We must revolutionise UK schooling or face inexorable decline

Allister Heath

IT is not possible to put a positive spin on Britain’s results in the latest global education league tables: they reveal an appalling, shameful, tragic waste of talent. It is an embarrassing failure for a country that ought to be doing so much better. Our children were ranked 26th for maths, 23rd for reading and 21st for science in the OECD’s Pisa exams, a hopelessly mediocre outcome.

It is now clearer than ever that the educational establishment has been failing for decades, letting down children in a scandalous fashion, and yet many of its leading lights and lobbyists were still in denial yesterday, desperately clinging to a moral high ground from which they should have been forcibly ejected years ago. The double standards are sickening; had this been a private sector failure, the same people would have been calling for many, many heads to roll.

The list of those guilty in our education catastrophe is extremely long: the rot well and truly set in 45 years ago. An imperfect and flawed state school system was made far, far worse. Even Lord (Keith) Joseph, the brilliant Tory education secretary in the early 1980s, bottled out from engaging in serious reform; the first positive signs of change emerged in the last decade or so in London, where state schools saw their standards improve substantially for a variety of reasons. Michael Gove’s reforms are the first truly radical attempt at shaking-up the system, empowering parents, removing bad performers and rewarding good ones. If it is allowed to continue and develop, and with further changes and liberalisation, it will eventually start to significantly improve standards.

The OECD’s research shows that the poverty of a country, its levels of inequality, class sizes and the like can all be circumvented. It is possible to have a great education system in very trying circumstances – and a terrible one even when the cash is flowing freely. Differences in spending per pupil account for just 30 per cent of the mean variation in mathematics performance. This can easily be entirely circumvented, with the right schools system and national culture.

Paradoxically, education is simultaneously extremely important to economic growth and surprisingly unimportant. Why the latter? Because what matters most of all are economic institutions: property rights, a good legal system, sanctity of contracts, low taxes and great incentives to invest, work and save. An economy that has all of these things will prosper, at least at first, even if its education system is second-rate, and especially if it is able to import the skills and talents it cannot generate domestically – and the right incentive structures will eventually encourage the accumulation of human capital, at least among adults, partially rectifying some problems.

We’ve seen a version of this in Britain: we have a very average education system, at best, but we have still done better in GDP per person over the past 25 years than some countries with better schooling. Conversely, a communist economy could have the world’s best education system and still see its people starve. The Soviet Union produced brilliant mathematicians but consigned its people to crippling poverty and misery.

Yet the world is moving on. Capitalist institutions remain the vital prerequisite but failing state schools have become an increasingly damaging drag. London hosts the world’s biggest cluster of high-value added jobs; it is the reason why Londoners produce much more per person and earn much more than the average Brit. The only way that countries can grow such clusters is by making sure that there are enough highly-skilled people to work in high value added firms, or to set up new ones.

So getting education right matters more than ever today. We must either revolutionise our schools, or accept relative decline. Let’s hope voters will see this choice as a no-brainer.

Follow me on Twitter: @allisterheath

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