Simon Carr's Week

Third World Standards
Jan. 21 2002 3:12 PM

Simon Carr's Week

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I was shocked—and because we think we're unshockable, that was even more shocking than it sounds—by an article in the London Evening Standard. It's not unusual, the article said, for black families in the inner-city front-line to take their children's education into their own hands. They scrape together £10,000 ($14,000) and send their boys to school back in Ghana or Jamaica. The standards are higher there, you see. Compared with state education in Britain, much higher. Discipline is strict, pupils respect their teachers, homework is done. Girls don't braid their hair in class. Boys don't mind being seen trying. It's another world. The government's greatest achievement, in the last five years, has been linguistic. It can now effortlessly twist words and phrases to mean the opposite of what we normally understand by them. It has excelled itself with the expression "Third World standards of education".

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My own 13-year-old is trying to get into an independent secondary school in Oxford. He'd be hard put, it seems to me, to get into those schools in Accra or Kingston. He doesn't seem to me to know anything at all. To get into this sort of independent school, children normally have to take the Common Entrance exam. But pupils from the state sector are excused. There's no point in their taking Common Entrance, they wouldn't be able to answer anything in the exam paper. They haven't been prepared for the exam, it might be charitably put. No, they haven't been prepared for the exam in the sense they haven't been taught anything. If there's one single indictment of the state system, it's the tacit acknowledgement that state-sector children are so far behind at 13 that they're not even running in the same race.

My little one has been taught French for three years, and I doubt he knows 50 words. He certainly can't do regular verbs. He's never heard of irregular verbs. And yet, at his age—indeed, two years younger than him—we were chanting the perfect interrogative negative of se depêcher. Ah, but that was then, 35 years ago.

My girlfriend is a lecturer at an Oxford college. She teaches French. She is astonished how little her undergraduates know when they arrive. She says her first-year students of 20 years ago could have taken finals on their A-levels. Across the way at an East Anglian university, a lecturer in German has tabulated some of these levels of ignorance. Asked to translate into German a simple sentence ("The teacher gave the student a book"), no more than 40 percent of his undergraduates were able to do so. Sometimes the numbers succeeding in this most primitive test fell to 8 percent.

And yet, more pupils than ever are getting A grades at A-level. The government denies there has been any grade inflation. Their line is that children are getting brighter and more assiduous, and that teachers are doing better. The Minister says so in the House of Commons. She dismisses this grade-inflation criticism as a carping and graceless attack on the achievements of young pupils. "I would have thought the party opposite would want to join with me in paying tribute", the frightful woman says. She's always paying tribute. What teachers want is more money, but the minister hasn't got more money, so tributes are all they get. The Government is making progress on health, if only by admitting its failure. When it can't treat patients here, it sends them to be treated in European hospitals. Perhaps they could extend the idea and start sending illiterate pupils to be educated in Ghana.