Our flawed education system is betraying our young people

Allister Heath

I F YOU want to understand the real crisis facing Britain, look no further than yesterday’s league tables on educational performance. The results were disgraceful: young people in England were rated a shocking 22nd out of 24 OECD countries for literacy and 21st for numeracy.

We are the only country where 55-65 year olds are more proficient in literacy and numeracy than 16-24 year olds, after adjusting for background, a catastrophic development which confirms that schools have deteriorated massively. Our appallingly low standards in schools have hit the poor the hardest. On average across the OECD, children whose parents are not well educated are five times more likely to have poor proficiency in literacy than children whose parents were well educated. In England and Northern Ireland, this rises to a heart-breakingly high eight times. Yet the impact of improving literacy in the UK is greater than anywhere else: a one standard deviation improvement boosts wages by 13-14 per cent. If we want to tackle inherited poverty, we need to fix our education system.

Michael Gove is the first education secretary to start making a real difference in years; but the government needs to go further and faster. The failure of our schools has been one of the most shameful politically driven tragedies of the past few decades; those complicit have got away scott free. The word scandal is over-used by the media, but this really is one.

THERE is a psychological reason why we always give excessive credence to the views of institutions like the International Monetary Fund. It’s a variant of the appeal to authority fallacy: we grant ridiculous powers of clairvoyance to organisations with the most prestige, forgetting that a one-person forecaster armed with an excel spreadsheet in a basement is probably just as likely to get it right.

When the IMF came to the UK in April, it slammed the coalition’s austerity programme (misunderstanding its true extent, in fact quite limited), hinted at the need for more Keynesian measures and warned that George Osborne was “playing with fire”.

It appeared to back the Labour party’s stance – and as it turns out, was utterly mistimed. The IMF’s call for a u-turn came at exactly the moment when the economy had started to grow again; as so often with economic forecasts, a key turning point was completely missed.

Since then, the IMF has doubled its UK growth forecast for 2013 to 1.4 per cent and toned down its rhetoric. It now expects 1.9 per cent growth for next year; the upgrades were larger than for any other G7 economy.

Once again, the IMF had got it completely wrong, just as it didn’t predict the crisis and failed to see the bubble. It will fail again, and again, and yet we will continue to take what it says seriously. The IMF is not alone in its error, of course: most forecasters missed the recovery. But when a bank or private consultancy puts out an estimate, it is taken with a grain of salt; yet when an international bureaucracy publishes its own guesstimates, from afar and with less local knowledge, they are treated with undeserved respect. It’s all terribly depressing.

AMERICA has it right: the first amendment to its constitution states that “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…”. The kind of authoritarian regulation of newspapers being prepared by our government would be self-evidently illegal in the US, and rightly so. Of course, criminals need to be prosecuted, in the media like in all walks of life, but publications should never be regulated by politicians or their quangos. It beggars belief that the UK is about to throw away three centuries of freedom in such a careless way.

Follow me on Twitter: @allisterheath

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