The De-Education of Britain | Georgia Leatherdale-Gilholy

British schools shut their doors on March 18th as part of the plan to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, and it is unknown how or when they will open again. Families with economic and social resources to facilitate home learning have suffered less from this change, and questions over education outcomes have predictably fell into the limelight once more. A recent Sutton Trust report has revealed that two-thirds of children have not taken part in remote schooling since the lockdown. Some government figures have suggested opening schools over the usual summer break period when lockdown instructions are eased, and others have pressed teachers to improve their online resources. Although current school closures have undoubtedly exacerbated the issue of the attainment gap, the curriculum and ethos of the current system itself are at the root of the poor consequences of British schooling that long predate 2020, and upping the dosage will not remedy the sickness at its very core.

When it comes to Britain’s nosedive in educational standards, the proof is in the pudding. The UK has steadily slumped down the international league tables for decades. While the UK overall has recently gone from 22nd to 14th in reading, 15th to 14th in science, and 27th to 18th in maths, it has still declined relative to its previous standing, and lags behind many less developed nations. Wales and Scotland have fallen behind even further. Though Scotland has recovered its reading score from a 2015 dip, it has had its worst-ever performance in science and maths. More importantly, a comparison of the knowledge of British students today versus fifty years ago would quickly unravel the assumption that time automatically equals “progress”. The teaching of foreign languages now often so lacklustre as to be almost pointless, and one in twenty Brits are functionally illiterate in their native language- more than in any other developed nation. A 1993 Centre for Policy Studies report lamented that: “Even among candidates for admission to the best universities, who have specialised in English, only a minority can spell with consistent correctness, use punctuation properly and construct complex sentences grammatically.” Two-thirds of 16 to 24-year-olds cannot name the year in which the First World War ended, and twelve per cent believe that Waterloo was a battle of the same war. One hopes this demographic does at least not overlap with the fifteen per cent of young people who believe Oliver Cromwell, the Seventeenth Century Lord Protector of England’s short-lived Commonwealth, led the 1815 British victory at Waterloo. It seems that novelist Kingsley Amis’ suggestion that only a ruthless foreign invader such as the Soviet Union could do more to obliterate the historical and literary memory of the British public, as fictionally detailed in his 1980 novel Russian Hide and Seek might just be true. Britain’s schoolchildren have more information at their fingertips than any generation that came before it, and yet they are overwhelmingly severed from the past, the geography of their country and the wider world, and often the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic. How has this dramatic decline been possible in one of the most developed countries in the World? How is it that such a tragic collapse in knowledge, has been accompanied by ever-higher exam results and the unprecedented expansion of higher education?

Photo by David Fryett on Flickr.

A brief delve into the English National Curriculum- the content compulsory in state schools since 1988- makes the answer to this question rather clear. History is “taught” by introducing students to isolated historical episodes almost at random. No real chronology of World or even European history is offered, and most children abandon the subject entirely aged 14. A-level modules provide a narrow focus on particular phenomena from Wilson’s trade union reforms to Henry VIII’s Break with Rome. But how can children hope to understand the meaning and significance of the events they study, if they have no general grounding in at least the broad strokes of the surrounding context? What use is studying for an exam on the nineteenth century Unification of Italy, if one is clueless about the history of the Italian peninsula and Europe itself up until that process? Apart from the dwindling minority of schools offering A-level Classics (almost abolished in 2016) or Latin, the world of antiquity is virtually absent from the curriculum. My only memory of Roman civilisation in school is constructing a playdough colosseum aged 7. Meanwhile, GCSE & A-level English Literature has steadily replaced elements of the Literary Canon from its reading lists, in favour of fashionable contemporary fiction and Marxist-Feminist critical theory. It is even entirely possible to achieve top exam grades without having even read the full text one is being tested on.  The problem here is not poor teachers, but the poor instructions teachers are obliged to comply with.

In 1993, the same year as the CPS report’s blistering rebuke of poor standards in reading and writing, 576 university lecturers of English wrote to the Times Higher Education Supplement attacking the then-government’s alleged “doctrinaire preoccupation with grammar & spelling”. Such protests are not uncommon, and the maker of them is generally the post-modern idea that grammar is a malevolent means of discriminating against those who do not conform to its standards, such as those with “regional” accents, or those for whom English is not their first language. This long march against linguistic excellence by teachers themselves has led to the near-annihilation of robust grammatical instruction in schools, and similarly politicised strategies have been behind the “progressive” assault on other academic fields. Students taught English in a German or a Japanese school are generally taught proper grammar and spelling and are as a result, often more effective communicators than native speakers themselves. Moreover, this situation is compelling counterevidence to the claim that linguistic standards are unfair to non-native speakers or that they increase educational and class elitism. Cultural or ethnic identity is not the barometer of academic ability. In order to unlock their potential, children of all backgrounds need teachers who are willing to hand them the linguistic toolkit to communicate correctly and efficiently. That this truth is being banished from the classroom in order to comply with the unsubstantiated speculations of far-left academia is a scandal. The rules of grammar do not chain us down, but set us free.

Guardian columnist Fiona Millar wrote at the beginning of Theresa May’s short-lived premiership, that any attempt by her to reintroduce grammar schools as a remedy to Britain’s educational ills would fail. In her words such a move would “reintroduce the idea of rejection and a second-class education for most children“. There is no doubt that the grammar system was imperfect. The selection at age 11, for example, seems somewhat premature, and many successful systems select at age 14. Academic selection on a rolling basis with no rigid cut off in age could work best of all. Millar then assumes that any selective system would leave children left out of the more “academic” stream feeling ostracised and rejected. Millar’s concerns make sense, but there is no requirement that a selective system ought to shame and degrade “non-academic” pathways, and such a move would need to be paired with an attempt to revalorise “non-academic” occupations in order to be successful. The degradation of vocational options in today’s system is in fact the height of elitism, and assumes that the “academic” character of a qualification ought to be the test of its worth, and pupils who choose BTECs & NVQs instead of A-levels are still pressured to attend University for the sake of it.

In a “New Statesman” cover story last year Harry Lambert argued that British universities have suffered from decades of grade inflation, and from a set of perverse incentives imposed by various governments. Lambert wrote “An elite university education has been sold to successive generations of students. An emaciated, grossly expanded education has been delivered.” Even pupils with the poorest A-level grades can find a a university willing to accept them, and their place is funded by government loans they are under no strict obligation to pay back. Lecturers consistently complain about having to teach students the basics of English and Mathematics that should have been instilled in school. Consequently, university courses all too commonly become a race to the bottom to satisfy paying students with good grades, while the qualitative standard of what is taught and discussed is gradually diminished in order to suit the underprepared cohorts flowing in year after year. Exacerbating the problem is the deliberate decreasing of entry requirements for “disadvantaged” students, which forces universities to accept unqualified applicants in the name of equality. Universities have been remodelled into the remedial sector for Britain’s unfit secondary schools rather than the prestigious culmination of the academic path. Secondary and primary education must resolve its poor outcomes for students in general, rather than expecting universities to fill in the gaps by the time it is too late, leaving young people with fancy degrees that denote little in terms of skills and knowledge.

Although many of the Comprehensive’s most fierce advocates surely had the noble aim of eliminating injustice, the destruction of selective education in England, Wales, and Scotland, was never rooted in evidence that it would improve academic standards and outcomes. Rather, it was an emotionalist, utopian move to “equalise” the classroom at any cost. This regime has led to the theft of academic opportunities from disadvantaged children who have no choice but to attend schools where attainment is punished, mediocrity celebrated, and poor behaviour rewarded. The upper and middle classes are able to flood the remaining number of grammar schools and the handful of hyper-successful “state” schools such as the Oratory School in Fulham, which in the words of Peter Hitchens, is as much a comprehensive as 10 Downing Street is a mere terraced house. The middle classes have no issue changing their address or hiring private tutors. Access to “better” schools is now dependent on one’s finances, or late in life conversions to Roman Catholicism that conveniently correspond with the local RC Secondary School achieving better exam results than its secular counterpart. Is this really a more “equal” system than one that permits both vocational and academic routes without confusing the two?

Britain’s educational implosion can only begin to be remedied once we are prepared to loosen the state’s pernicious monopoly on schooling. As in private schools, talented teachers without the PGCE qualification must be allowed to teach. Academic courses should provide a robust curriculum that makes sure children are accurately and widely informed, and in the case of the Arts, must immerse themselves in all the facts before expecting them to make up their mind. Non-academic pathways must be seen as a valid option, and the funnelling of the majority of students into university massively reduced. Competition and selection must be permitted for the best methods to flourish. However, it would be wise to remain pessimistic. Despite being executively staffed almost entirely by the former students of selective schools, successive Labour and Conservative governments, have been hostile to the notion that the nature of the state sector itself is at the root of the education debacle. The advent of academies and free schools was more about shifting some of the financial burdens of a measly number of institutions onto private businesses, rather than a genuine shift toward competition, or the wholesale reconsidering a failed system. For now, it seems that homeschooling incidentally required by the lockdown is the only viable option for parents seeking to remove their children from the chaos and incentivised ignorance of current education arrangements. However, the financial difficulties of funding home tutors, or leaving a parent or carer out of work in order to teach, mean that this it is simply not an option for many individual families, and can only be achieved on a larger scale if communities voluntarily coordinate such efforts.

Photo by David and Alison Coxon on Flickr.

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