At last there's something to crow about

10th October 1997 at 01:00
Imagine this: a family overseas, Canada, say, or North America, is coming to Britain for a few years. Their first thought is to put their children into an American or international school, but you have to encourage them that a home-grown British education would be better. What would you say?

This has been on my mind ever since agreeing to write an article giving a "positive" view of British education for relocating executives.

Normally such requests are despatched, post haste, back whence they came, but this one arrived when I was feeling unusually "positive" about British education myself, and I found myself saying: why not?

Because this autumn, for the first time in five fragmented years, all of my children have returned to the same schools they were at last year, and all are thriving on this new-found security. They love knowing where they are, and what is expected of them, and having real friends (as opposed to the kind you get when you're new in a school and a magnet for every socially-challenged student in the year group) and the results are evident in growing confidence and academic progress.

Looking at my three cheerful children I thought: our schools aren't that bad. In fact they do some things really well. Why shouldn't people be encouraged to use them?

At once, an army of reasons jumped up and clamoured for attention. These were the schools that produced 13-year-olds so far below the international average in maths that more than half of them could not work out how many times an hour a person's heart will beat, if it beats 72 times a minute; schools that produced more than four times as many low achievers in science than schools in Singapore; schools with leaking roofs, and a crying shortage of heads, and a pitiful track record in teaching basic literacy across the ability range. A school system where the bad schools were to be avoided at all costs, and the good ones couldn't be got into for love or money. It wasn't honest. I would tell them so the next day.

Enter at this point a friend who teaches at the University of California, full of spleen about the education of her adopted state. "The top 12.5 per cent. " she said. "That's who I see. The top 12.5 half per cent of students coming out of the state schools. The absolute cream. And when they come to me they can't write a proper sentence, they can't pursue a logical argument, they have no intellectual curiosity whatsoever and their knowledge of world affairs is non-existent."

She gestured to the homework being done around our house: compare and contrast the polar regions (the 10-year-old), French grammar (the 12-year-old) and from the 15-year-old, no written work, but a lucid oral account of a history trip to Ypres and the Somme that he had just returned from that day.

Do you realise, she said, that my university students probably couldn't tell you whether Antarctica was north or south. That if they have two languages it's because of their family background, nothing to do with school. And that most of them wouldn't know which century the First World War had been fought in, let alone where. "They may have been told, but they wouldn't have remembered, because it wouldn't have been about the only thing they care about, which is themselves."

Heartened, I took to my keyboard again. Chewed my lip. Frowned. Gave up and turned to catch up on a backlog of newspapers.

Suddenly it seemed as if there was good news on every page. The latest international survey showed English 13-year-olds among the best in the world when it comes to applying maths and science skills to real-life situations; Tony Blair was announcing a target of Pounds 2 billion for school rebuilding; Bill Gates was due in Downing Street to talk about spearheading the country's high-tech schools revolution; David Blunkett was handing out Pounds 50m for literacy programmes.

Close-up, our schools may be riddled with difficulties, just as any country's would be if you scrutinised them, but step back a pace and you see a system that is more alive and kicking than it has been for years; that has improving results, is working on fundamental problems, and whose concerns are now at the heart of the national agenda.

Marry these recharging energies to the best of our established traditions, and it is amazing how many encouraging things you can find to tell the executives.

For instance:

* The country has long had a commitment to academic excellence and high-flying students are more rigorously and thoroughly prepared for university than in almost any other Western country.

* At the other end of the scale, we pioneered the ideas that now underpin primary education around the world, and retain the best traditions of teaching children with empathy, imagination and creativity.

* Years of refining the national curriculum have left schools with a successful modern blueprint for the transfer of knowledge in all subject areas. Schools in this country know exactly what they are trying to teach, to which age group, and to what standard.

* We have one of the highest ratios of computers-per-school student in the world, and our students use first-class materials from our educational software, publishing and broadcasting industries.

* British schools are generally orderly places, mercifully free of guns, knives, metal detectors and security guards. Tolerance and integration are hallmarks of our culture and racial tensions relatively few.

* We have a range of private schools, providing almost any kind of education. Boarding schools, in particular, can offer overseas pupils a safe, campus-based opportunity to immerse themselves not only in British education, but also the country's language and culture.

* The country itself provides a rich learning environment, and our schools make full use of it. Students who study here may well hear Shakespeare at the Globe, spend a day at a Roman villa, see some of the world's greatest cathedrals, walk through Churchill's Cabinet War Rooms or visit Stonehenge.

All of these are sweeping generalisations, which, for sake of accuracy, must be balanced with similar sweeps from the other side.

When I came to write the piece I didn't gloss over the decrepit Victorian buildings, the shortages of key staff, the continuing snobbishness about vocational qualifications, and how there was no way you could expect to buy your son a place at Eton with one quick telephone call. But even after all that was said it was heartening to realise it was actually possible to be both positive and honest about British schools on the same page.

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