Savor, if you will, the following three stories on education in Britain.
First, yesterday, the former head of Ofsted, the Office for Standards in Education, Chris Woodhead, weighed in on the reasons why the middle-class do better in schools in Britain: they’re smarter. Not all of them, of course, but, Woodhead says forthrightly, the fact is that some kids are “not very bright,” and that the brighter ones were “likely to be better if their parents are teachers, academics, lawyers.” Smart parents, smart kids.
The Telegraph reports that he blames the poor for having bad genes, but they don’t provide a quote. It’s too bad if he did say that, because, among the nonsense about the middle class being brighter, he talks a lot of sense about declining educational standards in Britain and the value of vocational training. If anyone is qualified to know about both matters, it’s Woodhead, since he presided over the entire system for six years, three of them under Labour.
Second, there’s this somewhat more cheerful story: “Ethnic minority pupils race ahead of poor white classmates in schools.” Another former head of Ofsted, Sir Mike Tomlinson, points out that “We are seeing every ethnic group progress rapidly — Chinese, Bengali, Indian.” But the performance of poor white boys is lamentable: they do worse than most, if not all, minority groups. The problem, the government and Sir Mike agree, is a culture of low expectations among the less well-off Anglo-Saxons, and a culture of achievement among the others. So Woodhead’s on to something when he points to the value of having teachers as parents, but that something is cultural, not genetic.
And third, what has the government done about things? Well, it has spent a great deal of money on education: from 1997 to 2007 — up 60 percent. As a proportion of the economy, education expenditures have risen from 4.8 percent to 5.5 percent of GDP. And test scores have gone up. Unfortunately, as Woodhead points out, this is because the tests themselves have (entirely coincidentally, I’m sure), become a great deal easier. Test scores certainly aren’t rising because there are more teachers around: since 1997, the number of teachers has increased by only 1.8 percent. Makes you wonder where the rest of the money has gone. I’m sure the bureaucrats could answer that one.
The other prong of the government’s approach has been ‘work-based’ or ‘skills-based’ training. This too has been an unmitigated failure. A study released yesterday by the University of London described the entire program as a “waste of time” that was “fixated by the number of people with qualifications,” at the expense of what they were actually learning. The result has been the creation of “a many-headed bureaucratic hydra, which, in turn, devours part of the funding intended for the ‘real’ economy.” The bureaucrats in ‘work-based’ training should meet their colleagues in the schools.
Like anything else, education can be as complicated as you want to make it. But as the educational success of Britain’s ethnic minorities points out, it really isn’t all that hard: almost all children are quite smart enough to learn if they are kept at it by their parents, and not thwarted by undemanding schools. All the government’s interventions have spent a great deal of money, but no amount of money will help if the parents are not there, or don’t care, and if the teachers refuse to teach. And no one suffers more in that world of low standards than the poor.