Ask an English child of 2011 about the iconic dates of English history such as Hastings, Blenheim and Waterloo and your chances of getting a correct answer are very small. Quiz them on who was Alfred the Great or ask them to describe the outcome of the Spanish Armada and the odds are that you will be met with blank stares. Pose a question relating to English geography such as the position of the Chilterns or the course of the Severn and a shrug of the shoulders is the likely outcome. Mention a Shakespeare play or a Dickens novel and childish eyes are wont to roll.
Sadly, the modern English child is more likely to be able to tell a questioner about the Muslim festival of Ramadan than relate the story of Easter. They will know more of the geography of Africa (if they know any geography at all) than of England. On the rare occasions when they are told about England’s history, it will only be in the context of the country’s “evil” past, with the Atlantic slave trade elevated to the status of the ultimate act of historical immorality and the Empire recounted as an unrelieved tale of the exploitation of native peoples.
The upshot is that we have several generations of English children who have commonly left school with next to no meaningful knowledge of their own history and higher culture. That applies not only to those who depart education with a basic school education at the age of 16, but even those who go on to university. Worse, their education is designed to leave them with, at best, a belief that they have nothing to be proud of because they are English, and, at worst, that they should be thoroughly ashamed of the fact that they are English.
The conscious intent of the liberal elite is to create a belief amongst the English that they, of all peoples, are not worthy of a national identity. Most of the English do not actually believe this even at the intellectual level and they still have a primal sense of being English because of Man’s innate tendency to associate with “the tribe”. But this is beside the point. By being denied access to their history and culture, English children are left without a bedrock of conscious cultural imprinting to build upon their natural and healthy communal instincts. They are like children of good natural parts who have been denied schooling.
Education, of course, is far more than academic study. It is about the general development of the child. Modern psychological research consistently fingers the peer group as most potent influence on the development of a child, far more influential than the family. Those who doubt this is might care to reflect on the fact that children speak with the accent of their peer group not that of their parents.
The dominance of the peer group is vitally important because it means that children can potentially be manipulated en masse. If they do not take their view of the world from their parents – and children commonly reject their parents’ views – they have to take their view from elsewhere. That leaves them vulnerable to elite propaganda, especially that pedalled by the mass media and schools. The important point here is that parents as a class have many views, an elite ideology has one view. The danger is that the elite can succeed at least partially in forcing a single view of the world onto all or at least most children.
A peer group whose members have been properly socialised in their history and culture and who have been given a generally positive view of their society, will reinforce that view themselves. A group robbed of that knowledge and mentality will be less inclined – because they have less positive information and reinforcement about their “tribe” - to amplify what they glean from the adult world. They may build upon the negative propaganda ceaselessly fed to them by schools, by the media and by politicians and by the persistent promotion of other cultures as superior to their own. Most damagingly, they are in danger of being conditioned to believe that they, the native people of England, are but one ethnic group amongst many, that they have no special cultural claim within their own land.
A teacher from 40 years ago transported to the present would be astounded by what they saw in schools and universities, so alien to them would be the current state of our education in terms of content and execution. How, they would ask, can such a fine system of education have been brought so low? Why are children today so ignorant of their own past and society? Why are they so often incompetent in even the basics of literacy and numeracy? How did we come to such a degraded educational state in such a short space of time?
It is those questions I shall attempt to answer. But before I begin let me say one thing more. It is very tempting to look at what we have now and attribute all that has gone wrong to a self-conscious desire on the part of the teaching profession to destroy English identity by wilfully denigrating England and the English and by withholding her history and culture from English children. That is the most obvious and probably the most important part of the story, but progressive education, the consequences of comprehensivisation, the problems of rampant bureaucracy, anti-elitism, Thatcherism and mass immigration all have all played their part in the project to deracinate the English.
The way it was I was born in 1947. Never, perhaps, has England (and Britain) been more of a coherent community. The dramatic recent experience of the Second World War filled the minds of everyone and that shared experience bound together even more tightly a very racially and culturally homogenous country. It was rare to see a black or brown face even in London, and any suggestion that someone from a racial or cultural minority should do anything but their best to assimilate into English culture would have been generally thought to touch the confines of lunacy. It was a very English, very British world.
It was a time when Britain made most of the manufactured goods that it consumed, including its own cars, aircraft, ships, and it would have been thought extraordinary for a British Government to fail to protect British industry. Great industrial names such as Austin (cars) and Fry’s (chocolate) were not only English-owned and English made but leaders in the English market. The shops which people used were generally owned by the English and more often than not family enterprises. Every day an inhabitant of England was reminded that they were members of an advanced technological society which could make or grow what it wanted and that most of what they consumed was made in England (or at least Britain) or came from the Empire.
The idea of Empire was still important – just. The fifties were the very last moment when an English boy could grow up with an imperial consciousness as part of everyday life. There was no assumption that the Empire would collapse. India might have gone in 1947, but the assumption amongst both the general population and the political elite was that Britain would have to bear “the white man’s burden” for many a long year yet. That will seem extraordinary to the point of fantasy now, but it is true. In the forties and fifties the Foreign and Colonial Office continued to recruit and train young men for careers as imperial servants such as District Officers and white emigration from Britain to places such as Kenya and Rhodesia was officially encouraged.
Against this background English schools taught as a matter of course a curriculum that extolled English and British values, history and culture. History for the English child was British and imperial history first with European history a poor second. Geography was concerned primarily with the physical and demographic demography of Britain. English literature concentrated on the classic English texts from Chaucer through to Trollope.
But it was not simply English history and culture which was imparted. Whole class teaching was the norm with the teacher firmly in charge. Children were expected to acquire the factual knowledge of a subject as well as its process. Because discipline was not generally a problem, schools were primarily institutions to teach people rather than being the child-minding depots we all too often see today. There is a good case for saying that the general standard of English education was never higher than in the quarter century between 1945 and 1970. This was not only because of the good overall educational standard, but because all pupils, unlike the pre-war system, now got a secondary education as of right.
That is not to say everything in the post-war educational garden was lovely. Before comprehensive education began under the first Wilson Government, English state education was divided between grammar schools, secondary moderns and a small number of technical schools – the last were intended as training grounds for artisans, to use an old fashioned word. The consequence was to lower, irrevocably in most instances, the social horizons and aspirations of those who did not pass the 11-plus and go to grammar schools, because it was very difficult to move to a grammar school after the age of 11. It also created a sense of inferiority and resentment amongst many 11-plus failures.
Despite these shortcomings, the system was unreservedly to be preferred to what we have today. The grammar schools not only produced a genuinely educated class, but provided an escape route to something better for clever children from even the poorest backgrounds. That opportunity grew with the significant expansion of university and polytechnic places in the fifties and sixties. In 1950 approximately 2 per cent of English school-leavers went on to higher education: by 1970, following the implementation of the Robbins Report (1963), the figure was approximately 7 per cent (and this was the age of the post-war baby-boomer generation, so there were more pupils in the age group in 1970 than 1950). Most tellingly, in the 1960s, before the destruction of the grammar schools, workingclass children in higher education formed a greater proportion of the whole student body than it does now – there are more workingclass students now, but that is simply a consequence of the vast increase in those in higher education to more than 40 per cent. More on the consequences of that when I deal with the decline in educational standards since the sixties.
How things changed
By the time I left school in the mid-sixties the Empire was effectively finished – the final nail in the coffin of imperial feeling was banged in by our entry into the EU in 1972, which alienated the white dominions – and a new spirit of anti-Establishment feeling was beginning to erode school discipline. But progressive ideals had not yet taken hold the educational establishment and the comprehensive disaster was only in its infancy. The school leaving exams, the O and A Levels, were a real test of competence in both their subjects and of the literacy and numeracy of candidates. To take but one example of the difference between then and now: even O Level science exams had, for 16-year-olds, demanding practicals as well as written papers.
By the mid seventies the grammar schools had been reduced to a rump of a few hundred. Ironically, most of those which had converted to comprehensive schools or which had chosen to become private schools to preserve their status, had been forced to change by a supposedly conservative government, that of Ted Heath, whose education minister was Margaret Thatcher. The failure of Heath to stop comprehensivisation was a harbinger of what was to happen under the future Conservative governments of Thatcher and Major.
The comprehensive ideal is not innately wrong. Children of very widely differing abilities can be successfully taught together. Traditionally, the greatest public schools in England have been comprehensives of a sort. They took boys who varied from the exceptionally bright to the stonewall stupid and managed largely to successfully educate both groups and all those in between. The very bright won scholarships to Oxbridge, while the stonewall stupid at least left school functionally literate.
But these schools were hopeless models for a state comprehensive system. They drew almost all of their pupils from the middle and upper classes and the resources available to the schools from fees and endowments vastly outstripped any that could ever be available to state funded schools. The social class of the pupils meant that the pupils had expectations of being in the higher reaches of society when they entered adult life and parents who actively wanted and expected their children to be educated. To these advantages were added greatly superior financial resources which permitted the recruitment of first rate staff, small classes and personal tuition.
A general comprehensive system lacks the advantages of a great public school. Most of the schools will be dominated by the children of the working class simply because they are by far the most numerous. That would be true even if all private schools were abolished and “bussing” of middle and upper class children was enforced to ensure that schools were socially mixed.
Inevitably the adult expectations of working class children tend to be lower than those of the middle and upper classes. Their parents are generally less supportive of the idea of education. A significant minority are actively hostile to their children becoming better educated than they are because it divorces the children from their workingclass roots. Few will be able to provide active academic assistance to their children. Those facts alone make mixed ability teaching difficult. Add in the much smaller financial resources available to state schools – which expresses itself in larger classes, a narrower curriculum and, on average, less able and less well motivated staff – and you have a recipe for low educational attainment. In such schools the bright and academically interested pupils often become isolated, under-challenged intellectually and frequently bullied, while the duller, non-academic majority are allowed to plough an educational furrow, which stretches from academic inadequacy to an outright failure of education.
In practice comprehensivisation was much worse than that. Bussing was not enforced. The better off continued to send their children to fee-paying schools – today approximately 7 per cent of our schoolchildren are privately educated, a higher proportion than in the 1960s when many middleclass parents were happy to send their children to state grammar schools. (It is a grand irony that comprehensivisation rescued the public schools, many of which were struggling to maintain numbers by 1965).
Social segregation by the use of fee-paying schools was amplified both by the natural segregation of social classes into geographical areas – in the absence of enforced “bussing” a middle class suburb will have a local school which is largely filled with middleclass children – and by the widespread practice of middle class parents moving to areas where good state schools were available. The consequence has been a state school system which is heavily segregated by class, with the schools dominated by the working class tending to be the lowest achieving.
The subversion of the social mixing part of the comprehensive ideal was further complicated by mass immigration. This introduced not only racial and ethnic conflict into schools, a toxic enough disruptive element in itself, but also created grave practical problems because so many of the immigrant children did not have a competence in English. The official promotion of multiculturalism and its concomitant idea that any member of an ethnic minority is automatically a victim of white society complicated the position further, not least in the area of discipline. Ethnic minorities soon realised that in the context of an official sponsorship of “victimhood” they could get away with more and more. Native English children seeing this, naturally enough, also became more inclined to misbehave.
Because immigrants settled almost entirely in large towns and cities, these problems were and are confined almost exclusively to schools where the white pupils were workingclass, who found their already inferior opportunities for education further reduced. Worse, as we shall see, immigration was the final lever which allowed progressive education to not only gain absolute ascendency in the English state educational system, but to transform the progressive ideal into an overt political movement.
When the second Wilson government was elected in 1974,progressive education had gone a fair way to obtaining the stranglehold it has today and to developing from an educational theory into a political doctrine.
Progressive or child-centred educational theories have a long history. The idea that the child should not be actively, (and to the progressive mind oppressively) educated by adults but be provided with the opportunity to learn as its nature drives it to learn, is not in itself an ignoble idea and people throughout history have expressed concern about the stultifying of children through too strict a regime. However, all ideas, once they harden into an ideology have a nasty habit of being driven to extremes, becoming both fundamentally unreasonable and impracticable. Rousseau made what we now called child-centred education unreasonable in the 18th century by taking it to the extremes of believing that children would “naturally” find their true nature and intellectual level if placed in the right circumstances, that it was European society that corrupted the individual – from this mentality the Romantic fantasy of the noble savage emerged. It is as good an example of an intellectual construction unrelated to reality as one could find. That the vast majority of children do not respond positively to undirected education and a general lack of adult authority is clear to anyone who has had anything to do with children, let alone having been responsible for their formal education, a process, incidentally, which is primarily concerned with teaching children things they would not naturally learn or even come into contact with if left to their own devices.
Rousseau’s intellectual descendents followed consciously or unconsciously in his mistaken wake. Those in England in the nineteen sixties and seventies were both extreme in their progressive beliefs and politically motivated. They not only believed that children should not be actively instructed, but also that the power relationship between teachers and pupils should become one of equality. (This idea has just reached its reductio ad absurdum with Ofsted introducing various questionnaires to be completed by pupils at primary schools, secondary schools and sixth form colleges. The pupils will assess their schools’ performance through these questionnaires, which will only be seen by Ofsted – Daily Telegraph 19 2 2005)
Whole class teaching with the teacher at the front of the class gradually gave way to groups of children clustered around tables and enjoying only sporadic contact with their teacher. Children hearing their teachers spouting progressive mantras about non-oppressive teaching and the evil of exams, responded in an absolutely predictable way: they became ill-disciplined and utterly disinclined to learn. These traits were reinforced by the growing failure of the comprehensive system to even equip many of them with the basic tools to learn: literacy and numeracy and the general lack of intellectual challenge with which they were faced. A child who has spent his or her years before the age of 14 (when the 16-year-old school exam courses begin) being asked to do nothing demanding is inevitably going to be daunted if they are suddenly faced with a Shakespeare text or Newton’s laws of motion.
This lack of intellectual challenge arose because educational progressives saw it as their duty to socially engineer class differences out of society. Academically, this desire translated itself into a tendency towards ensuring a general mediocrity of performance throughout the comprehensive schools rather than an attempt to raise the academic horizons of children from poor homes. Not only were exams frowned upon but competition of any sort was deemed to be harmful. Children were, the progressives said, damaged by failure and consequently opportunities for demonstrable failure must be removed.
When it came to the content of the academic curricula, the progressives attacked on two fronts. One was what might be broadly called the “I hate everything about England” policy, which overtly despised and denigrated everything that England had ever done or was. The other was to promote social egalitarianism. Nowhere was this seen more perniciously than in the teaching of history. Complaints about an over concentration on “Kings and Queens” history had long existed, but no one in the mainstream academic world seriously suggested that such history was unimportant. Now it was to be considered worthless because it was not “relevant” to the lives of the pupils. Facts and chronology were replaced by “historical empathy” and investigative skills. Where once pupils would have learnt of Henry V, Wellington and the Great Reform Bill, they now were asked to imagine that they were a peasant in 14th Century England or an African slave on a slave ship, going to market in the New World. The results of such “empathy” were not judged in relation to the historical record, but as exercises in their own right. Whatever this is, it is not historical understanding.
Other disciplines were contaminated by the same mentality. A subject was judged by its “relevance” to the pupil or the difficulty theaverage pupil had in mastering it. Shakespeare was deemed too difficult and remote for workingclass children and traditional maths was largely replaced by modern maths”, which instead of teaching children how to complete a calculation or demonstrate a theorem, attempted, with precious little success, to teach esoterica such as Set theory and the theory of numbers.
When teaching is largely removed from facts, the assessment of the work of those taught becomes nothing more than the opinion of the teacher. This inevitably resulted in the prejudices of the teacher being reflected in their pupils work and the teacher’s marking. In 2005 this means political correctness wins the day. History teaching, and the teaching of other subjects such as geography which can be given a PC colouring, has become little better than propaganda. This would be unfortunate if the propaganda promoted English history and culture uncritically. But to have anti-English propaganda in English schools and universities is positively suicidal. That it is state policy is barely credible.
The extent to which the state has embraced the politically correct, anti-British line is illustrated by this letter to the Daily Telegraph from Chris McGovern the director of the History Curriculum Association, which campaigns against the failure to teach British history fairly or comprehensively:
SIR–The landmarks of British history have become optional parts of the national curriculum (report Sept. 10). They appear only as italicised examples of what is permissible to teach.
However, this permission is offered in guarded terms. A guidance letter already sent to every school in the country states: “… we would also like to emphasise that it is very much up to individual schools to determine whether or not to use the italicised examples”. However, there is no such equivocation about teaching history through a host of politically correct social themes. Failure to filter history through such perspectives as gender, race, agent and cultural diversity will be in breach of the law. (Daily Telegraph 13 9 1999).
Skills more important than facts
Alongside this process of de-factualisation grew the pernicious idea that the learning of “skills” was more important than knowledge. This resulted in the absurdity of children being taught how to “research” a topic rather than being taught a subject. The idea that one can have any understanding of a subject without a proper grasp of its content is best described as bonkers. Anyone who has ever been asked to do anything of any complexity with which they are unfamiliar will know from painful experience how difficult it is to suddenly master the knowledge needed to perform the task – attempting to assemble flat-pack furniture from the instructions is a good way of learning this sad fact.
There is also the growing obsession with technology as a teaching medium. There is the Daily Telegraph education editor, John Clare writing on 26
1 2005 under the title “Is learning a thing of the past?
Something very odd is happening in secondary schools. The focus of teaching is switching from imparting knowledge to preparing pupils for employment – in, ironically, the ”knowledge economy”. The change, unannounced and undiscussed, is being brought about through the wholesale introduction of computer technology….
[According to the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority] Thirteen-year-olds, instead of learning about Henry VIII, should search the internet for images of the king – “old, young, fat, thin” – and use these to “produce leaflets presenting different views of him”. Fourteen-year-olds, instead of learning about the First World War, should “produce presentations to sell a history trip to the battlefields in northern France, tailoring the content and form to the perceived needs of their audience”.
Teaching history, in other words, is secondary. The point is to get pupils searching the internet, selecting websites, learning about word-processing, data collection, desktop publishing and making PowerPoint presentations of their conclusions…
A creeping totalitarianism
Education has officially become not a way of enlarging the mind and opening up intellectual doors, but merely a means to produce “good” politically correct citizens and workers equipped for the modern jobs market. The Labour Government has decreed that pupils are no longer to be pupils but “learners”. The desired ends for these “learners” are “Be healthy; stay safe; enjoy and achieve; make a positive contribution; and achieve economic well being.” (Daily Telegraph 19 2 2005). This is a programme couched in language remarkably similar to those of totalitarian regimes such as Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.
The Blair Government has already introduced citizenship lessons in schools – I will leave readers to guess what makes a good citizen in the Blairite mind – and intends to introduce a citizenship ceremony for all 18-year-olds.
Immigration and multiculturalism
What allowed progressive education to go from being a primarily a method and philosophy of teaching to a potent political ideology was mass immigration. Originally the progressive view of immigrants was that they must be assimilated into English society. When it became clear by the mid-seventies that assimilation was not going to work, progressive educationalists rapidly switched to the doctrine which became multiculturalism. By the early eighties assimilation was a dirty word in educational circles. The educationalists were followed by the politicians.
Multiculturalism was embraced as a mainstream political ideal in the late 1970s because politicians did not know what to do about mass coloured immigration and its consequences. Both Labour and the Conservatives initially promoted the French solution to immigration – make them black and brown Britons. But by the end of the seventies integration was deemed by our political elite to be a failure at best and oppression at worst. Multiculturalism was its successor. Once it became the new official doctrine, the many eager Anglophobic and internationalist hands in English education and the mass media were free to give reign to their natural instincts.
The idea behind multiculturalism is that it squares the immigration circle of unassimilable immigrants and a resentful native mass by saying everyone may live in their own cultural bubble. In practice, this required the suppression of British interests and the silencing of British dissidents on one side and the promotion of minority cultures and the privileging of the immigrant minorities on the other.
English history and culture ceased to be taught in schools in any meaningful way. Where it was part of the curriculum, it was the subject of ever increasing denigration. Politicians of all parties gradually became more and more reluctant to speak out for the interests of the native Briton. Laws were passed – most notably the Race Relations Act of 1976 and the Public Order Act of 1986 – potentially making it an offence to tell the unvarnished truth about race and immigration or make any telling criticism of any minority ethnic group.
As the new elite doctrine of multiculturalism became established, it became necessary not only for the elite themselves to espouse it but anyone who worked for the elite. Any public servant, any member of the media, any senior businessman, an professional person, was brought within the net. This produced the situation we have today whereby no honest speaking about any subject within the pc ambit is allowed in public without the person being shouted down and in all probability becoming either a non-person or forced to make a public “confession” reminiscent of those during the Cultural Revolution.
Most importantly, multiculturalism allowed the progressives to portray Englishness as just one competing culture amongst many, all of which were equally “valid”. This had two primary implications: other cultures should be given equal consideration within the curriculum and any promotion of one culture over another was illegitimate. In fact, these implications were never followed through. Practicality meant that the multiplicity of cultures in England could not all have equal billing, while the promotion English culture was deemed to be “oppressive” both because they are the dominant “ethnic” group in England and because of their “evil” imperial, slave-trading past. The educationalists’ cut the Gordian knot by treating the inclusion of items of any culture other than English within the school curriculum as a “good”, while insisting that references to England and her people should always be derogatory and guilt inducing.
The better part of a quarter of century of this policy has resulted in English education system being successfully subverted. English cultural content has been marvellously diluted and denigration of the English is routine bar one thing: the liberal bigot invariably lauds the toleration of the English towards immigrants, a claim at odds both with historical reality and the liberal’s general claim that England is a peculiarly wicked and undeserving place.
The conscious hatred of England
That progressive educational ideas should so readily be adapted to the political doctrine of multiculturalism is unsurprising for the English Left’s habit of denigration has a long history. Here is Friedrich Hayek’s writing in the 1940s:
The Left intelligentsia…have so long worshipped foreign gods that they seem to have become almost incapable of seeing any good in the characteristic English institutions and traditions. That the moral values on which most of them pride themselves are largely the products of the institutions they are out to destroy, these socialists cannot, of course, admit. And this attitude is unfortunately not confined to avowed socialists. Though one must hope that it is not true of the less vocal but more numerous cultivated Englishman, if one were to judge by the ideas which find expression in current political discussion and propaganda the Englishman who not only “the language speak that Shakespeare spake”, but also “the faith and morals hold that Milton held” seems to have almost vanished. [The Road to Serfdom]
Victimhood – minorities become sacred cows
Two of the practical effects of multiculturalism were the creation of a grievance culture within the various ethnic minorities and a belief that English laws and customs may be ignored with impunity, a belief perhaps best exemplified by the growing attack on free expression, primarily but by no means exclusively by Muslims.
Barbara Amiel writing about the then Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone’s embroilment in a row over alleged anti-semitic remarks (“Welcome, Ken, to the gulag you helped create”) describes the present position of minorities beautifully. “People with minority status perform the same function in a society of inclusiveness as India’s sacred cows or the sacred deer in Nara, Japan. They can bite you in the midriff but you can’t hit them on the nose. If they lie in front of a bus, the vehicle must wait until they get up and go away before driving on…” Just so. Minorities have to a large extent become a law unto themselves – but only with the active connivance of the British elite.
With the growth of a culture of victimhood, the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish were able to climb on the “victim bandwagon” and to largely withstand the deracination of their children – or at least to promote a sense of tribal unity. The English, being always represented as the villain of the piece, were not only deracinated, but unable to defend themselves because the whole of public life was dominated and controlled by those responsible for the deracination.
Along with multiculturalism came feminism and gay rights which reinforced the message that no group had priority and all ways of life were equally valid. Over a quarter a century or so, these three ideologies solidified into the totalitarian creed of that is political correctness.
The pc creed is literally totalitarian because it (1) allows only one legitimate view on any subject it covers, (2) it can be infiltrated into virtually any area of human activity and (3) because it is an elite ideology, the elite use their power through the control of the media and public life to punish and exclude anyone who denies the “truth” by being non-PC. This was immensely useful in deracinating English children because it both discouraged them from voicing any contrary views and prevented those adults who opposed the ideology from having a public voice.
Occasionally political correctness provides some tart amusement for the non-pc majority. Like all religions, sacred or profane, it devours its own, and its most assiduous ideologues find themselves cast in the role of the heretic. The case of Ken Livingstone cited above (see Victimhood) is a particularly amusing example because of his incessant portrayal of himself as the most pc of men.
Exams and the decline in standards
The most obvious consequence of the gradual decline in educational standards was an erosion in exam quality. At first it was small things. Practical exams for science O Levels were dropped. Then came multiple choice questions. The curricula in all subjects shrank. New, less academic subjects such as media studies found their way into the exam system and elbowed the academic aside. Eventually came the ultimate corruption of the exam system with the introduction of continuous assessment. With the fall in school standards, the universities and polytechnics inevitably had to drop their standards.
The corruption of exam standards was further driven by a desire to expand the numbers of children passing school exams and the numbers going on to Higher Education. To this end O Levels and the old CSE exams for less able pupils were abolished in the 1980s and replaced with the General Certificate of Education (GCSE). Around the same time a decision was made to vastly increase the numbers of students in Higher Education. To make this policy more attractive to would-be students, the polytechnics were renamed universities in 1992, with the consequence that more than 100 institutions with that title were suddenly competing for students, with as we shall see later, evil effects.
The consequence of having a single exam (GCSE) for all 16 year olds was predictable: to prevent embarrassing numbers of failures, the standard of the new exam had to be reduced below that of the already much less demanding O Levels of the 1980s (even so, in 2005 around 30 per cent of children fail to gain five GCSEs at C grade or higher.) The upshot was that the GCSE candidates either left school at 16 lacking even the rudiments of education needed to fill run-of-the-mill jobs – many are functionally illiterate and even more lack basic numeracy - or entered A Level courses woefully under-prepared, especially in subjects such as maths. A Levels and degree courses were again, of necessity, reduced in standard to adapt to pupils and students who were substantially under-prepared compared with those arriving under the pre-GCSE examination regime.
At the same time as standards were eroding, the Tories introduced in the 1980s the madness of league tables and targets. The consequence of these – not just in education but generally – is to distract from the actual purpose of what an organisation is supposed to do and to promote dishonesty in the pursuit of attaining the targets and showing well in league tables.
The league tables provoked even more tampering with the academic standards of school exams as examination boards competed with one another to produce the “best” results, that is, ever higher pass rates and grades and schools chose the examination board most likely to give them ostensible examination success.
The response of both politicians and educationalists to the inexorable rise in GCSE and A Level results since GCSE was introduced has been to hail them as evidence that educational standards are continually rising. Such claims have the same relationship to reality as Soviet figures for the turnip harvest or tractor production. All that has happened is that both the difficulty of exams and the severity of marking has been reduced. In 2004 an A Grade in GCSE Maths from Edexcel, one of the largest exam boards, could be gained with 45 per cent (Daily Telegraph 18 9 2004), while a “B” grade at one Board in 2004 (OCR) could be a obtained with a mere 17 per cent (Sunday Telegraph 16 1 2005). (When challenged about lowered grade marks, those setting the exams claim that the questions are becoming more difficult.) Course work, which counts towards the overall exam mark, is reported as being either routinely plagiarised from the Web or showing other evidence of being other than the pupil’s unaided work.
In addition to the lowering of exam marks and the fraud of continuous assessment, school exams have begun to shift from final tests to modular exams which are taken throughout the course. Hence, pupils on such courses never take an exam which tests them on their entire course.
Of course, all this change to school exams, combined with the introduction of the national curriculum tests, creates a great deal of extra work for teachers and distracts them from the actual task of teaching – pupils are tested at 7, 11, 14, 16, 17 and 18. It has also spawned a truly monstrous examination bureaucracy, which according to a recent report from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (a state body) costs œ610 million per year (Daily Telegraph 14 2 2005) and has left the country desperately scrabbling around for sufficient qualified examiners.
The frequent complaints of university teachers about the inadequacy of the students coming to them and the even more vociferous complaints of employers about applicants who lack competence in even the three “Rs” are pretty substantial straws in the wind suggesting a general educational failure. My own direct experience of youngsters all too often bears out such complaints - I find especially depressing recent graduates with good degrees from top universities who are bizarrely ignorant of their degree subjects and poorly equipped to research or analyse.
Anecdotes are always tricky as evidence, so let us consider an objective fact which explains why widespread educational incompetence is inevitable in the circumstances which have been created. IQ is normally distributed within a population, that is it forms a Bell Curve with most people clustering in the middle of the curve and a few people at the extremes of the curve. Such a distribution means that the proportion of the population with IQs substantially above the average is quite small – approximately 25 per cent of the UK population have IQs of 110 or more. Now, it is true that IQ as a measure of academic success is not infallible, not least because motivation is necessary as well as intellect. But what is true is that a decent IQ is necessary for academic success. Put another way, someone with an IQ of 150 may or may not take a First in maths: someone with an IQ of 90 never will.
The way IQ is distributed means that the ideal of an exam suited to everyone (GCSE) is a literal nonsense, because that which would test the brightest would be beyond the large majority and even that which the majority could cope with would be beyond those in the lower part of the ability range. The grades awarded for GCSE bear this out. The large numbers of those getting the top marks mean that the exam is too easy for the brightest, while the 30 per cent or so of school-leavers who cannot attain 5 passes at C grade or better tell you it is too difficult for the lower part of the academic ability continuum.
A similar problem of fitting exams to a very wide ability range has affected universities. Tony Blair has set a target of 50 per cent of either school-leavers or people under the age of 28 (the target seems to move) to be in Higher Education – at the beginning of 2005 the percentage is over 40 per cent. Blair’s target means that many of those at university will have mediocre IQs.
Let us assume for the sake of simplicity that 50 per cent of school-leavers is the target rather than 50 per cent of those under 28. There are only around 25 per cent of people with IQs of 110 or higher in any age group. If every one of those 25 per cent went to university (50 per cent of those scheduled to go to university if the Blair target is met) it would still leave the other half of those going to university to be found from those with IQs of less than 109. Hence, with 50 per cent of school-leavers at university, at least half the people taking degrees would have, as a matter of necessity, moderate IQs. In fact, the position is worse than that, because significant numbers of those with IQs substantially above average will not go to university. That means even more than 50 per cent of students would have moderate IQs. Trying to set degree courses suitable for people with, say, IQs ranging from 90-160 cannot be a practical proposition.
When Margaret Thatcher came to power many thought she would attempt to undo the damage of the comprehensive experiment and progressive methods, damage which was already visible. In her 11 years in power she not only failed to repair the damage, but she made things worse through her attempts to translate her free market ideology into education.
The Thatcher Governments neither reinstituted the grammar schools (or an equivalent) nor drove out the anti-examination, anti-competitive ethos of the teaching profession. Instead, Margaret Thatcher contented herself with introducing Thatcherite ideas such as a national curriculum and league tables and by encouraging parents and pupils (and later university students) to think of themselves as consumers while leaving things much as they were in terms of teaching methods, mentality and administrative structure.
This bizarre marriage of the prevailing progressive ideology with Thatcherite ideals would have been unsuccessful at the best of times because the two were simply incompatible. But the Thatcherite part of the equation was in practice more or less nullified as a means to raise standards. Over the 18 years of the Thatcher and Major governments, the educational establishment persuaded the Tories that not only should the comprehensive settlement be left unchanged, but that the O Level/CSE exams should be scrapped in favour of GCSE, that more and more coursework should be introduced into school exam marks, that the national curriculum tests should move from simple evaluations of the three “Rs” and a few other subjects to overblown and time consuming events, that polytechnics should become universities and that the numbers in higher education should rise to previously undreamt of levels.
Thatcherism extended more dramatically into higher education. University grants were first allowed to wither on the vine through inadequate uprating and then abolished. In their place came student loans to be repaid after graduation. The post-war ideal of free higher education finally died with the introduction of tuition fees by in the 1990s. Students suddenly found themselves faced with debts of £10,000 or more on graduation with future students living under the threat of ever rising fees.
When people pay for something they become resentful if they feel that they do not get what they pay for. In the case of university students they object to not merely failing their degree entirely, but even to getting a poor degree. That any failure to gain a good degree is largely due to themselves is lost in the resentment that something has been paid for which has not been delivered. Of course, the undergraduate is not paying the full cost of their tuition and they receive a loan on very favourable non-commercial terms. But because they do end up with a hefty debt at the end of their degree, that makes any perceived academic failure more poignant that it was in the days of grants and no tuition fees.
Although the relationship between the teacher and the taught was changed by tuition fees and loans, that in itself would not have been too damaging for university standards. In the end a disgruntled student can do little unless they have money to go to law, which few do. Nor, in all probability, would the courts be eager to get involved in disturbing the ideal of academic freedom. What was damaging was the ending in 1988 of university funding by block grants from a central awarding authority, the University Grants Committee (UGC). The UGC was replaced by the Universities Funding Council (UFC) and block grants were replaced by state money primarily attached to students (quality of teaching and research were also taken into account). The more students, the more income. Universities were immediately changed from places which awarded degrees as they chose to award them based on academic performance to institutions which were anxious to “sell” their wares to students. To do this they needed to present themselves as a university which not only failed few people but awarded most students “good” degrees. The upshot was that the proportion of First Class and Upper Second degrees rose inexorably until today around two thirds of students in the UK receive one or other of them and one third receive Lower Seconds or worse. (Forty years ago the proportions were roughly reversed with a third receiving Firsts and Upper Seconds and two thirds Lower Seconds or worse.)
The decline of the universities was hastened by the vast and unprecedented expansion of those in higher education:
“The number of students at university had risen from 321,000 in the early 1960s to 671,000 in 1979. By 1996 it was headed for 1.5 million, far in excess of the target of 560,000 places set by Robbins thirty years earlier. At the Labour Party Conference in September 1997, Tony Blair promised another 500,000 places at university by 2002.” Dominic Hobson The National Wealth p 325.
The increase in numbers was not matched with an increase in funding. The consequence was a substantial increase in the student/teacher ratio, less tutorial and lecture time and a tendency to favour cheaper arts and social science courses over expensive science degrees. In addition, although staff did not increase in line with student numbers, they did rise and competition for the best staff increased, with the inevitable consequence that the universities at the bottom of the pile – almost exclusively the polytechnics which became universities in 1992 – became institutions which should be described as universities only when the word is placed in inverted commas, with drop out rates previously unheard of in England.
The consequences of the Thatcher period were, as in so many areas, the very reverse of what she supposedly stood for. Just as the European Common Market undermined British sovereignty more than any other single treaty EU treaty agreement rather than achieving Thatcher’s intended aim of strengthening Britain’s position within the EU, so her education reforms promoted the ideas of those who were supposedly her sworn ideological enemies, the progressives. Thatcher became their useful idiot.
Back to the future
That in broad terms is how we got from the A of post war excellence to the B of the damaging educational inadequacy which we have today. How may we mend the present state?
As with all peoples, the English need to be taught their history to give them a psychological habitation. Moreover, the myths of the England haters dissolve readily enough in the acid of fact. Happily, English history is especially well suited to building national consciousness, because it is both a continuous narrative lasting more than a thousand years and because it contains so much of which its people may be justly proud. Not only did she possess the only world empire ever worthy of the name, she produced the one bootstrapped industrial revolution, has displayed a quite unparalleled political stability and a unique political evolution leading to representative government and, perhaps most importantly in the long run, created a language which for its all round utility and modern importance cannot be equalled.
England is in truth the cause of the modern world. Let her self-respect rest on that massive fact. The English do not need to invent a mythical past for their self-esteem: the reality, warts and all, is splendid and marvellous.
But history is more than events and institutions. It is about great and influential personalities. England has many to chose from, I will be indulgent and put forward some of my favourites. Alfred The Great (for his preservation of England), Chaucer, Shakespeare, John Bunyan, Queen Elizabeth, Cromwell, Newton, Locke, Wellington, Darwin. All left a mark on the world which went far beyond these shores. (My choice does not include any person from the twentieth century because I believe it is too soon to judge their significance.)
But to put matters right we need to do much more than teach our history, geography and literature honestly and to concentrate on our own place in the world. All political correctness and progressive teaching methods must be stripped out of educational practice. This is absolutely vital because while both poisons remain nothing can be done. In particular school exams must be purged of them otherwise all schools, including private schools, will of necessity be forced to teach the presently deformed curricula simply because the exams require it.
Children must be made competent in the three “Rs” before anything else is attempted, because without those basics not only will they be severely and generally handicapped in a modern society. Most importantly, such people will not be properly equipped to learn those things necessary to both understand where they have come from and to participate meaningfully in the political process – the simplest way to control a population in a formal democracy is to leave it ignorant and uneducated.
School exams also need to be rescued from their present worthlessness by removing continuous assessment and modular exams and by returning to the old system of single exams at 16 and 18 for the academic pupils. The needs of the less academic can be met with a simpler, narrower and less demanding exam, whose purpose would be primarily to demonstrate that the pupils was functionally literate and competent in basic arithmetic and had a general understanding of the main elements of our history, political system and geography.
There are also the structural problems. Schools must be freed from the destructive treadmill of targets and league tables, draconian inspections by Ofsted and the hand of central government direction loosened.
University standards can be revived by ending the pernicious linking of money to students and by greatly reducing the numbers at university. The idea that an advanced society needs vast numbers of graduates regardless of what the graduate subjects are or the quality of the graduates is demonstrable nonsense. Even at our present levels of university participation, a substantial number of graduates are either unemployed or employed in jobs which do not retire a graduate level education. Nor is there any uniformity of graduate numbers or types and quality of degrees in the First World – Japan has far fewer than most First World countries and continental degrees take an age to gain compared to those in Anglo-Saxon countries – while many Third World countries, Egypt is a good example, have vast numbers of graduates while remaining economic basket-cases.
How many graduates do we need? I would suggest this: the state should provide scholarships which will meet the full cost of courses and maintenance grants capable of supporting students during termtime for 20 per cent of the school-leaving population. This would be funded by the reduction in funding for the other 20-30 per cent who are currently funded or it is proposed should be funded. Anyone else wanting to study to degree level would have to either fund their full time course or take a part time course through institutions such as the Open University and Birkbeck College.
A matter of national life and death
As a matter of urgency the English must learn to resist the incessant insult to which they re now subject. A nation may be likened to a man. If a man continually accepts insult or engages in repeated self- denigration, we think him a poor fellow. At first such behaviour is embarrassing. Soon it becomes irritating. Eventually it breeds a profound contempt and contempt is mother to all enormities. So it is with peoples. On the simple ground of self-preservation, the English cannot afford to continue to permit the present gratuitous and incontinent abuse offered by both foreigners and her own ruling elite nor tolerate the suppression of the English voice.
If England is to survive as more than a geographical entity, it is essential that the young be imprinted with a knowledge of the immense achievements of Britain in general and England in particular and a sense of what the English have been.
No nation can maintain itself if it does not have a profound sense of its worth. In a healthy society this sense of worth simply exists and children imbibe it unconsciously. Our society has been so corrupted by a mistaken educational ideology and the liberal’s hatred of his own culture, that a conscious programme of cultural imprinting is necessary. If it is not done, how long will it be before English children express surprise when told they are speaking English and not American? The corrosion of English society can only be halted if pride of England and her achievements is instilled in the young.
The words of the younger Pitt in 1783 (following the disaster of the American War of Independence) seem peculiarly apt for our deracinated time:
We must recollect … what is we have at stake, what it is we have to contend for. It is for our property, it is for our liberty, it is for our independence, nay, for our existence as a nation; it is for our character, it is for our very name as Englishmen, it is for everything dear and valuable to man on this side of the grave.
That the tribal sense of English identity is still immensely strong can be seen in the way the English take the opportunity to publicly express their patriotism in the only regular way left to them – through their support for sporting teams. The English fans of all the major team sports are truly amazing in their dedication to their national teams. Go to any football game or Test match involving England played overseas and you will see a support unmatched by any other travelling supporters. See how a forest of St George’s Crosses sprout when a football world cup is on. Marvel at the reception given to the England Rugby team after they returned as world champions. It is also noteworthy that in recent years the English have taken the opportunity to come out in ever increasing numbers for occasional national events such as the Queen’s Jubilee and the Queen Mother’s funeral, surely a sign of English national pride being frustrated in most other ways. There is a generation of English children just waiting to be given their sense of historical place and culture back. All it needs is the political will to do it.
Is there any hope of changing things? At present precious little because no major political party will seriously challenge political correctness. It is also probable that behind the EU scenes a concerted attempt is being made to produce a uniform educational system across the EU – the proposals for exam reform made in the Tomlinson Report (18 October 2004 http://www.reform-14-19.gov.uk) call for the GCSE and A-Levels to be absorbed/replaced by a European-style diploma. As both Labour and Tories have a lamentable record of resisting EU policies, it is unlikely that they would oppose one for a uniform EU exam system.
All pretty bleak. But one should always remember Harold Wilson’s one political comment of any significance: “A week is a long time in politics”. Things can and may change suddenly.