The Evening Standard headline earlier this year was typical: "Primary schools in crisis as one in five cannot read".
Google "schools fail to teach the basics" and you will get 99,000 hits while "left wing ideology or political correctness in schools" will offer thousands more. The charge that state schools ignore functional literacy and numeracy, concentrating solely on climate change and multiculturalism, leavened with the occasional analysis of the plots of EastEnders, is heard almost daily.
The accusation that 20 per cent of children leave primary school unable to read or write has been made by every national newspaper or political periodical in this country. Similar claims are made about numeracy. The statistic rests on those children failing to achieve level 4 in KS2 tests, the "expected" level, originally intended to be the average. Yet in reading, pupils at level 3 (achieved by most who fail to reach level 4) are said by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, which is responsible for the tests, to be able to read "a variety of texts fluently and accurately" and to "read independently, using strategies appropriately to establish meaning".
Writing at level 3 has to be "organised, imaginative and clear . the basic grammatical structure of sentences is usually correct . spelling and punctuation are usually accurate . handwriting is joined and legible".
This fictitious picture of widespread illiteracy is then contrasted with the past when almost all children supposedly left primary school confident readers and writers and secure in basic arithmetic. Some government papers from the 1950s do seem to suggest that illiteracy was diminishing. Tests of National Service recruits revealed that 99 per cent could read and write, while the Ministry of Education Annual Report for 1957 even suggests illiteracy might have disappeared in England.
However, these cannot be taken at face value. The National Service test - for 18-year-olds - simply asked recruits to read an instruction to write down their name and address, and then do so. The 1957 report defined illiteracy in the sense that most English people were illiterate in Arabic - unable to recognise individual characters. Such interpretations would be ridiculed nowadays.
In fact, inspection reports found widespread problems. One, on a Birmingham secondary modern in 1956, said that "by the end of their school careers few pupils can be considered established as readers or writers", while another on a Cheshire secondary modern in the same year noted that "illiteracy persists into the fourth year". One governor at the post- inspection meeting at a Devon secondary claimed that most children from some local primaries arrived unable to read or write.
Maths teaching was dire, and far worse than today. My own research suggests that half of all maths departments in English schools in the 1950s were failing or barely satisfactory by modern standards. Inspectors were damning: it isn't surprising that a recent government survey found that half of all 55- to 65-year-olds have the maths skills expected of a nine-year-old today.
Claims that teachers in state schools peddle politically correct propaganda, rather than essential facts, often focus on subjects such as history or geography. Complaints are heard about historians teaching slavery or geographers climate change. One hardly has to be a committed Marxist to believe that these issues are important. But, aside from that, critics always imply that only these topics are taught. Yet the national curriculum programmes give primacy to British history and understanding chronology, and physical and human geography, as well as the use of maps, atlases and globes.
Chris Woodhead, former chief schools inspector, has condemned "pseudo- subjects" such as citizenship, understanding finance and personal well- being. Quite apart from arguments for teaching these issues, his implication that they crowd out good teaching in traditional areas is untrue. As a former inspector, I have observed state schools teaching just the kind of excellent lessons on, for example, the Battle of Hastings, which he has implied exist only in the independent sector - and those schools have also covered the "pseudo-subjects".
And who decides exactly what "basic" teaching is? Could it be Tory leader David Cameron, who demanded that history staff tell pupils "what Henry VIII did, and not about his marital difficulties", thereby correcting those of us who mistakenly believed his marriage problems had had a profound influence on England's political and social history for 300 years? Or Daily Mail columnist Melanie Phillips, who, in her book Londonistan, wrote of the "cotton mills" of Bradford and Rotherham - confounding those filling children's heads with nonsense about the Yorkshire wool and steel industries.
Or might it be Sheila Lawlor, of think-tank Politeia, who urged in a pamphlet that children of eight should be made to learn "I had a little nut tree"? I wrote to her pointing out that many eight-year-olds, including the brightest, might look askance at being asked to learn a nursery rhyme. Not that "I had a little nut tree" would pass muster if Cameron gains power: some have interpreted it as containing references to Henry VIII's marital difficulties.
Claims that political correctness or zealous egalitarianism infect state schools do not just apply to teaching. A recent poll for the Sutton Trust, showing state school teachers apparently reluctant to advise their pupils to apply to Oxbridge, was predictably seized on by the media. Former Sunday Telegraph editor Dominic Lawson wrote in The Independent that "it's very clear that the real social antipathy is not that of Oxbridge colleges towards schoolchildren from the state sector, but that of many teachers in the state sector towards Oxford and Cambridge".
Dr Lee Elliot Major of the Sutton Trust said, "There is a confusion between excellence and elitism in the state sector."
But the poll in fact suggested that 55 per cent of state school teachers would have no hesitation in recommending Oxbridge: the remainder said they would not, or rarely do so. But how did respondents interpret "rarely"? Given that students at Oxford and Cambridge represent less than 5 per cent of the total in all universities, an average sixth form both in intake and ability might throw up one or two potential candidates a year, not all of whom would be taught by respondents to the poll. Did the 45 per cent really have antipathy towards Oxbridge or were they giving factual answers? The headlines over Mr Lawson's article - "Advocates of reverse class discrimination are not interested in education at all" certainly appeared fallacious.
The unfortunate truth is that most national newspapers in England continue to repeat the same tired myths about state schools, of which most leader writers and columnists appear not to have the slightest knowledge or experience. Polls suggest that teachers are one of the most trusted professions today. Perhaps we should have more confidence in speaking out publicly about the good things in our schools.
The not so `grim truth'
Michael Shaw tests the accuracy of a column by Leo McKinstrey in last week's Daily Express:
`What is truly outrageous is that the focus on politically correct propaganda means that children are not even being taught the basics properly any more.'
- According to this year's exhaustive Cambridge Primary Review, `contrary to myth, schools are not in constant danger of subversion by 1970s ideologues and they do not neglect the 3Rs'.
`It is a scandal that our education system has been hijacked . with the quest for knowledge replaced by Leftish brainwashing.'
- Teachers are now more likely to read The Daily Mail than any other daily paper. And in the 1979 general election, six out of 10 primary teachers supported Margaret Thatcher.
`The dismal picture of our education system was graphically exposed by Ofsted . one-third of schools fail to offer a decent education and half of all academies are substandard.'
- Only 4 per cent of schools were found to be `inadequate' - and just five of the 30 academies.
`Far from driving through improvements, ministers have presided over decline.'
- Although there are valid criticisms of the testing and inspection system, it is bizarrre to ignore Ofsted's verdict that schools have improved, GCSE results are up, and since 1997 the percentage of 11-year-olds gaining level 4s has increased in English and maths.
`Geography and science will be subsumed within the study of "global warming" while history gives way to "social understanding"'
- The relevant subject headings proposed for the primary curriculum are `historical, geographical and social understanding' and `scientific and technological understanding'.