In October 2013 the Guardian reported that "Out of 24 nations, young adults in England (aged 16 - 24) rank 22nd for literacy and 21st for numeracy. England is behind Estonia, Australia, Poland and Slovakia in both areas." This year the overall pass rate at GCSE fell for the first time in the exam's 25-year history as well as the proportion being awarded top grades falling for the second consecutive year. So is our school system failing us?
Why would someone who works as a retail consultant be writing about our education system? Well, for a very good reason. Warehousing and distribution is primarily a people business and whether it is to run an operation or deliver a project, I have had the responsibility for putting a team together on many occasions. In my experience it has become increasingly difficult to recruit people that possess the skills in literacy required to write a decent report, and the standard of arithmetic necessary to create a basic spreadsheet.
This impression is backed up by the findings of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) who found that in England adults aged 55 - 65 performed better than 16 - 24 year olds at foundation levels of literacy and numeracy. The OECD warns that the "talent pool of highly skilled adults in England and Northern Ireland is likely to shrink relative to that of other countries."
Most people in this country are still educated in a comprehensive school, a system that was introduced from 1965 as parents increasingly revolted against the 11-plus examination and in response to expectations in education that could not be met by a process of dividing children at the age of 11, sending one lot to grammar schools, from where they could continue to university, and the rest to secondary moderns with much more restricted opportunities.
The introduction of comprehensive schools was about more than education, as ending the practise of separating children at so young an age was also aimed at social reform. It is therefore disturbing that other figures from the OECD report that Britain has "some of the lowest social mobility of the developed world" and that in some ways mobility is worse now than it was in the 1970's. "For every one person born in the 1970s in the poorest fifth of society and going to university, there would be four undergrads from the top fifth of society. But if you were born in the 1980s there would be five."
I reported in a previous blog, "Are Our Bosses Worth It" that 15% of total UK income is now in the hands of the top 1% compared to less than 6% in the late 70s. So has the comprehensive school system been a two time failure addressing neither standards of education or social mobility? I put this question to a close friend with vast personal experience of state schools. His answer was clear and I have repeated it here in its entirety:
"My support for the comprehensive system arises primarily from an abhorrence of any system which sets out to divide young people at the tender age of 11 (or indeed at any age) into sheep and goats with all that implies for their self-esteem and their image in the eyes of other people with effects that are likely to be lifelong, and to do so, moreover, by means that have known faults and short-comings."
"On top of that I am opposed to any "system" that awards or condones unearned privilege, including that which allows parents to buy, through schooling, easier access to higher education and to opportunities denied to other young people in the professions and positions of influence."
"You refer to the "Comprehensive School system's failures." I would have to challenge that on the grounds that the comprehensive system has never been tried in this country."
When 32% of MPs, 54% of FTSE100 directors and 70% of judges were part of the 7% of the population educated in private schools you can see his point.
So what are your views? Most of the people reading this will have experienced this country's education system, either personally, or as a parent, or both. Is it time for a radical overhaul?
Written by Mike Gamble: Director JEM Retail Consultants.