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Recent events bring home educational failings

    On Tuesday, I blogged about the key features of Monday night’s London rioting. I argued that a disregard for private property, a lack of respect for authority and a ‘nothing to lose’ attitude had been strongly evident.

    Attempting to attribute causes for these features is difficult. In fact, the long-term causes of recent events are complex and varied by individual and region. Nevertheless, I highlighted a lack of authority arising through fatherless households and a breakdown of school discipline, a belief that the police would not act to defend private property, and lives wasted through welfare dependency as potential factors.

    Of all the reasons mentioned, education keeps cropping up as one of the most important. Tony Blair claimed that his three priorities were ‘education, education, education’. Spending on schooling increased dramatically throughout his premiership, and his later years as PM saw the expansion of the academy programme – giving hope to the poorest inner-city areas. Michael Gove now has a huge task to bring back both discipline to the classroom, and to reverse a decline in standards which has seen us plummet against international competitors.

    The reforms that Gove has initiated will take time to improve outcomes. But they are necessary.

    The only thing comprehensive about the previous comprehensive experiment has been comprehensive failure. Abolition of grammar schools was supposed to create a system where every child had the same opportunities. Children from the poorest backgrounds would reap the benefits of sharing classrooms with brighter students, and knowledge sharing would occur. Aggregate standards would go up, and social mobility would be enhanced – or, so it was thought.

    The desired results have not been achieved. An excellent documentary by Andrew Neil recently outlined the increase in the number of non-state educated members of the government since the widespread abolition of selective education. Other statistics are starker. Despite there being near nationwide roll-out of the comprehensive system, the Sutton Trust found that in 2007 98% of judges, 65% of politicians, 87% of journalists, 83% of medics and 80% of CEOs were educated either at independent or state-selective schools.

    The comprehensive system has been failing many in society. For those in inner city schools, the situation is worse still. Evidence from Harriet Sergeant’s excellent Wasted report showed that 63 per cent of white working-class boys and just over half of black Caribbean boys at the age of 14 have a reading age of seven or below.

    This is unacceptable. Competition from better educated migrant workers, and lack of incentives to work because of a generous welfare system, coupled with this lack of reading ability, make it impossible for many of these young people to ever find work. The only means of boosting income and meeting the limited aspiration they have is then to turn to crime, or for many girls, to have children.

    There are no short-term fixes to these deep-rooted problems. Root and branch reform of the education system is required. We must ensure that the ability to read becomes the key target for primary and early secondary education. Reading ability in London, as highlighted fantastically by the Evening Standard investigation, is of particular concern. But to ensure that teachers are able to do their work effectively, stronger measures of discipline must be available. Furthermore, we must hope the freedoms granted to schools by Michael Gove’s reforms will have the desired effect in driving up standards through competitive pressures. A challenge to the liberal schooling consensus is vital. Schools must once again be not just centres for teaching for tests, but institutions which instil moral values and self-discipline.

    Ryan joined the Centre for Policy Studies in January 2011, having previously worked for a year at the economic consultancy firm Frontier Economics.

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