A recurrent irritation when I was at school, an irritation shared by a few others, was the Headmaster of a school in the next town. For years the school had been well regarded as "best of the rest"; drawing middle class kids from a rural population, but not selective, it didn't match the grammars or private schools but was very respectable. It was a good school. Then, suddenly, it started surging up league tables, the Headmaster appearing on local media whenever possible to celebrate (gloat about?) results and urge the abolition of grammars. That's when he got irritating.
Years later however it has all become clear. Having a sister nearly a decade younger, I've seen what schools have done in those years of Labour misrule, and what "smart" (read: deceitful) Heads have done. All those kids getting 5 GCSEs graded A*-C, the measure most commonly used, were getting "equivalents"; tragically friends of my sister who went to this school, and millions of others, have been conned into studying an eclectic range of bizarre and worthless qualifications at the urging of their schools: Hair and Beauty, Tourism Management, and something called Personal Effectiveness, all apparently worth more than English, Maths, and Geography. And what is worse, knowing of these particular children vaguely from my sister, is that all were capable of so much more: they were normal, capable youngsters, from varied but middle class backgrounds, and to bump up statistics they've been deceived, set up for a career on minimum wage far beneath the pay of their parents. I may have been irritated by this school's Head, but these youngsters and their parents, and millions across the country, have every right to be an angry mob: they have been mis-sold their future.
Now it would be nice if we had a magic answer, a silver bullet to solve this issue, but things aren't that easy. David Cameron is right that we mustn't let middle class schools coast along, and Michael Gove is right that traditional core subjects need to be the focus – the EBacc has knocked the aforementioned school back to reality in league tables – but this alone won't solve the crisis. Free schools and academies can be great, turning bad schools around, but equally the wrong policies can turn good schools to bad in academies just as in LEA run schools; school choice, as necessary as it is and as much as I support it, can only go so far in driving up standards; and gimmicks, whether of the old school Harry Potter variety of uniforms and houses or the trendy variety of healthy food and iPads, have no statistical impact beyond a "halo effect", as considerable research in the US has found. Even the drive to increase the EBacc pass rate – A*-C grade in English, Maths, a Foreign Language, Sciences and Geography or History – has to be carefully monitored to ensure that schools do not again game the system, focussing on the borderline C/D/E graders but letting brighter pupils fade, hence the introduction of new value added scores for high achievers. Measuring our education system is clearly no easy task, let alone fixing it.
Whatever schemes we dream up or implement – bring back grammar schools would be the best – the core issue at the heart of the problem however is cultural. For over half a century education has been stuck in a tug of war between trendy liberal new age theories that shun knowledge and old school ideas of Victorian style rote learning with military discipline: a choice between outright anarchy and Chinese Confucian style rigidity, between pleading for calm in the classroom and wielding the cane over the most trivial matter; a false choice that fails children and our country's future, and isn't desired by parents either way. The Left has advanced a crazy culture of rights without responsibilities, yet the Right's reaction has been to turn back the clock – bizarrely looking in awe at totalitarian China – stripping back both rights and responsibilities, worshipping rigid conformity and extreme subservience, refusing to accept that schools must be about more than just exam passes in a few core subjects but about creating competent, confident and able young adults; it is as if the Left desires a nation of half-wit anarchists, and the Right a nation dependent on regulation, neither of which are employable let alone the enterprising leaders of tomorrow. Stories such as schools suspending pupils for selling sweets, or for having short hair, sum up the situation. The "back to the good old days" ethos also warps subject choice to our detriment, just as the Left's desire of prizes for all has: as our schools bring back Latin to replace Tourism Studies, New York works to introduce Computer Science from primary level and American schools – though they have many problems – churn out ever more confident and capable youngsters, just as they have for years, as does league table topping Finland. More than ever we need to acknowledge that we are seriously lagging in more than just grades and that our subject choices need reviewing.
Now admittedly it is difficult. More than any other area, schools are particularly challenging as we struggle to define the desired outcome – or create a metric for it – because the output is so intangible. Grades seem the easy measure, but we need more. How do you measure confidence and competence, if you even accept those as desired outcomes – and it's not certain all do – let alone foster such? That's a question I cannot answer, but if we are to have a future as a country we've got to start asking it and accept that – as much as we need to improve them – it's about far more than just exam grades. We need the educational tug of war to end, and both sides to realise each other's merits as well as faults, and the failings of both, to develop a system that is strong on learning and on the development of individuals. Suddenly 5 A*-C GCSEs and an EBacc seems an easy task.