or other subjects, but their record so far has been mixed. Unfortunately, while there is much talk about the need for more British pupils to study foreign languages, many children who have the ability to make progress in a foreign language find that studying a foreign language has ceased to be compulsory and that business firms no longer attach much importance to the mastery of foreign languages.

A great deal of lip service is paid to the vital need for Britain to train more scientists and engineers, but teachers of science are not easy to recruit. A good scientist is likely to find a more lucrative appointment outside the teaching profession.

The educational establishment has been much criticized for its failure to reform the system of school exams. On the one hand, many think there are too many exams, while others say the exams are too easy and too specialized. Grade inflation has caused some businesses and universities to lose confidence in British exam results.

There are three levels of British secondary exams. The first set of exams, taken at around ages 15 or 16, is called the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE). It can be taken in many subjects and there is no minimum number of passing scores required. The next levels are A/S and A levels, for university entrance. Pupils need to pass A-level exams in at least two or three subjects before they can be considered for university entrance.

The better universities may require A grades in three A-level subjects before they will accept a student. Inevitably the better schools, which are often private schools, are more competitive. This has infuriated Labour Party members, who have controversially demanded that the universities exercise positive discrimination in favor of pupils from state schools and from poorer families.

Universities, like the schools, face a major funding problem. In the past, tuition was free. Students now pay limited fees, although they can take out a loan that’s repayable after they begin earning a regular income. In the last year the government, despite widespread opposition from students and party members, has enacted legislation enabling universities to charge tuition of up to £3,000 per annum. The more prestigious high-cost universities, such as Oxford and Cambridge, argue with justification that this will be insufficient to enable them to compete with U.S. Ivy League universities.

The government wants to increase the proportion of young people going on to tertiary education, but there is little point in achieving this until general standards at the secondary level improve and there are better job prospects for university graduates. One unfortunate result of the inflation in university student enrollment has been that subjects regarded as hard, such as math, chemistry and physics, are not always fully subscribed while courses that are thought of as being easier, such as media studies or psychology, attract large numbers of students.

Japanese readers may be relieved to find that the problems facing education in Britain are not entirely dissimilar to those in Japan despite the very different systems of education in the two countries. There are no magic formulas to solve them. More money is no doubt still needed, but can politicians and teachers be trusted to use the funds wisely?