Sunday, 26 November 2006

Who is the English Education System Failing?

At the age of ten I left primary school and proudly waited at the school gates of my new school having turned eleven during the summer holidays. My new school was a grammar school, the type of educational establishment that has, albeit mostly disappeared yet as those independent of government interference have proved, they remain successful pillars of learning. I was a little fortunate because I lived within the boundaries of Middlesex and the year before changing schools they abandoned the Eleven Plus examinations in favour of a grading system based on the student’s overall school work. It had seemed a fair and logical system to separate those that were markedly more academic from those better suited to an eventual manual trade. Even the abolishment of the Eleven Plus might be seen as the embryo of the crass changes that followed.

For the first two years at grammar school I scored highly in written examinations. The school was good, the teaching levels appropriately high and the mix of subjects taught were applicable. As I had (during those first two years) a more academic leaning I was probably ideally suited for a grammar school education while most of my former primary colleagues that I’d been through from infant school showed signs of being less academic, yet more practical. It is easy to determine, even for a laymen, why the two systems suited particular people. The bulk of my class mates moved to what we knew then as a secondary modern school where the emphasis was more geared towards practical subjects such as metal work, woodwork and technical drawing. My lessons involved longer periods spent learning maths, English and the sciences. The academic selection process roughly divided the numbers so that 20% went to grammar schools while the remainder went to secondary modern. The system followed a well trodden path that went back many years but it seemed to work. Few from secondary modern schools ever got to university; it wasn’t a consideration and even at grammar school there was still a tendency for many to leave at the minimum age of fifteen. At the end of the second year my education was thrown into total upheaval as state-funded local authorities removed the selection process and introduced the single system comprehensive school. This really was the beginning of the end that forced students of all levels to follow the same newly conceived teaching programme that proved to be totally unsuitable to many, especially those that were more academic. The rot had set in. At my new comprehensive the establishment became almost twice the size of my former grammar school; there were too few teaching staff and many of these were incapable of doing the jobs that they were employed for. Academically I became a failure. My examination marks that were once high fell dramatically as I went to near bottom of the class. I was forced to take subjects I had no inclination to study and, as a result I walked out of school at 15, several weeks prior to my official leaving date at the end of the school year. More recently I have discussed our schooling with former class mates that I have met through Friends Reunited and the general consensus is that we should have sued the local authorities for failing to provide a suitable education.

Unlike today I went straight to a London employment agency and walked into the first job I was interviewed for; a messenger in a major advertising agency. I had the desire to progress and within a fortnight I had been promoted to an office job involving cost accounting. At that time, like most young people who were starting on the work ladder, I made many friends but I never came across any youngsters that were so poorly educated that they lacked all hope in life. This certainly isn’t the case today whereby even Blair expresses concern that one in four eleven year olds are illiterate and a quarter of all school leavers have little understanding of maths or English.

Life then was more competitive and if, during our school years, we played any sports the purpose was to win. Then, if we did win, we were rightfully rewarded with a trophy as a token of victory. I was only mediocre at sports so won nothing, nevertheless everybody appreciated that it was necessary to be competitive. Many of us subscribed to the School of Hard Knocks that made us resilient and we knew that if we wanted something we would have to work hard to get it. When it came to dating girls even those who considered themselves to be “Jack the Lads” had respect it would have been an outrage to have got a girl pregnant. Today the UK has the highest number of schoolgirl pregnancies in Europe and the number of youngsters with sexually transmitted diseases is spiralling out of control. This is nothing to be proud of and much of it has been caused by a failure in our education system.

Things have changed of course but it can hardly be called progress. Successive governments can each take a part of the blame for ruining a once good education system that worked. From the introduction of comprehensive schools the whole issue has been a disaster. The current government believe everybody should have the chance to be university educated, yet they are unwilling or unable to fund those that should go. Is the government so lacking in educational skills themselves that they fail to see that many of those who they steer towards university are totally unsuited? Is Tony Blair too short-sighted to appreciate that the former polytechnics were the catalyst that provided further education for those with lower academic capabilities, similar in a way to the trade schools such as the dressmaking school my mother attended as a young woman during the 1930s?. It is folly to alter the status of lesser establishments in an attempt to convince the public that they should rank in the same category as Oxbridge. Employers know the difference. What major employer would take on a graduate trainee from Luton when they expect to hire someone with a degree from Nottingham, St Andrews or one of the other long established appropriate seats of learning? I am not being flippant when I say that there is a difference in standards yet Tony Blair and his cronies firmly believe they can hoodwink potential employers as well as students by advocating that all universities are on a parr. Both sides are being badly and irretrievably let down.

When I started my business I would regularly try to help students by offering to take a few each year on work experience schemes. Over the years the standard of students that I have received has been growing worse and it has reached a situation whereby they have become a total liability. None has shown any interest at all in the type of work that I do and the majority have been totally unable to communicate either with myself, my staff or my customers. Over the last two years I have had to dismiss two back to their schools because they have been rude, refused to undertake simple tasks assigned to them and were unable to arrive on time. A third faked illness so that she could meet her friend at the Milton Keynes shopping centre who, it later transpired, had acted similarly at another company. I cannot be alone in this experience. But, having discussed the issues with some of the teachers involved it leaves me wondering who is letting who down? Some of the teachers more lately seem to palm students off to work experience places at companies merely to get them off their hands and who can really blame them? Students leave school unprepared for the working environment and few seem to know how to approach an employer for a job. I receive letters from students of all levels who are writing on-spec to seek work. Few of their letters are compiled neatly; they are badly positioned on the page; most contain poor grammar, appalling spelling and the writer often forgets to sign their name to the correspondence nor have the courtesy of enclosing a stamped addressed envelope for a reply. It appears that no guidance has been given on how to present their CVs to potential employers. There are exceptions of course and it is these students that are likely to gain suitable employment while the others sadly become assigned to the unemployment queues. Doesn’t our government owe it to the young people to offer an education system that work well for those of us that were fortunate enough to have received at least some of their schooling before the dreadful days of the one-tier system?

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