For anyone who gets their education news from the website of the Department for Children, Schools
and Families, last week must have seemed like another cracker. Official results once again showed school improvement; the number of 11 year olds achieving Level 4 (the standard considered necessary to have any chance of success at secondary school) English and Maths is up.
The problems with GCSE science exams were located too, but reassuringly, the problems were found to be with science, rather than the exams. And if you were still at all worried about the exam system, Ministers helpfully pointed you towards an international study which - despite excluding almost all the major European countries, including France, Germany, Italy, Finland - shows that English kids are the best at Maths in Europe. Everything, it would seem, is just gravy.
But everything really isn't gravy. A cursory glance at the education pages of a newspaper (from the Guardian to the Telegraph) tells a very different story about the English education system.
The Times reported on Thursday that the improvements in primary school attainment (alluded to above) only reflected a one per cent increase from 80% to 81% in English, and two per cent in maths, from 77% to 79%; and this is only to level 4, the bare minimum DCSF itself deems necessary. Well done to all those pupils who worked hard and did well, and well done to all the teachers who helped make it happen. But the fact that so many children (19% and 21% of 11 years, in English and Maths respectively) failed to achieve level 4 is deeply worrying. More than a quarter (116,000) of 11 year olds left school last year without reaching this standard in both English and Maths.
On the same day the BBC covered the news that the Government is dropping it's commitment to 'functional skills', their promise that no-one would be able to pass maths and English without a firm, genuine grasp of the subject - responding to a long standing complaint from employers that new workers with GCSE's still failed to have the functional skills necessary to perform adequately. But after advice from Ofqual the DCSF is bringing a quiet end to this aim.
In fact the quango in charge of the quango Ofqual, the QCA, also accepted the resignation of it's head last week, Sir Ken Boston. Quitting over the SATs scandal last year, the board have finally accepted the resignation he offered last year, in what was at the time a surprising and unfortunately rare display of responsibility and accountability being taken by someone in the upper echelons of the public sector.
And indeed it was management failures at the Learning and Skills Council (LSC) that led to the disaster of the college building programme, the Guardian reported. After a litany of mistakes among senior managers, the taxpayer now must find £5 billion to cover commitments made by the LSC. Mark Haysom, the LSC Chief Executive has now resigned too, but as with Ken Boston, many of the problems which led to this scandal arose out of the confused and unworkable division of responsibilities and powers between the education departments and their quangos.
Last week was a fairly standard week then for English education, and such stories only really scratch the surface. There is always a mix of good and bad; there are, and always will be, thousands of pupils and teachers doing great work. These need to be commended and acknowledged at every opportunity. But the truth is that these teachers and pupils are doing well in spite of the system, rather than because of it. Too many are still failing to achieve the levels they should and too much money is lost on committments and initatives that do not deliver. Readers sometimes comment that this thread is too negative, that the situation is not as bad we make out. But after a reading of the newspapers, an analysis of the empirical evidence and a consideration of 'off-the-record' statements from people working in the system, it seems that it is the DCSF that is more interested in creative writing than fixing the problems of England's education system.
Note - For a comment on the recent report by the Commons Children, Schools and Families Committee, please see the Better Government blog for Tuesday 07 April.