In a speech at the annual Festival of Education, Mr John Cridland, head of the Confederation of British Industries – “the bosses’ union” – said that for too long “We’ve just pretended to have an exam system that values vocational education, when in practice, exams have operated as stepping stones towards a university degree.”
Well said, Sir. But the matter is much larger than that. I should like to know why, after eleven years of full time, free, compulsory and hugely expensive schooling, supposedly at the hands of “professionally trained” teachers monitored, spied-upon and graded by an even more expensive, self-promoting bureaucracy, 43% of pupils still leave school unable to read, write and count efficiently? (By the way, that figure of 43% is not one plucked out of the ether by me, but the Department of Education’s own statistic).
Even to ask this straightforward question is to be denounced as an elitist and an educational snob. I know, for those words have been applied to me time and again – as if I’d been born with the silver spoon in my mouth and attended some posh, fee-paying private school. Actually, I went to Castleton County Primary in a Leeds industrial slum. There were never fewer than forty in our classes and we were very poorly equipped. And never mind elitism. I’m not talking about the binomial theorem or noun clauses but about being able to reckon up money in your head, do simple calculations using the tables up to twelve times and to be able to read a newspaper and a novel such as David Copperfield.
There is nothing abstract or theoretical about the examples I have chosen. All of us at Castleton school could do those things – not just before we left secondary school at sixteen, but before we left primary school aged eleven.
Why, half a century later and the country so much richer, the teaching profession never so well-paid and the educational budget astronomical – and rising – do nearly half our children leave school ill-equipped for daily life?
Standards of basic literacy and numeracy were higher in the late-Victorian age than they are today.
Not least of the reasons for the shambles of our schools is that they are the playthings of a privileged and paranoid state bureaucracy – a nomenclatura – which has come to exist not for those it was designed to serve – the children – but for the benefit of the highly-unionised professionals who operate it.
As Ronald Reagan said, “The most chilling words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help you’.”