Nostalgia and Education: A Response to Georgia Leatherdale-Gilholy | James Treacy


In a recent article for The Mallard, entitled ‘The De-Education of Britain’, Georgia Leatherdale-Gilholy analyses a perceived fall in standards in British education. As a teacher, and a recent graduate, I naturally took an interest. The author covers a broad range of issues, including young adults being mostly illiterate in British history and the debate around grammar schools. The focus of my response is on the author’s argument that British education in general has suffered from an ‘implosion’ over the last few decades.

The author argues that there has been a ‘nosedive’ in British educational standards, using our position in the PISA rankings as evidence. You have to look back to 2000 and 2003 to find years where we ranked higher in the maths and reading PISA tables, and since then many countries have joined the scheme – the upper part of the rankings are naturally more congested. What’s more important is that our mean scores in the reading and maths PISA tests have trended upwards, especially in the last decade, breaking the average OECD downward trend in the same period.

There are more mixed results to come out of PISA: our science scores have declined (in line with the OECD average), and there is significant disparity in the performance of the four countries of the UK. However, the UK’s scores across all three subjects are significantly above the OECD average; this is in a period where the number of schools judged to be good or outstanding by Ofsted has significantly increased. So perhaps a mixed bag, but certainly not a nosedive.

The author also focuses on the teaching of English, writing that there has been a ‘long march against linguistic excellence by teachers’. This sort of accusation really needs some evidence behind it. A study published in 1997 found that, across the latter half of the 20th century, standards in literacy in the UK had changed very little. The OECD report showing high levels of functional innumeracy and illiteracy is more concerning, but the report, based on 2012 data, acknowledges that curriculum reform could go some way to address this.

Spelling, punctuation and grammar is a key component of the current (post-2014) National Curriculum. Statutory assessment in year 6 gives it a high profile and, from my experience, it is taught rigorously at primary level. Any ‘near-annihilation of robust grammatical instruction in schools’ is certainly not occurring today. There is a focus throughout the curriculum on pupils’ use of standard English; the idea that teachers neglect this objective for non-native speakers in order to comply with the ‘speculations of far-left academia’ is bordering on a conspiracy theory.

In the final paragraph, the author sets out a list of methods that schools could follow in order to improve standards. One is that people who show an aptitude for teaching but who do not have a teaching qualification ‘must be allowed to teach’. This is a popular recommendation amongst reformers, but I find it to be unfounded. Formal training in classroom management and pedagogy is an asset to any new teacher – I would certainly be weaker without it. The broader issues in teacher recruitment and retention are more important, with 33% of teachers leaving the profession within five years and two thirds of former teachers citing unsustainable workload as a reason for leaving. These issues are the subject of a separate debate, but government initiatives to tackle them do show some promise.

The author also encourages competition in teaching approaches and reducing the government’s input in education as methods of driving up standards. These arguments seem to contradict the view, held by conservatives with some merit, that schools ought to follow a more attainment-based and disciplined approach, seen as the tried and tested method to bring about high standards. Many point to the academic success of independent schools, but only insofar as they use their freedom from government to follow a traditional approach – one that has been encouraged in state schools during the Conservatives’ time in office. If the PISA results are to be believed, showing standards in Scotland and Wales to be below England, one could argue that this is a result of the freedom that Scottish and Welsh education systems enjoy from Westminster. Looking specifically at competition as a means to raise standards, schools compete every year in league tables – we actually do more of this than any other OECD country bar the USA.

Criticising state education seems to be fashionable in journalism. The idea that strong attainment in schools must be the result of the bar being lowered is one that is pedalled by bitter journalists, upset that their 2:1s in Modern History from Oxford are being made less remarkable by the academic achievement of younger generations. It would be nice to consider whether improving attainment could be the result of students working harder, teaching provision gradually improving over time and reforms in education working. Nostalgia makes that viewpoint tricky!


Photo by Austrian National Library on Unsplash. 

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