Listen to politicians or London-based journalists and you might conclude our school system is a write-off. Callaghan, Thatcher, Blair, Adonis, Cameron and Gove have all gone on the attack, usually pointing by way of evidence to yet another set of shabby test scores. Time and again, international studies rank our pupils well behind Korea, Japan or Finland. Clever? Us? Come off it.
But actually, and fortunately, we are. On any indicator—Nobel prizes or paper citations, to name two—our scientists remains among the world’s best. British journalism, writing and television are high-earning industries—take the Economist and the FT, Harry Potter, online BBC news; and also that huge export success, Midsomer Murders. Our top-class crop of engineers and designers haven’t all, praise be, headed for the City.
Yet during the last 30 years, independent schools and top university-town sixth-form colleges have increasingly dominated the “clever” bits of the economy, as well as the degree courses (maths, science, languages) that demand high levels of knowledge at entry. No recent government has tried hard to change this, and there are no signs that the coalition is different. All have been preoccupied with “low attainment.”
Britain, it is clear, has too many schools that fail their pupils. A good education is critical. Without it, people carry a huge handicap not just in the job market but as citizens, parents, consumers and patients. Yet a country can do very well economically without educating everyone to a high level, and without getting anywhere near equal performance across a whole age group.
Look at the US. On any of those global education surveys, its pupils consistently do worse than ours (and their politicians are correspondingly appalled). But America remains the world’s industrial pace-setter, most recently in IT. No one else manages to match its standards in innovation or productivity, which in turn depend on an education system that turns out workers who are both clever and original.
Education is a devolved policy area, and in England it has for the last quarter-century been remarkably consistent. New Labour’s policies were largely those of its Tory predecessors, but enhanced. At school this meant quantitative targets, especially for numbers meeting attainment levels at seven, 11 and 16. It meant centralisation of control, offset by sporadic moves to increase schools’ freedom from local authorities. More control of examinations; more stringent inspections; more high-stakes accountability measures.
The object was to guarantee a good education for everyone. But centralisation and micro-management are not, it turns out, an effective way to achieve this. The coalition is bidding instead for more genuine autonomy and competition via academies, free schools and better information provision for parents, plus targeted funding for poorer students through a pupil premium. This is all sensible, though no one should expect nationwide miracles tomorrow. What matters ultimately is the quality of teaching, for which there is no instant fix.
Where does that leave cleverness? England is a developed but resource-poor country; without excellence, its economy would die. But state schools have, in recent times, been judged on numbers achieving Cs or above at GCSE, so that anyone safely over the line stops being a priority. GCSEs and A levels have both become increasingly standardised and easy to mark (and therefore to cram for and pass); in the process, they have grown ever more narrow, fact-dependent and, some would say, boring.
The coalition’s recent predecessors, tacitly, took the line of least resistance: leave the provision of top-quality schooling to those institutions and families with intellectual capital—to the independent schools and sixth forms in university towns and cathedral cities. Will this time be different? With little time, no money and events, dear boy, events? I would be very surprised.