Official UK Government data show the proportion of UK pupils achieving level 4 or above at Key Stage 2 rising sharply between 1997 and 2010, and the proportion of examinees achieving at least 2 A-level or equivalent passes, plus those with 3 or more such passes, also rising markedly over the same period. It looks and feels good. Sadly it isn’t, for 4 strong reasons. These reasons are reflected in the international comparison of educational performance provided by tghe OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) covering 65 countries. It shows that while Finland and Korea in 2009 had between 42-52% of pupils classified as top or strong performers in the key subjects of reading, maths and science and only 6-8% classified as lowest performers, the UK had only 28-34% rated as top/strong performers but as many as 15-20% categorised as lowest performers. There is in fact a UK slippage which is very disturbing.
The first reason for concern is that independent tests conducted by the Curriculum Evaluation and Management centre at Durham University indicate GCSE standards may have slipped over the past two decades by nearly two-thirds os a grade and A-level standards even more by an average of 2 grades, so that exam performance may not be improving at all.
Second, in addition to grade inflation, there is much evidence of savvy schools pushing pupils towards easier, less academic subjects such as sports management, catering, and media film and TV stidies. That suggests that in the traditional key areas of science, maths and languages the overall UK figures give a very false impression.
Third, the OECD’s PISA assessments show the UK has slid down the rankings for international tests over the last decade. The UK was placed 7th in reading for 15 year olds in 2000, then 17th in 2006, and then down further to 25th in 2009. In maths the UK was placed 8th in 2000, then 24th in 2006 (below the average), and finally 28th in 2009. In science the UK was 4tgh in 2000, but 14th in 2006, and then 16th in 2009. The UK was the only country to fall from a top-performing group in 2000 to a lower group just 6 years later, and then fall further still 3 years beyond that.
Fourth, it has long been known that there is a polarisation of performance between the private schools at one end of the UK spectrum and the long tail of educational under-achievement at the other – a wider gap than almost any other country. In yesterday’s A-level results private school pupils made up 13% of all A-level entries, but were awarded 30% of all A*s.
All this raises profound questions about the quality and competitiveness of the British educational system where successive governments have failed. New Labour hugely increased the educational budget, but spend far too much of it on PFI building projects and far too little on supporting teachers in low-performance areas and raising educational aspirations in those communities. Gove’s drive in the present government for academies and free schools will re-introduce selection by the back door, polarise the school system further still, and not tackle the fundamental causes of Britain’s educational decline. A radical re-think is now urgently needed.