Equal to the challenge of all children
The UK has excellent teachers and bright pupils, but we need an equitable system if they are to flourish, says Glenys Kinnock.
I know that British children are no less intelligent than their counterparts on the Continent. I also know that our teachers are no less committed than other Europeans at the chalk-face. So why are we struggling at the bottom of the European education league tables?
Without doubt, we spend comparatively less, we provide less support for parents with pre-school children, we teach in larger classes and we encourage far fewer into education beyond statutory limits or into vocational training. But we ignore the lessons we can learn from our European partners at our peril.
While the UK has slipped from 21st to 24th position in terms of workforce skills, the quality of our education is now rated 35th in the world by the World Economic Forum. Britain has fewer people aged 16 or 17 in full-time education than any other member of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development except Turkey.
Many continental countries can boast that 60 per cent of youngsters have intermediate-level qualifications - in the UK, only 25 per cent have such qualifications.
We cannot afford to ignore the shortfall in our educational performance. As Professor Ted Wragg says in his foreword to my report, Could do Better: "It is, of course, possible, though highly undesirable, that people could in future exist on state handouts, and spend their days watching multi-channel television, underwritten by the few that have employment."
We would be dashing the hopes of millions of families. Low-achievers in our schools need to be given more attention. What is the good of an educational elite with clutches of top A-level grades if we have thousands of youngsters without qualifications? It needs to be recognised that the delivery of real equity in education will ensure that all our people thrive and, by definition, our society and our economy too.
Opting out and nursery vouchers do not raise standards or morale. More selection, a la John Major, will not address the problems and neither will tinkering with the mechanics.
It is worth noting that only 41 of the 600 secondary schools that have opted out have sought to take advantage of even the existing powers to select children by ability, and a recent study of this year's GCSE results clearly shows that a selective system does not improve overall results and may damage less able students.
The past 17 years of relentless legislation, policy switches and upheaval have eroded local democracy, demoralised teachers and moved resources away from those who need it most.
Clearly, the social problems we must address are not unique to this country. So it makes sense to participate in the search for solutions alongside our partners and to use the resources that they employ if we are not to fall further behind.
The UK has an education system that concentrates on the needs of a minority. We have also an educational infrastructure in the comprehensive system, which, if properly funded, supported and nurtured, would serve the needs of the majority to the same high standard.
As a product of a comprehensive school myself and the parent of two children who have thrived in the education system, even through difficult years, I know it can and does work.
We have a magnificent teaching force who should not be dissuaded from their instinct to adapt, innovate and improvise in the cause of discovering and nourishing abilities. Our teachers, despite the strains of recent years, remain a professional body dedicated to the deliverance of excellence. We have a university system envied and copied by much of the world.
The students and workers of Europe do not possess some magical quality our people cannot hope to find. We have the raw material to close the gaps and to assist our youngsters to realise their potential. This is the challenge a Labour government will face.
Glenys Kinnock is Labour MEP for South Wales East. Could do Better is published by the National Union of Teachers, Hamilton House, Mabledon Place, London WC1 9BD.