The Problem With Britain’s State Education System Can Be Solved

British educational performance has flat-lined according to the PISA tests

British educational performance has flat-lined according to the PISA tests

This week we learned that Britain’s education system is stagnating relative to the rest of the world.

International assessment tests show that the academic performance of our children is flat-lining. The results cast doubt on the effectiveness of our state school system and question the whole direction of government education policy during the last decade. They also show that the improvements in examination grades seen during the last government were a sham.

Some 12,000 children in the UK took part in the tests last year as part of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). They were among 500,000 15 year olds from some 65 countries who sat tests in reading, mathematics and science organised by the multinational Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

The results are sobering. Britain is ranked 21st in science, 23rd in reading and 26th in mathematics. Meanwhile the performance of children from other countries has improved, pushing Britain down the league table – dropping five places in science. As education secretary Michael Gove put it: this research shows that we are “at best stagnant, at worse declining”.

Resources are not the problem and they are not the solution

Despite a significant focus on “education, education, education” by the last government, the performance of British school children has not improved since at least 2006, according to these PISA results. If nothing else, this demonstrates the extent to which grade inflation explains away the nominal rise in examination scores seen during the Labour years. It also proves that the extra resources poured into education by the last government did not yield any significant measurable return. The children who benefited from that largess for eight of their ten years in school have shown no improvement over previous cohorts.

Indeed, the tests also undermine the very idea that greater resources are the key to educational success. The Pisa research demonstrates that educational results are, beyond a certain point, unaffected by changes in resources. While greater resources for British children produced no improvement, the results from Italy and Ireland show that it is possible to improve academic performance even when cutting education budgets.

The real dodgy data was all those inflated examination grades

We have had a predictable response from the teaching unions with the National Union of Teachers questioning the validity of the data and using the occasion to call on the Government to stop its “attacks” on teachers’ pay and pensions. “It is important for parents to know that a growing number of statisticians dispute the methodology and question whether the comparisons between countries are valid,” stated the NUT press release in a quote attributed to NUT General Secretary Christine Blower.

It is hardly surprising that the NUT seeks to discredit the PISA tests for they make uncomfortable reading for teaching unions and teachers alike. If the NUT is really worried about dodgy data then it should have been questioning those ever improving examination scores during the last decade.

Labour shadow education spokesman Tristram Hunt has used the results to call for an upgrade to the professionalism of schools by banning “unqualified” teachers from state schools. In doing so he ignores another inconvenient truth that the most successful schools in our country, the independents, are free to hire whoever they want. Teaching qualifications and a quest for greater “professionalism” – whatever that means – are red herrings.

The problem is far more deep seated and goes to the very heart of the way we organise education in Britain. The trouble is that state education is just that… State. A sprawling nationalised, unionised, government-run, over-regulated near-monopoly where the funding is top sliced by local authority bureaucrats who limit and constrain the freedom of action of head teachers and governing boards.

Sooner or later someone in government will pluck up the courage to speak the truth

The PISA data confirms that Britain’s state-run education system is going the same way as all the other state owned industries that went before it; inevitably slipping down the league table of international competitiveness while demanding extra resources and greater regulatory protection – “professionalism” – in the futile belief that these will actually do some good.

Britain’s state education system is not working. Our leading politicians – from all the main parties – know this. Many of them went to independent schools and many of them send their own children to independent schools. Sooner or later someone in government will pluck up the courage to speak the truth and say the unsayable: state education is broken.

This will be the first, most welcome and most necessary step in putting things right.

The fact is that we can run high quality schools in this country. We have excellent independent schools that deliver a first class education to their pupils; indeed, so good that they attract foreign students, bringing in valuable foreign exchange and invisible export earnings from abroad. The independent sector is vastly superior to the state system on objective measures ranging from examination results through to university applications and even career success.

We have been running an experiment in this country with two systems running side by side and the results are in. It is high time that the 93 per cent of our kids who are losing out in the failing system get to enjoy the same benefits as the 7 per cent who are educated in the independent sector.

The answer to our state educational problems is blindingly obvious. Let the independent sector run our education. Privatise state schools.



NUT press release:


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