English School Daze
This all sounds very familiar. And note: in England, the Labour Party gets the blame.
By JAN BOUCEK
LONDON -- My wife and I have just had one of our last ritual parent-teacher evenings as our youngest nears the end of her high school years in the U.K. What a depressing experience as we reflected back on the frenzy, worry, confusion and expense needed to navigate through the nightmare that is British education. Our sympathies go to the young parents.
Something has gone horribly wrong. It started innocently enough under Thatcher, when school league tables were first introduced. The laudable objective then of ranking schools by academic achievement has now become a Soviet-style planning monster under Labour, besotted with targets and socially "desirable" outcomes.
In our 18-year experience with British education, we've seen the obsession with those performance targets first-hand. It has spawned constant tinkering with teaching, measuring and testing procedures to ensure girls do as well as boys, that poor kids do as well as rich ones, and that nobody gets left behind.
As a consequence, the statistics now proclaim an ever-more brilliant generation of kids, scoring better and better on dumbed-down exams. Only those top grades don't mean much when everyone is getting them and universities are pressured to consider social background as well as grades in their admissions policies.
To get to this state of affairs, Labour has thrown a lot of money at education. According to the Department for Education and Skills data, national and local government spending in England has ballooned from £32.9 billion in 2000 to an estimated £51.4 billion last year. The government plans to spend an additional £12 billion by 2008.
The return on this "investment" has been lousy. Productivity growth is more or less stagnant in the U.K. The country lags competitors significantly, especially the U.S. and even France and Germany. Businesses complain of having to provide remedial instruction in basic reading, writing and math to young recruits. My wife, a university lecturer, bemoans the fact that most U.K. students expect to have everything spoon-fed to them, unlike foreign students who are more independently inquisitive and resourceful.
Prime Minister Tony Blair has belatedly wised up to the need for reform. He's introducing modest proposals to give schools more independence in their pursuit of excellence -- yes, the faint glimmer of competition. However, even these halting steps are beset by opposition from Old Labour backbenchers, and the package may die without the backing of the Tory party under its new leader David Cameron.
The challenge from the old guard is best reflected in Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott's knee-jerk attack on the reforms: "If you set up a school and it becomes a good school, the great danger is that's the place they [the middle classes] want to go to." Well, duh!
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For beleaguered parents, the ordeal starts at the child's birth: Are we in a bad school district?! Out comes the calculator: move closer to a better school where house prices are higher, or start saving for a private education?
Pretty soon, it's onto tutors for entrance exams in the desperate hope of gaining access to a private school or a top-notch state-run grammar school. Then there's slogging through annual league tables, school inspections, action plans, prescriptive curricula and other wheezes.
At our parent-teacher meeting, each instructor was allotted just a handful of minutes. The conversation was focused on the specifics of what our child needed to do to make the grade on the exams. There will be mocks, practice runs, coachings, tutorials and even limitless retakes of exams until they are passed.
For the school, this is intended to make sure the final results protect or enhance its spot on the league tables. Probe the teachers and they will admit to despair and frustration. So over the years, we formulated strategies for the exams with the teachers rather than discuss what the kids are actually learning or, heaven forbid, what we would like them to be learning.
They do better in France with its broader baccalaureate. It's what my wife went through and is similar to what I had studied back in Ontario many years ago. To be sure, each generation bemoans declining educational standards in the generation below, but my wife and I are pretty sure that we came out of high school knowing more literature, history, science and mathematics than our daughter does now. My daughter will have to rely on Google to bail her out in the real world, because we're pretty sure she couldn't put Napoleon, Magellan, Plato, Charlemagne, Muhammad, Jefferson, Galileo, Lenin, Shakespeare and Gandhi on a timeline with a one-sentence description of each.
We're relieved to soon be done parenting a British school child. As consumers and taxpayers, we've been shortchanged.
So, good luck, Mr. Blair, with your reforms. Get ahead of this one, Mr. Cameron. Your country, your paymasters and their children deserve better.
Mr. Boucek is editor of Dow Jones Newswires for Europe, Middle East and Africa.
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