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Trailing the world in basic skills

League tables - as schools know too well - are blunt instruments. They obscure more than they reveal. Even the highly regarded Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development comparison of education in different countries raises questions about the extent to which like is being compared with like when each nation has its own distinctive culture, education system and qualifications.

But even with that caveat, little satisfaction can be derived from figures which suggest the United Kingdom has fallen behind other similar industrialised nations in spending per child, basic educational achievements and the proportion who stay on beyond 16.

The story of polarised achievement is as familiar as it is shameful. We are world leaders in the percentage of young people achieving graduate status.

But lack of attainment, opportunity or expectation among the rest leads too many to give up on education and training at the first opportunity for low-skill jobs.

There has been progress in schools. The percentage of English 15-year-olds achieving five good GCSE grades has increased by more than 34 per cent in the past decade. That improvement, however, will not yet register on the OECD comparison since it is not based upon the attainments of school-leavers but on the qualifications of 25 to 34-year-olds. It therefore includes the results of the further education and training beyond the school level which is much more widespread elsewhere and where we lag behind.

The root of our relative decline on this score is in our snobbish obsession with academic forms of learning represented by A-level and degrees. We hold the kind of vocational courses which open doors to those who need a different kind of motivation to learn in low-esteem. This is reflected in the chronic underfunding of further education and the lack of political will to expedite radical changes in the 14-19 curriculum and assessment.

Tony Blair's promise to make a university education available for half the population is simply an acknowledgement of the kind of education the electorate values most. But that promise is unlikely to be achieved unless we open up - and equally value - a greater variety of routes to basic, further and higher education.

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