Launching a new report into childrens' educational attainment yesterday, OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría emphasized the importance of education for the development of people and society: "Effective and innovative education policies open enormous opportunities for individuals....In the highly competitive globalised economy of today, quality education is one of the most valuable assets that a society and an individual can have".
So it is depressing – even more so because it is unsurprising - to see that the UK has been found to have fallen behind other countries in its levels of educational achievement. The new study, compiled by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA-an arm of the OECD), looked at the educational attainment among 15 year olds in 57 countries. Since 2000, the UK cohort was found to have fallen from 8th to 24th in maths; from 7th to 17th in reading; and in science, an area in which the UK as a whole excels, they fell from 4th to 14th. Taken as a whole the findings constitute - as a reporter on the Today programme put it this morning - a discernable slip for the UK from a premier league of industrialised countries to a first division.
Coming, as this report does, on the back of another which found reading standards among primary school children to have slipped in recent years, it seems that the government’s policy of ‘spend and meddle’ has been entirely fruitless. It hasn’t, it seems, even kept us at our previous position; we have fallen back, rather than improved. Between 1995 and 2004, driven by the mantra of 'education, education, education', UK Government spending on education has increased by 75%, while education spending across the OECD as a whole has only increased by 39%. Why has this surge in spending in the UK not delivered?
A close look at those countries who enjoy excellent and improving levels of educational attainment – South Korea and Finland in particular - reveals that it is not money that improves education, but the correct policy. The British government's education policy has been misdirected from the start, entrenching problems which will take years to undo. South Korea and Finland pay less per pupil than in the UK, limit places at teaching colleges to foster genuine competition, provide well equipped specialist schools for those in need of them, and critically, devolve much of the responsibility for planning how children should be taught down to schools themselves. We have instead created a glut of second rate teachers competing for places in overcrowded schools which labour under the intense micromanagement of a bloated Department of Education and Skills. Shackled and sick it is no wonder our educational system is failing to deliver. What it needs is not more or new government policy though, but simply less government involvement altogether.