Why we’re not good at education

You probably know this: “England is the only developed country producing school leavers who are worse at maths and reading than their grandparents, according to a damning report.”

Or, to put it another way, England is the only developed country where grandparents are even better at maths and reading than school leavers, according to an encouraging report.

Which just goes to show that in education, statistics are not much more use than they are anywhere else. This is because they are made of rubber and can be twisted into any shape you like.

So is there anything wrong with education in the UK? We would all like everyone to be educated perfectly, bringing out each individual’s best and setting him or her on the road to fulfilment and, if possible, a reasonable salary.

Perfection, however, is not something human beings are very good at. All sorts of human traits militate against the education we provide being ideal.

First, there is the desire to get re-elected: this results in a compulsion to measure something that is innately beyond measurement in any vote-gathering sense. The only way to do it is to pretend that is everyone is the same, which is manifestly untrue.

Then there is the desire to insist that academic achievement is better than any other kind. Again, ludicrous, just like the assumption that fast-talking extroverts are the right kind of people to put in charge of everything.

Next, the desire for an easy life. This results in our schools continuing to employ teachers who are in it for the holidays, or who couldn’t think of anything better to do with their degree. Teaching is an art, and if we can’t get rid of bad teachers, pupils will continue to suffer.

A Big Issue seller is reported as complaining that striking teachers “messed up his pitch” by leaving huge amounts of litter after a rally. Whether you think teachers should strike or not, the litter is an appalling condemnation of them. If teachers care so little for quality of life that they leave litter, what hope is there for children?

Among all these time-servers, however, are large numbers, thank goodness, of brilliant teachers who children never forget. And in charge of many schools, superb head teachers. I have been privileged to meet many of them.

Their efforts are sometimes blunted by another human trait: the desire to interfere. Amateur governors (OK, there are some good ones) and politicians who know practically nothing of education beyond their own childhood experience decide that they know better than the professionals and make their lives a misery – so much so that some leave the profession.

So much for perfection. But that is by no means all. There is much that militates against a good education from another source: the pupils themselves, and their parents. This may be summed up as the desire to do badly. Or to put it more kindly, the complete lack of a desire to do well – to learn, to discipline oneself, to be receptive.

A generation has arisen which thinks that everyone deserves the same, even if they make no attempt to earn it. The result? Lack of discipline in the classroom, lack of support from parents for the teachers, and no desire to put children in the way of learning anything.

This is a cultural problem. So few people in this country think that anything really matters. The belittling of religious certainty spills over into a lack of respect for tradition and accumulated knowledge. Those who do well in other countries have a solid centre to their lives. They believe that becoming educated is important both to them and to others.

I cannot believe that the cultural vacuum in the UK will persist indefinitely. Many of the young generation that I meet are keen to do well, and to discover what appears to be missing from the national Weltanschauung. This is encouraging, although I am sure it is not universal. Nothing, after all, is perfect. We are all human.

Meanwhile, no doubt those statistics will keep bouncing around, and I advise you to keep out of their way. They may be heavy, and you could get hurt.