Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Vivat academia!

What follows is an article I wrote for a multi-author blog site shortly before this year’s A-level results were published. I’m adding it here for timxwalker2, whose comment today on my Larkin blog (Going down the long slide) touched on declining standards in education, on the forms of academic inflation that have affected our educational system for years. It’s polemical, deliberately so (it was the nature of the site!), but I stand by the essential point: education is the pursuit of excellence, not bogus and harmful notions of social equality.

It’s as predictable as the first cuckoo of spring. For years the publication of A-level results has been followed by lamentations over declining standards. So, let’s do something about it, let’s set the bar even higher, awarding particular merit to the best candidates, those achieving the best possible marks; let’s have a new A* grade. Well, now we have. The first results will be published soon. And what happens? Why, new lamentations, predictions that the independent schools will soar ahead of the state sector, fears about increasing social inequality.

The Observer gave this front page coverage on Sunday, reporting that privately educated pupils are expected to get three times as many of the A* grades at A-level than those in state schools. This means, of course, that the independents will be even more heavily represented in universities, raising concerns about ‘fairness’ and ‘social balance’ in institutions of higher learning.

Some universities are concerned enough by these wholly irrelevant pressures that they have decided not to use the A* this year. Cambridge, I’m delighted to say, will use them, but Oxford will not. Given the political intimidation universities have been subject to in the past, particularly in the illiterate New Labour years, I suppose there is really no great surprise in this.

If there is a wide gulf between fee-paying schools and the state sector that’s because much of the state sector is rubbish (do please note I wrote much). It really is time that we faced up to the simple fact that many comprehensives, particularly in the larger cities, are only good for producing oiks, chavs and gangstas in large numbers. Is there any surprise that Diane Abbott sought a way out for her own son? She did what any decent parent would do: she wanted the best, afraid of the worst. The crime of this hypocrite is that she would condemn everyone else to the worst.

Look, there is no secret about good schooling. Education, education, education, Blair chanted, which seems to have meant experiment, experiment, experiment and money, money, money. And what happened? We all know the answer – decline, decline, decline. As standards got steadily worse, the state sector went into free fall.

I attended a very good boarding school. Yes, a lot of us came from privileged or very privileged backgrounds, apart from the girls, some of the brightest in my cohort, who were there thanks to the former Tory government’s Assisted Places Scheme. Again, yes, a lot of us were highly motivated, which serves to ease the teaching process. Even so, my group was as mixed as any, some bright, others less so, still others positively dense. But the emphasis was on discipline and teaching, focused in the most effective way possible. There was none of the trendiness, drift, uncertainty and poor morale that are such steady features of the bog standard comprehensive.

So, should we be concerned that most university places are taken up by people from the independent sector? In my view, no, not if we really do want the best. I honestly could not care less about ‘reducing inequality.’ For thirteen years Labour tried to ‘reduce inequality’ with miserable results. Damian Hinds, a Tory member of the education select committee, quite rightly said that it’s not a question of money; it’s a question of learning from those who do it best. And it’s the private sector, the independents, the public schools that do it best. They always have; they always will.


  1. The only answer is a fully and unapologetic restoration of Butler's tripartite system, a system which tailored schools to the needs the pupil and schools which in the case of grammar schools, offered a superlative education to those who had rent this through the consequences of merit, as merit is indeed the consequence of educational cultivation, not its antecedent.

    Some of this country's best minds were products of grammar schools. The destruction of these fine institutions is to the eternal shame of the Wilson Government.

  2. Two factors affect the quality of education: Choice, and Effort. Neither has anything to do with the native ability of pupils, which is affected by factors outside human control - at least for now.

    Without free choice, parents and students cannot effectively signal which institutions are meeting their expectations, and which are failing. This form of coercion is the hallmark of authoritarian regimes that verge on tyranny.

    But more important than choice is personal effort. Students will only get out of an education what they are willing to put in.

  3. Adam, Labour government's always manage to do the wrong thing, certainly.

  4. What Wilson did to grammar schools was un-forgiveable. The Butler system allowed for each pupil to get an education that was best suited for the particular individual. And yet Dave and Gove refuse to build new grammar schools? Why can't they break free from Wilson's intellectual dungeon?

  5. I believe in choice too--the choice of the best schools to choose the best pupils. We are all born with innate abilities which we can either cultivate or squander. Ultimately though, some simply haven't an innate ability or desire to become learned and there's nothing wrong with that. If everyone was a professor who would build the circuses and bake the bread?

  6. For parents un-comfortable with the fact they gave birth to a person who possess no ability, I'd advice them to take Guizot's advice; enrichissez-vous

  7. The Germans always had the right approach here. Their Technical High Schools may have been for the less academically gifted, but they were not a second best. I have a feeling- though I'm no expert on this -that the grammar school question was always tied to that of the poor quality of the secondary moderns on offer to the majority.

  8. Quite right. Secondary moderns were designed with the intention of being parallel systems vis-a-vis grammars, but as you say they were often neglected. Yet many were vastly better than one might guess. True the standards were not as uniform as the German model--but the answer was to improve them not destroy the education system.

  9. Adam
    The problem with a Tripartite System, even with the best intentions, is that there are not only three students, or types of students.

    No matter how much effort you put in, you cannot do well in a bad school.
    I still remember asking a question in Physics and the answer being, you dont need to know that. It was on the test, you just didnt need to know it to get a C.
    Learning even basic mechanics is a struggle when half the class cant writ SUVAT let alone understand the letters mean words

    I wont bore you by repeating my solution again, and again, and again.

  10. Exactly. The whole comprehensive education programme of recent decades has been motivated largely by envy, and not by concern for educational standards at all.

    Ditto the absurd (but naive and well-intentioned) policy of the last government that almost anyone who can add 2+2 together should go to university (or, rather, in the majority of cases, an institution that isn't a university, doesn't serve the purpose or have the resources of a university, and certainly doesn't provide the education that a university should provide).

    All must have prizes! A goldfish in a plastic bag for everyone.

    Needless to say it is precisely those in the lowest social stratum that suffer most as a result of this misguided pretence of egalitarianism.

  11. Raging Tory.

    There are only three types of students--well frankly in reality there are only too. The clever and the stupid.

  12. Poppycock.
    I'd plonk myself in the clever catagory, yet a "classical" education would be well beyond me, lacking any aptitude in languages and actualy having a negative amount musical ability, so weak that clapping is infact somewhat beyond my talents.