Opinion Articles

Are school standards slipping?

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Conservative spokesman on schools Michael Gove plans to publish past exam papers going back to the Victorian era online, to allow parents to decide for themselves whether school standards are slipping, a concern that has become widespread in recent years. Mr. Gove said recently; "People know there is something wrong with our education system and they know the rot set in the Sixties". Other commentators blame the comprehensive school system for what they see as a failure to educate pupils and improve their life chances, with both the Evening Standard and the Telegraph carrying articles looking back to the grammar school era as a "golden age for social mobility".

Belief in a golden age of educational opportunity and high standards in schools in the 1950s is deeply entrenched yet the evidence suggests otherwise. Hardly any of the poorest quarter of children (equivalent to today's working class) passed the 11+ and 40% of all working class pupils in grammar schools achieved no O levels.

The select few who took external examinations left contemporary examiners unimpressed. Many A level candidates 'had no understanding of the subject matter' in maths; 'had clearly never read the books' in English and 'lacked any understanding of basic ideas' in physics.

Much maths teaching was dire: a recent survey showed most 55-65 year olds lack the skills expected of a nine year old today whilst some practices in schools would be unthinkable now. One school in Tottenham taught no science to half their pupils because, the head told HMI, 'my science staff can't handle girls'.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.


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