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No sacred cows

Must try harder: Labour wants to reverse a decade of progress in education

7 December 2019

9:00 AM

7 December 2019

9:00 AM

If education rather than Brexit or the NHS was the biggest issue in this election campaign, the Tories would be coasting to victory. On Tuesday, the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) published its latest rankings, based on tests taken by 15-year-olds in 79 countries, and they show the UK climbing the international league tables. In reading, we’re now 14th (up eight places from 2015); in science, 14th (up a place); and in maths, 18th (up nine places). In other words, British schoolchildren are making huge strides compared to those in other countries. And over a period where money has been pretty tight. Why, then, would you want to overhaul our education system, as the Labour party is proposing to do?

Of course, the picture is more complicated than it seems because education is a devolved area. But if you look at the UK’s four different education systems, the one doing the best is England’s and it’s no coincidence that the Conservatives have been in charge of England’s education policy since 2010 (with some interference by the Lib Dems). Across all three subject areas — reading, science and maths — English schoolchildren are now outperforming their Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish counterparts. And the further you go back, i.e. the closer you get to the period when Labour was in charge, the worse English children did. In 2009, for instance, England was ranked third among the four nations in maths and reading. Yet, incredibly, Jeremy Corbyn wants to reverse all the education reforms that have been made since 2010.

To get a sense of what England’s education system would be like under Labour, look at Wales, where the party has been in charge since 1999. Wales has been the worst performer in the UK since Pisa started testing schoolchildren in 2000 and is now the only British nation to be below the international average in all three subject areas. Andreas Schleicher, head of education and skills at the OECD, singled out Wales for criticism this year. ‘It’s not just that Wales has underperformed, it’s seen performance decline,’ he told the BBC.


According to researchers at Bristol University, many of the problems date back to the decision in Cardiff Bay to scrap league tables in 2001 — GCSE results between Welsh and English schoolchildren diverged sharply from that point onwards. Needless to say, league tables are singled out for criticism in Labour’s manifesto, along with more frequent testing and more rigorous school inspections — all things that have contributed to the improved performance of English schoolchildren.

The solution the Welsh executive has come up with is to copy the education policies of another of the UK nations — no, not England, but Scotland. For some unfathomable reason, it has hired the mastermind behind Scotland’s ‘Curriculum for Excellence’ to design a new curriculum for Welsh schoolchildren, even though it has proved a disaster north of the border. In the tests ten years ago, Scotland was ranked first among the four UK nations in maths and reading and second in science. Since the ‘Curriculum for Excellence’ was introduced by the SNP in 2010, it has plummeted, and is now second from bottom in maths and science. Admittedly, when it comes to reading, the attainment gap between Scotland’s most able and least able children has narrowed since 2009. But that’s because the highest-attainers have seen their performance decline, not because the lowest-attainers are doing better.

The ‘Curriculum for Excellence’ uses a skills-based approach in which children study different topics rather than traditional subjects — the approach that Michael Gove rejected when he became education secretary in 2010. His return to a more old–fashioned model, with an emphasis on imparting knowledge, met with huge resistance from the panjandrums of the educational establishment, who argued that it would penalise children from disadvantaged backgrounds. But children from disadvantaged backgrounds in England stand a far better chance of going to university than their Scottish counterparts, even though Scottish students don’t have to pay tuition fees.

It’s hard not to regard the latest international league tables as a vindication of Gove and his successors, proving beyond doubt that the traditional approach raises the attainment of all children. The choice at this election is clear: a doubling-down on this successful strategy, or a return to mediocrity.


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