Demolishing the myth of record-breaking performance

It will be a strange week when someone other than the Government finds that education in Britain is improving. Report and after report brings researchers to the same conclusions: standards in education are collapsing, today's children are poorly prepared for later life, and that ultimately the British education system is failing an entire generation.

Today's contribution comes from the highly respected Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC). It claims that there has been a "catastrophic slippage" in the standard of science teaching, concluding that "the record breaking results in school exam passes are illusory, with ... deficiencies having to be remedied at enormous expense by universities and employers."

The RSC' presented 1,300 pupils (all with a keen interest in science) with chemistry questions selected from O-Level and GCSE papers from the 1960's to today. Only 35 per cent of participants got the toughest GCSE questions right (so those from recent papers), while only 23 per cent managed the 1980's O-Level questions, 18 per cent the 1970's questions and just 15 per cent the 1960's questions.

By contrast, provisional figures for this year show 94 per cent taking GCSE Chemistry got a C or higher. Indeed half of those were awarded an A or A*.

In other words, while only 35 per cent of the keenest (and probably very able) chemistry students got the RSC's GCSE questions right, nearly 50 per cent of all pupils (so including to the less brilliant chemists) got an A or A* in their GCSE chemistry. Ignoring that so few could deal with the 1960's questions, the fact that only 35 per cent could successfully complete recent GCSE questions suggests the deterioration in skill is a very recent development

The Government predictably points to the exam results as proof of unmitigated success: "Look, more A's. Things are going well'.

In what seems an almost sneering response to the RSC's study, the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) claim: "Exam standards are rigorously maintained by independent regulators (for more on these 'independent' regulators, see here) and we would rather listen to the experts whose specific job it is to monitor standards over time. Ofsted say that the quality of teaching has improved. In Pisa 2006, a major international study on science, UK teenagers did well above the OECD average on science ..."

The complacency of this response - of the Government in general - is terrifying. For the sake of politics the Government is wilfully incubating a problem which will imperil the economic, political and social future of this country. It may sound melodramatic, but in the face of perhaps the greatest decline in educational standards since state schooling was introduced a policy of smoke and mirrors is criminal. Not only are today's children now set to pay off the debt taken on by this Government, but those same children are being failed by it. Brown and Darling may have borrowed to fix school roofs, but they haven't fixed children's education.

End Note: Worryingly, it seems the educational rot has already begun to affect DCSF. In their response to the RSC (cited above), the DCSF cite a report - the OECD's 2006 Pisa - which actually shows the UK crashing down the international rankings of educational attainment.

Within a sample of the 57 leading economies, UK science attainment has fallen from 4th in 2000 to 14th in 2006. In reading, the UK is down from 7th to 17th. In Maths, from 8th to 24th.

The situation must dire indeed if the best defence DCSF can find is a report which catologues the steady collapse of British education.

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