An essay by Michael Bassey March 2014

The essential foundations for people’s working lives are laid down during their time at school. … Currently, too many young people are missing out.

Learning to Grow, CBI/Pearsons Education and Skills Survey 2012


Ever since the Education Reform Act of 1988 governments (of both right and left) have been devising new strategies in attempts to ensure that all young people achieve the ‘expected’ standards in schools. Labour tried micro-management from London and poured out directive after directive. The Tories tried market forces in terms of parental choice expecting that the good schools would prosper and the poor ones wither. Both parties expected that by tinkering with the National Curriculum, introducing new league tables, allowing Ofsted to intimidate schools, giving headteachers business-management training, and introducing a host of minor measures, standards would rise.

Whether it was due to these approaches, or more likely the hard work of teachers and pupils, the GCSE measure of 5 A*-C grades, certainly rose year by year and so did SAT results at key stage 2 until they flattened in 2005. Yet, by 2011, 35% of candidates got less than C in GCSE English and, at the end of primary school, 20% did not achieved the ‘expected’ level 4 in English and 29% missed it in mathematics.


So, government, now in the shape of Mr Gove, secretary of state, tried again. This is how the Daily Telegraph’s social affairs editor, Tim Ross, reported it on 2 August 2011:

Ministers are expected to use the results to support sweeping reforms to the testing system, including a more rigorous exam in basic spelling, punctuation and grammar.

How this would help was not clear, and Ross noted that

Teachers’ leaders yesterday called for the “fatally flawed” testing to be abolished.

A year later Melanie Phillips, in her regular column in the Daily Mail, wrote:

anyone who wants to understand Britain’s education disaster only has to listen to the asinine knee-jerk reactions from teachers and Labour and Lib Dem politicians all baying for Gove’s blood because he wants to raise education standards.

It seems reminiscent of Charles I raising the standard at Nottingham on 22 August 1642 (to recruit soldiers) and thus starting the Civil War! One suspects that Ms Phillips has a similar aim!


A more serious challenge from the political right comes from the Confederation of British Industry (CBI). In conjunction with the education publishers Pearsons, the CBI conducted a survey, in January and February 2012, of the opinions of 542 employers, chosen, as far as possible, to be representative of all sectors of the economy. The summary statement on raising standards in schools is one that most of us would endorse:

The essential foundations for people’s working lives are laid during their time at school. Employers have long been keen for schools to ensure all young people emerge with the essential core skills they need and the right motivation to continue learning and to thrive in the workplace. Currently, too many young people are missing out – action is needed to raise ambition for all in schools.

The senior executives participating in the survey were asked to choose three from a list of six suggested reasons for raising school standards. These were the results:

  • To provide business with the skills required 73%
  • To enable young people to lead fulfilling lives 57%
  • To minimise risk of educational underachievement contributing to social breakdown 57%
  • To reduce levels of unemployment in future 49%
  • To reduce the need for remedial training of future young recruits 31%
  • To develop employer involvement in schools to improve business reputation 14%

Personally I found the second of these most encouraging because, surely for all of us, this is the main purpose of education, but the third seems strange: was it the aftermath of the urban riots of the previous summer?

The respondents were asked about ‘business priorities’. For primary education the top items were numeracy skills (61%), writing skills (58%), reading skills (45%) and communication skills (43%). No surprises here, but for the education of 14-19-year-olds the top items were: development of employability skills (71%) – predictable, followed by literacy skills (50%) and numeracy skills (45%). A press release from the CBI of 11 June 2012 starts:

Further progress on school and college leaver attainment requires radical new vision The number of employers who are dissatisfied with school and college leavers’ basic skills remains stuck at around a third – the same as a decade ago – with 42% reporting they have had to provide remedial training for school and college leavers.


The chair of this Committee, Edward Leigh MP, in January 2009 commenting on the level of adult illiteracy in the UK, and noting that an estimated half million benefit claimants have poor literacy, language and numeracy skills, said:

This is a dismal picture, both for the many who face diminished prospects in what they can achieve in life and for the competiveness of our country in the world economy.


Central to these challenges is the low level of reading and writing skills of a substantial number of school leavers. Numeracy is important – but literacy is essential. So, how is it measured at GCSE?

How difficult is it to gain a C or higher grade in GCSE English and does it matter?

In the box below is a GCSE English paper set in 2011 by the AQA Examination Board. The maximum marks that can be awarded are 80. To gain a C at least 48 marks must be gained.


AQA GCSE English paper ENG1F of 10 January 2011 9.00 am to 11.15 am

Understanding and producing non-fiction texts

Answer all questions. You have 2 1/4 hours

Section A: Reading

Read the article called Jamie Oliver’s school dinners shown to have improved academic

results and answer the questions below.

1 List four things you learn about healthier school dinners in Greenwich. (4 marks)

2 What was Jamie Oliver’s reaction to the research about his school dinners? (4 marks)

Now read charity webpage Sponsor a girl today and answer the question below.

3 What reasons are given to persuade the reader to sponsor a girl? (8 marks)

Now read an extract from an advice leaflet called Getting on with your Teenager and answer

the question below.

4 How does the writer use language:

· to inform the reader about teenagers and

· to advise parents and carers? (12 marks)

Now look again at all three sources.

5 Choose two of these sources and compare the presentational features.

Remember to:

· write about the way the sources are presented

· compare how they look. (12 marks)

Section B: Writing

6 Write a letter to your headteacher explaining how to improve your school or college.

Remember to:

· write a letter

· explain the things that would make your school or college better. (16 marks)

7 Write the text for a leaflet to persuade young people in your area to take

part in a sponsored event for children or charity. The leaflet should be about

· the sponsored event of your choice

· which charity the event is for

· why young people should support the charity.

Remember to:

· write a leaflet

· use language and techniques to persuade. (24marks)


It is difficult for an ancient academic like me to judge how difficult or easy this paper is for a 15-year-old. But what does strike me is that the 35% of young people who can’t muster more than 48 marks will have poorly developed reading, writing and thinking skills, and so they:

  • will be potential liabilities as employees (as perceived by the CBI);
  • probably will be ineffective claimants for any benefit entitlements (as perceived by the PAC select committee)
  • will be unlikely to engage in and enjoy much of the written cultural wealth and heritage of the world;
  • will struggle in pursuing paths of life-long learning in areas which might interest them;
  • will find difficulty as citizens in understanding the political issues aired in elections, resulting in either unquestioned tribal voting or choosing not to vote at all;
  • and, beyond all that, in terms of eventually becoming parents, will be unlikely to rear their children in homes which are culturally rich.

Expressed like this, it is clear that not getting a creditable mark in GCSE English is a tragedy for the individual and for the nation. Yes it matters.


No doubt there are many different reasons. Coming from a culturally deprived home, with unambitious parents who were too tired, or disinclined, or absent, to read stories to the children; surrounded by mates who scorned reading; being utterly bored by school work; developing intellectually more slowly than peers and so getting ‘left behind’; taught by teachers who neglected the less able; these are all possible factors.

In 2000 the OECD carried out a survey of aspects of education in 17 member countries. It reported that in the UK, 54% of pupils ‘found school boring’, while 27% said there was ‘high noise level and disorder in classes’. Unfortunately it is not clear from the internet report how the questions were asked nor what age groups were involved so we can only take from this the supposition that some pupils experienced boredom and disorder. Nine years later the Guardian reported that:

Ofsted is to launch a crackdown on “boring” teaching in response to concerns that children’s behaviour is deteriorating because they are not being stimulated enough in class.

My view is that the demands of the subject-based national curriculum, enforced by Ofsted inspections, and requiring a fragmented time table, limit the freedom of teachers to respond creatively to the moods of their classes and the educational needs of individuals. Thus the present structure and requirements of the education system can promote boredom. Yes, there will be some teachers who are boring personalities and should never have entered teaching, but I believe they are few in number.


In the proposal for a National Education Service I have argued that what happens in schools should be decided by the teachers, working collegially.

In primary schools the work of a class should be strongly influenced by the enthusiasms and cultural interests of the class teacher with the addition that numeracy and literacy must feature large.   In these two areas of the curriculum it is important that by the time children leave for secondary education they are more or less at (or above) level 4. 

In secondary schools, as noted above, the traditional timetable is likely to be a source of boredom for many pupils. Starting from scratch surely no one would expect that at five or six or seven points in the day work on one subject stops, everybody moves to another classroom, and work recommences in another subject, with another teacher who is expected - in Ofsted terms – to start the lesson with excitement and build up to a climax (or do I exaggerate?) A prison governor might organise events like this – to reduce the likelihood of a riot breaking out – but no educationist would suggest this – unless for the same reason!

Secondary schools really need the freedom to think again what they are about. My own view is that blocks of time – over several days – devoted to worthwhile projects which give every student the chance to achieve something good – is a better pattern – but that is for schools working collegially to decide. The one factor that should be built into their planning must be that everyone by age 15 (or earlier) is effectively literate at what might be called 'an adult level'.

This is the one standard that matters, for the reason given by many of the CBI respondents, that it will enable all young people to lead fulfilling lives. Beyond that government should leave schooling to the people that know best about it – the teachers.

In the proposal for a National Education Service it is suggested that externally marked SATs (at KS2), and GCSE examinations should be abolished and A-levels replaced by Tomlinson type diplomas, while all earlier assessments – throughout the years of schooling – should be made by teachers.

But a ‘staging post’ in literacy should be essential.


STAGING POST IN LITERACY – pass/fail and retakeable like the driving test

This is envisaged as a test of literacy along the lines of the present GCSE papers in English, marked by young people’s teachers using national materials and simply on a pass or fail basis with no other differentiation. It could be taken at any convenient time after the age of 11*** when the candidates are judged ready and, if necessary, retaken as often as it takes to succeed. It is envisaged as comparable to the driving test – evidence that one can drive competently the roads of our society and culture, and thus:

be able to engage effectively in learning academic and vocational subjects – at school (for perhaps the Tomlinson diplomas) and beyond;

meet the literacy expectations of future employers;

handle the bureaucratic demands of modern life and, when hardship hits, make effective claims for support;

be able to engage in and enjoy much of the written cultural wealth and heritage of the world;

be able to pursue paths of life-long learning in areas which might interest them;

be able as citizens to understanding the political issues aired in elections; and

in terms of eventually becoming parents, rear their children in homes which are culturally rich.


This is the gold standard that every child should reach at some point during the early years of secondary education.

It cannot be achieved by government edict or inspectorial bullying, but by the patient work of young people and their teachers within the framework of the suggested National Education Service.

Footnote ***    In a later essay  I argue that with primary schools released from Ofsted, league tables, and other government pressures, and teachers drawing on their own interests and enthusiasms to inspire their classes, it should be possible for this "staging post in literacy" to be achieved by the late primary years, thus giving subject-based secondary teachers plenty of scope to put books in their pupils hands.


This page was modified on 1 March 2014