The state of our schools

EDITOR – Falling standards of exams has been an important preoccupation of many in recent years. Here in Market Rasen, our schools have excellent results year on year, but that is not the case in other parts of Britain.

With roughly 50 per cent of pupils finishing compulsory education lacking five good GCSEs, the historian David Starkey has labelled the inefficiency of the British education system as “our greatest national crisis.”

While perhaps an overstatement, there is cause for concern. A 22nd annual rise of candidates achieving A* or A at GCSE level, now at 23 percent, and a near tripling in the number of top marks awarded in the past quarter-century seem to indicate that education standards have dropped dramatically.

Research undertaken by Durham University indicates that A-levels are easier by at least two grades when compared to those taken 20 years ago.

In the Commons recently, I asked Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Education, how he was making sure that standards are set to a high level. I cited a study by the Royal Society of Chemistry in 2008 which found that 1,300 of the brightest 16-year-olds found great difficulty answering questions taken from the 1960s and 1970s.

Gove responded that he plans on increasing the role of higher education in exam preparation and will ensure that proper marks are again given for spelling, punctuation, and grammar.

The minister says he has tasked Ofqual (Office of the Qualifications and Examinations Regulator) to make sure that Britain keeps up with education systems that currently surpass our own worldwide. “The Government,” Mr Gove assures us, “are committed to ensuring that GCSEs and A-levels compare with the best exams in the world”.

With growing awareness of this problem, Ofqual have been asked to look into this problem of annual rises in exam results, grade-inflation and the competition between the various exam boards.

Glenys Stacey, the new chief executive of the regulating body, recognises that “an objective and constructive debate” on the current standards of exams must be undertaken.

Concern for how well A-levels prepared students for their future careers continues to be raised in the professional community, with business leaders such as Sir Terry Leahy, Chairman of Tesco, raising the issue in 2009.

However David Starkey has argued that discipline is the key ingredient missing in schools, going as far as stating that it was not the need for resources or better qualified staff or improved pay that was needed, since “all it demonstrated was that it made not a blind bit of difference by itself, none whatsoever.”

This, thankfully, is leading the Secretary of State for Education to act. With a combination of tougher discipline, greater independence and accountability for schools, and improved exam standards I believe we will be able to address at least some of the problems faced by our country’s schools.


MP for Gainsborough