Thursday, January 19, 2006

It's English Innit!

Education is a mess and today, even the Minister, Ruth Kelly is fighting for her survival. Half the government's flagship city academies are today named among the worst-performing schools in England, in league tables published for every state and private secondary school that rank their results in last year's GCSE exams.

To date 27 academies, the controversial semi-independent schools that lie outside the state system and which have all replaced failing schools have opened, but only 14 have been open long enough for their 2005 GCSE results to be included in the rankings. Of these, seven were in the bottom 200 using the key benchmark of the proportion of pupils gaining five or more passes at grades A*-C. Less than 30% of the pupils attending these seven academies gained five C grades or better.

So with Academies sounding like a good idea but nonetheless visibly failing but allegedly worth a seat in the House of Lords if you sponsor one, Ministers went off on another tack yesterday and claimed that schools in general had made “the biggest single improvement in standards for a decade” after the proportion of students passing five good GCSEs rose by 2.6 percentage points.

As you might expect from any government release these days, this figure is also revealed by the newspapers as being deeply misleading. If English and maths are included in the five subjects measured, the pass rate is 12 points lower, at only 44.3 per cent.

This, as The Times points out, is an appalling result. It means that more than half the pupils in Britain are not achieving even a reasonable competence in the two subjects essential to future employment. To allow schools to boast an ever-higher achievement by counting any or all of the soft options as part of the core five passes is deceptive.

The importance of English is hard to overstate and I’m writing as one who used to teach English in Thanet and makes a good living from writing professionally as well as having fun writing the Weblog. Research has shown that primary school leavers who fail to achieve the expected competence at the age of 11 find it almost impossible to catch up later or to prosper in a host of other subjects which depend on mastery of the language and I’m constantly dismayed at the poor grasp of the English language I see demonstrated on a daily basis, a factor which inevitably condemns many children to a life with very limited professional horizons.

Universities have long been so frustrated by the poor grasp of basic grammar among those beginning undergraduate courses that some have sent freshmen on compulsory remedial courses. Clearly, at undergraduate level, a student who cannot grasp the structure of the medium used for all instruction is severely handicapped. Even those beginning a job at 16 need to have the confidence to express themselves precisely and correctly but their education and frequently families, through lack of support and correction, are failing them through an inverted pride in not being able to communicate “proper like” in their own language.

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