Saturday 10 December 2011


For something like 20 years exam results have been improving year on year in England.

And every year their Education Secretary has told us it was because the pupils were working harder and the teachers were teaching better.

None of us believed it much and suggestions were made that maybe the exams were getting easier. Studies comparing exam papers over the years bore out our doubts, not to mention the facts that many employers refused to employ school leavers because they were neither literate nor numerate, and university teachers spent the first year of courses teaching what the kids should have learned at school. 

But when anyone had the audacity to mention this they were shouted down by ministers, teachers  and parents. Why did we have to put down kids and teachers who were working so hard?

Now the doubters have been somewhat vindicated.

It appears that the dual follies of applying market forces to the examination boards and setting targets on exam passes for schools have resulted in an inevitable dumbing down.

Telegraph reporters have secretly recorded and filmed executives of examination boards telling teachers what questions WON'T come up (and by default, which ones will), and bragging about how easy their exams are for students to pass, and for teachers to teach. 'I don't know how we got it past the regulator', said one executive.

Well, we know the answer to that one. Like every other regulator, 'Ofthis' and 'Ofthat', Ofqual (yeah, that's what it's called) is a toothless waste 'ofspace' and public money, seemingly staffed by people who can't be bothered getting off their backsides to do the job they are paid to do.

So far it is only English and Welsh boards which have been found to be wanting. (Of course English and Welsh Education Departments are separately run, but the examination system is largely the same and some English schools buy Welsh exams.)
In Scotland although results at standard grade have improved steadily over the past ten years, the same period has seen a much more varied pattern in Higher passes, percentages dipping in the middle of the decade and recovering to about the same level as 2000 by 2010. 

Here there is only one exam board and every pupil takes the same exam removing the commercial incentive for the board to set ever-easier questions. The Cabinet Secretary for Education, Mike Russell says that exams are not getting easer here. 

However, in the light of the Telegraph's disclosures I hope that he makes it his business to double check the standard of the papers set by this one exam board. There's no point in having free education if it's not true education, and it's better to be safe than sorry, Mr Russell.

As for the shadow education person in England getting up to high doh about the revelations... Please, Mr Twigg, you surely can't think it only started since the Tories got in, can you? 


  1. Real life experience indicates that Scotland is no better than England with respect to basic education. I have seen hundreds of young apprentices and skill seekers and their basic education levels leave a lot to be desired, not to mention the absence of a work ethic worthy of the name. They are champion complainers however.

  2. Indeed, there are a great number who can barely string two words together in their own language, let alone any other, and need the fingers of both hands to work out 2 x 4.

    There seems to be a split in the work ethic. There are those who represent the "presentism" brigade, vying with each other to be at work before the other and there after, and of course the ones you mention who appear to think that they were born to the kind of luxury enjoyed only by mandarins in the Foreign office.

  3. Hello Tris,

    I would liken the attitude of some of the young men I tried unsuccessfully to employ to that of pre-revolutionary French aristocrats. The one thing the state system had succeeded in doing was giving them a sense of "self esteem". This tended to be doubly so in the case of ethnic minorities.

    There had been a small spill of product from a lorry and I told one black lad "Just get a brush and shovel and clean that up, please".
    "I can't Mr. Spalton, my pride won't let me" he said.
    "You get the brush and I'll get the shovel. I'll never ask you to do anything I won't do". But he still felt it beneath him.

    He eventually left after a few days and was as sub-literate and sub-numerate as nearly all of the others.

    Interestingly, our longest serving production worker was also a black lad - but he came from a stable home and his mother was a formidable lady, a theatre nurse, who believed that people should get up and go to work. He was not any more literate than the rest, black or white, but did his best. He was quite bright and had been badly let down by school. His sister was in a responsible clerical/administrative job -so she had obviously had a better deal at school than he had.

    I suspect that Political Correctness has the perverse effect of lowering teachers' expectations in the name of "inclusivity" and the "all must have prizes" fallacy. It affected them all but the black lads most on average. I suspect they had never been pushed and the teachers were, as my children later said "gripless".

  4. Hello Mr S,

    Yes I can relate to all of that. We actually have few minority ethnic lads here, but the white natives are just as bad.

    I think there have always been illiterate (or barely literate) people. Certainly in Scotland.

    A course I ran for very long term unemployed, where illiteracy was identified as a huge barrier to employment, had more over 50s who couldn't read or write at all, than any other age group.

    The thing was that, when these lads left school it didn't much matter if they had these skills, at least not from a work point of view. There were plenty of sweeping jobs in the mills, brick works or ship yards.

    Now these people are expected to look for work in a call centre...

    But I think you identify an important point. Parental influence. Attitudes are learned early and if the parents aren't interested or have bad attitude the kids are unlikely to have the same.

    Unfortunately, locally we have people whose fathers and grandfathers have never (or not for a long time) worked and they have no work ethic.

    The big jute works which employed thousands and thousands of people closed down in the early 70s and the engineering works, which also employed people in tens of thousands closed in the late 80s and early 90s.

    Hope your projects are going well.