The courageous or ill advised move by the Secretary of State for education to toughen up educational standards depends on your viewpoint. Certainly the basis of the mounting criticism over falling standards needed addressing. The annual bloodbath emerging after the final GCSE and A level exam results are published resulted in two camps; parents, children and teaching resources who were thrilled by the improving results. The second camp comprising employers, further education establishments and the OECD were not. The bar had dropped and students were being launched in the big wide world unprepared. Now children must wait until the first tranche under the new regime take their finals, and pray we have got it right.
The second camp was the most significant. They had no axe to grind, they were not rewarded by the achievement of pass targets, and they saw the output of our educational system beginning to fail. Technology, society, geographical boundaries and communications had leaped forward; our educational standards had not. Yet this paradigm shift had been masked by results which implied all was well. Our teaching standards had progressively risen, the results revealed improved teaching and learning in a well maintained schooling system. The teaching unions said so.
Yet the feedback from teachers indicated rising stress, falling moral and a huge turnover in teacher employment. The claims of falling standards were understandably refuted by many who were at their wits end. Pedagogy was in turmoil but no one was prepared or able to draw a line in the sand and develop a modern educational system that met the future needs of the UK. Educational secretaries came, dabbled and went. Teaching unions rebutted, manipulated and refused. No one was responsible for the lack of progress; the attrition rate was a hidden disaster. Since Tony Blair’s initial battle cry of “education, education, education” little has been achieved; we have slipped disastrously down the international educational world league table at a time when we needed to re-launch the UK in a new role.
The world is evolving at a rate perhaps not seen since the industrial revolution. But whereas the UK led the industrial revolution we are now on the touchline watching the new game plan emerging in the BRIC countries. We are watching the commercial magnetic poles reversing polarity and can do nothing to stop it happening. Our enthusiasm in the 1990’s to move manufacturing from the UK to the Far East to improve short term profit margins has fuelled the imbalance. The UK shop window needs redressing with a new range of skills that will attract customers from overseas. The days of the British car; designed, manufactured and the company owned in the UK are over. Our most significant brands and utilities are foreign owned; London property is predominately now owned overseas.
So what are the educational needs of future generations? Michael Gove can see the problem but can we be sure he has the solution. Simply tightening the exam standards and reverting to a previous regime of a more rigid teaching curriculum is a start but it appears the much bigger plan is missing. We certainly do not have a classical structure that would respond to mere renovation. You can only repair a structure that is time expired for so long before it needs demolishing and rebuilding from scratch. It is the bigger plan that is missing, something the UK can be proud of, something that will meet the future needs of our children in this fast changing world, something our teaching resources can commit to, grasp with both hands and make it work. But our real problem is a stream of Educational secretaries who basically are looking to the next election, Whitehall staff who are career dabblers worried if their job is safe, and teachers, mesmerised by a constant flow of initiatives, are drained of strategic creativity.
The new standards for teaching and tightened exam structure may stop the haemorrhaging but we won’t know for sure for five years if it has any had any beneficial effect. Try telling the thousands of children involved that the best we can offer is to revert to a previous concept outmoded when it was superseded 15 years ago and certainly displaced by the rapidly changing world of today. Hopefully some might make it through and revolutionise education for the future because I don’t believe we’ve cracked it at the moment.