Dose of reality in standards debate

June 14, 1996

In an Institute of Directors survey on education one respondent recently complained of a conspiracy between Conservatives, Labour and the education establishment: "It is as if there were a tacit understanding that standards can never be questioned - a sort of new political correctness. It is the Emperor's Clothes."

Tony Blair's advisers have clearly drawn his attention to the report, judging by the way the issue has been seized on. Rather than simply attacking Government policy New Labour is pre-empting policy solutions normally regarded as the preserve of their Conservative opponents. Thus, while David Blunkett called for a return to traditional teaching methods in primary schools, Tony Blair argued, in a speech in Oxfordshire, for an end to mixed-ability teaching in secondary schools. In a memorable "soundbite", where he stated that "Equality must not become the enemy of quality", he seems almost to have been paraphrasing the IOD report. This calls for a return to a culture of excellence and the end of "the egalitarian 'no one can fail, no one should excel' ideology.

The report makes for uncomfortable reading. Seventy-nine per cent of directors surveyed were concerned about the basic literacy and numeracy skills of job applicants, normally the minimum requirements for employability. About a third of respondents doubted graduates' suitability as job applicants. Part of the problem here is concern about the growing trend of the more traditional, "hard" subjects like maths and physics being replaced by more fashionable and "softer" subjects such as media studies.

The survey involved a random sample of 300 (drawn from the IOD membership using an equal probability selection procedure). Of these, a third were directors of companies with one to 20 employees and 64 per cent from companies with fewer than 100 employees.

Many of the concerns are predictable. The increase in A level pass rates is interpreted as evidence of grade inflation, while the increase in the number of universities is blamed for the alleged disillusionment of graduates who find themselves with "debased" qualifications. Respondents indicated genuine and legitimate concern in maths education and an unease about the notion of "competencies" in the NVQ/GNVQ system.

Apart from one quirky suggestion (that Latin should be mandatory for those seeking employment as secondary teachers), their solutions are equally predictable, too. These include streaming and setting as opposed to mixed-ability teaching, selection as opposed to comprehensives, and the re-introduction of rigour in all parts of the system (including greater emphasis on examinations). Arguing that standards must be comparable and levels of achievement transparent, they call for the restoration of the A level as the "gold standard" as preparation for university entrance.

Perhaps most important is the call for a "proper" national debate about education standards. There are three reasons why we should pause before dismissing this. First, serious questions have been asked about deficiencies in the "product" of our education system at all levels. We should address them head on, but make the case for looking forward, not backwards. Second, we should not leave it up to Dearing. His review is behind closed doors: any public debate, and thus change, will be deferred until after the forthcoming election. Finally, much of the criticism is about perception rather than reality. Is it not time we tried harder to get some of the really good news across?

Diana Green is pro vice chancellor of the University of Central England in Birmingham.

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