UK slips down world education league despite 10 years of Labour investment

11th September 2009 at 01:00
Alarm as secondary schools struggle to keep up with the rest of the developed world even before predicted budget cuts

The UK's secondary schools are among the worst in the world when it comes to time spent teaching reading and writing, a major international study revealed this week.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's (OECD) annual education report, Education at a Glance, showed that the UK spends more time teaching reading and writing than only Portugal, Japan and Australia.

Among the nations that spend the most time are the usual suspects of Sweden, Luxembourg, Denmark and Norway, with Ireland leading the pack, but this is mainly to do with reading and writing in both English and Irish being compulsory.

The UK is also among the worst when it comes to pupilteacher ratios, with some of the largest class sizes in primary schools, worse than Poland, Hungary and Russia.

But perhaps the report's most worrying insight was that the UK risks returning to the "back of the queue" when it comes to education provision if the recession provokes cut backs on education spending.

A number of countries have caught up with the UK in terms of education outlay after adopting or copying its policies. But even after 10 years of investment by Labour, at 5.9 per cent the UK is still below the OECD average for percentage of wealth spent on education.

Andreas Schleicher, the report's author, believes that the UK is now running the risk of being left behind. "There are now many countries that have accelerated and are passing the UK," he said.

The report was released on the day Chancellor Alistair Darling gave a speech in Cardiff that hinted to the need for future cuts to reduce the UK's debt. In April this year, the Budget predicted that UK borrowing would reach pound;175 billion.

John Bangs, head of education at the NUT, said the report should serve as a "massive reminder" to both Labour and the Conservatives before any cuts are made in education.

"The picture is not one of a massive over-spend on education, but rather a tortuous climb to hit the OECD average," Mr Bangs said. "If any government thinks that there has been profligacy, they should realise that any cuts will send the UK back into the dunce's corner."

The Conservatives claimed the report shed light on the "widening inequality gap" between students in the UK, stating that class sizes in the state sector are twice those in independent schools.

Michael Gove, shadow schools secretary, said: "The OECD study confirms yet again that as a country we are falling behind our international competitors, and that there is a huge gap between the wealthiest children and the rest.

"The competition the UK's young people face is increasingly international, so it is vital we target money at the most deprived pupils to close the widening inequality gap."

The report did show the UK to have one of the highest starting salaries for teachers, although it is below average for those working in secondary schools.

The Government's investment in science is also shown to be paying dividends, with the UK 15-year-olds performing well above average.

Diana Johnson, schools minister, said: "It's important to remember that the authors make clear that different countries prioritise different areas. However, there are some areas we know we must improve, such as the numbers of young people not in education, employment or training. That is why we have introduced the new Diplomas for young people who prefer more hands-on learning."

The report revealed that the UK has 10.7 per cent of 15- to 19-year-olds out of work or not in education, higher than every country except Spain, Brazil, Turkey and Israel.

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