Poor grades for U.K. schools

by and

LONDON — The new British government has declared its intention to do all it can to improve standards of education in Britain. This was also a high priority for the previous Labour administration. As prime minister, Tony Blair used to declare that his mantra was “education, education, education.”

New schools were built and more teachers recruited. Nursery education was expanded and ambitious targets were set for achievement by pupils. Despite the resources expended, the results are generally seen as disappointing. British educational standards overall are less than they should be if Britain is to remain competitive. Britain is not unique in this respect. Similar complaints can be heard from people in the United States, France, Germany and Japan.

What are the reasons for the comparative failure in most democratic countries to improve educational standards? Critics lay the blame on three main factors: bureaucracy, teaching methods and parenting — or officials, teachers and parents.

While Blair attempted to free some schools from the control of local authorities and promoted the development of “academies” to replace failing schools, the Labour government in practice strengthened bureaucratic control of education by imposing a core curriculum that left little room for innovation and increased testing, targets, checks, inspections and paperwork, all of which ensured that head teachers had to spend the bulk of their time in administration.

The application of centralized controls meant that the number of education bureaucrats grew and many teachers became frustrated and demoralized. Discipline was undermined by the difficulties that head teachers encountered in dealing with appeals against any decision to exclude pupils. This meant that unruly pupils continued to disrupt classes. The emphasis on equality meant that mixed-ability classes were the norm and abler pupils were often kept back so that the dunces could be brought on. Competition was also discouraged because the less successful might be disheartened.

The teaching profession must share much of the blame. The leftwing ethos opposed to “elitism” embraced the condemnation of competition. Marking and ranking of pupils was discouraged so that no pupil should be made to face up to failure. While self-confidence should be encouraged competition is a fact of life and children need to learn at an early stage that they will have to struggle to win the battles of life. There is much to be said for teaching that encourages group activities and puts the emphasis on projects, but this must not be at the cost of learning the basics.

We recently were in France where we heard a French professor declare that French pupils now knew less and less about less and less. One French grandfather declared his frustration that children were no longer taught the basics of grammar and spelling. Another deplored the way in which classical French literature was being replaced by modern texts. Similar complaints can be heard here.

Teachers do face many difficulties. How does a teacher keep order in class when he or she cannot even touch a pupil for fear of being accused of assault? When an unruly pupil refuses to keep quiet and cannot be sent out and the head teacher can do no more than impose temporary exclusion, the teachers deserve our sympathy.

Teachers cannot be expected to assume the responsibilities of parents. Good behavior is best taught at home and parents should support teachers in ensuring school discipline. While many parents do strive hard to ensure that their children behave well, there is a minority who either do not care or who always believe that their children should be indulged. Some will support their children in any behavioral issue arising at school. Single parents where there is no father in the household are sometimes unable to control their children.

The problems in our education system are not just in schools. Huge resources have been expended in developing preschool facilities. The latest analysis of the results suggests that much of the money spent has been wasted and that the overall results do not justify the expenditure. This may be because the emphasis should have been placed much more on the disadvantaged than on providing a universal service.

There are also major problems in tertiary education. The Labour government rightly wanted to expand the proportion of university graduates. The former polytechnics have all been transformed into universities. The standards of these new universities inevitably vary considerably and the standards of achievement generally are threatened by “degree inflation.”

In the best universities where competition for places is intense and the ratio of staff to students is high, British universities still provide some of the best education in the world. But in a number of the newer universities that do not have long traditions of research and teaching, and where the pupil-teacher ratio is high, it is doubtful how valuable the qualifications implied by a university degree really are.

The desire to increase the number of graduates has led to the development of degrees in subjects that previously would not have been regarded as worthy of a university qualification. Employers now rightly ask whether the subject of study requires a high standard of scholarly and practical application and ensures that applicants have the basic literacy and numeracy skills needed in the workplace.

European countries can no longer assume that their education is superior to that of developing countries. Chinese universities, which were overwhelmed during the Cultural Revolution, have made huge strides. And the Chinese output of engineers gives a major advantage to Chinese industry.

The number of Indian graduates in electronics and information technology poses similar challenges to developed countries. If we fail to improve our education standards, we shall undoubtedly face a serious decline in our ability to compete and to maintain our prosperity.

Hugh Cortazzi, a former British career diplomat, served as ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.