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« Kevin Davis: Education should start later | Main | Julia Manning: More teaching and less testing in schools »


 Ian Williamson

My growing despair at the current educational situation makes me angry. It's an anger shared by many who enjoyed a good education but see those things that actually made it good being discarded. I'm a grammar school product but I'm not writing to extol the virtues of those institutions, outstanding though they are.

What prepared me and my generation for the rigours of the 11+ and grammar school was 6-years at primary school. Rather like Michael Howard.
It seems to me that then, the job of primary schools was to prepare pupils for a secondary education. Their job was to hand over to secondary schools 11 year-olds who were numerate and literate, with a sound basic knowledge of our pre-Norman history, UK geography and a general idea of countries of the globe. Certainly it was British-centred. And why not? It's only right that we should educate our young to understand our own heritage before we indulge in our ritual self-abasement and attempt to give some sort of historical equivalence to other cultures. I'm sure other countries also put their own fundamental cultures first. They are quite right to do this --- let's do the same.
These pupils were ready for serious education, with all the tools they would require.Of course, this requires primary school teachers to have the necessary skills and knowledge and, dare I say it, the willingness to actually inculcate some knowledge into their charges.
I attended a bog-standard Catholic primary school in Manchester. As a matter of course, we were regularly tested on our spelling, arithmetic (including a weekly mental arithmetic test) and yes, we learned our tables. Bad grammar was corrected by teachers who actually knew what it was. All subjects were tested annually with proper explorations of what you had actually learned and remembered. No multiple-choice answers then. Guess what -- it actually worked, without ever being intense or elitist. It was simply constant and insistent and yes, quite happy too, even for those less able. The class had over 30 forward-facing, teacher-focused pupils and I strongly suspect that the class of 1957 would, in terms of literacy, numeracy and general knowledge of this country, knock spots of most of today's output.
Don't blame the teachers. They too are the products -- victims -- of the 1963+ changes in the way education was organized and the relentless politicisation of education. It isn't just the abandonment of any selection based on academic ability, it's the attitude which seems to try and establish adequacy as excellence, thereby lowering standards, which makes it easy to claim that results -- and, therefore, standards too -- are improving. Teachers who were educated the "old" way despair that those entering the profession who will replace them often lack the subject grasp which used to be standard.
Before any sustainable improvement in the performance and output of secondary education is possible, it is vital to begin the rescue process in the primary sector. If children are literate and comfortable with the basic numerical functions, all subsequent learning is easier and pupils will have more enthusiasm. If they are handicapped in these areas, education suffers and the country is badly served. How can learning -- and science in particular -- flourish if pupils have difficulty with detailed texts or numbers and haven't been properly taught how to properly express themselves in writing? And, to sustain improvements at higher levels, why not have a basic "passport" to University education in the form of something like the pre-war Higher School Certificate or the baccalaureate, which would require passes in English, maths, at least one each of the basic sciences and humanities (eg physics + history), and a paper which covered the workings of the UK and it's various systems, say 'British Constitution'? I seem to recall that my Economics A-Level course included a history of the parliamentary system, the legal system and judicial hierarchy, the separation of powers and the constitutional monarchy. I wouldn't mind betting that damn near all today's sixth-formers have little or no knowledge of any of that. No wonder succeeding generations have no proper understanding of our governmental system, no appreciation of the role of a constitutional monarch. No surprise either that the BBC's and Guardian's subtle promotion of republicanism meets little resistance.
Tim Williamson.


Ian - can you name the GCSE and A-Level exams that use multiple choice questions. Can you also give details on the actual weight given to these questions in the overall scheme of assessment for that subject. I think that if you research this you will find that the examples you find are limited in number and scope.

 Ian Williamson

Tortoise – my reference to multiple-choice questions was specific to primary school education in all subjects. We either knew the answers or we didn’t. My point is that between the ages of 5 & 11,we were being prepared and schooled for the rigours of secondary education. The more thorough and entrenched that grounding was, the more able we were to handle the demands of secondary education. As to which GCSE’s and A-Levels have multiple-questions, try maths, science (all of them), economics. Indeed, the latest A-Level Maths results show that, even with multiple-choice, A-grades are being awarded when students get only half the answers correct.


You're right about the lack of teaching in the general subject of the constitution, at least in the A-Level Economics that I took (and all other subjects, such as history).

I learnt all I now know about the subject (which isn't enough, I admit) with the formal and informal reading I did at university.

I think it's disastrous that my generation barely learnt anything about the functioning of our constitutional system. As you say, it will make it easier for the socialists of the future to make absurd 'progressive' and 'modernising' reforms.

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