What is going on with our country?

In a recent OECD report, England came 22nd out of 24 western countries for literacy in 16-24 year olds (21st for numeracy).  In another OECD / EC report, we top the list of most obese nations in Europe.

What on earth is going on with our country that our basic education and self-care is failing so badly?  What sort of preparation are we giving our children to have active, healthy, productive adult lives?

I was particularly shocked by last weekend’s Sunday Times feature on literacy providing the above OECD report figures (NB link will only show the full article if you are a subscriber).  I am incredulous that some (native English-speaking) 16-24 year olds can’t answer three questions my seven year old or even four year old could (e.g. Match the image (of an ear) to one of four words: ear egg lip or jar).  How can young people be so failed by our education system, and, dare I say it, their parents?

The article talks about a new free school opening in east London, with families flocking to sign up their children.  Most were so-called immigrant families, very few were white working class.  The article comments that in the latter children are growing up contemptuous of education, an attitude instilled by their non-working parents living in areas lacking jobs.

When I read things like this in the media, I immediately caution myself to keep perspective and remember that newspapers want to sell copy, or take a politically nuanced stance that may emphasise certain facts while ignoring others.   Why are those parents not working and resenting the system so completely – did it fail them too?  How many people are we talking about here – aren’t the vast majority of families full of parents working hard to give their kids opportunities, often in very difficult economic and social environments?  Does the report factor in language fluency? Is the picture as bad as the stats paint it?

22nd out of 24 though.  Hard to explain that away.

I’m as shocked when I read that one in three of our children don’t own a single book, about 4 million of them (see thisarticle).  Given research shows a strong correlation between book ownership and literacy, this too is truly terrible for our society, now and in the future.  What chances do these illiterate young people have without basic life skills?  From society’s standpoint, what is the impact on economic growth, how much time, effort and money will need to be pumped into these individuals to try to redress this start in life or deal with its consequences?  What does it mean for the next generation?

As a person who believes passionately in education as a life-long means and end in itself for a fulfilling life, I don’t quite know what to do with this information.  I love this country and I want my children to love being British while they equally love experiencing and getting to know the wider world.  But these statistics, these quality of life indicators – is this really a healthy and positive society for them to live in?

Japan is top of the literacy table.  I don’t think our answer is tiger mothers, rote learning and cramming schools.  Finland is number two – I also can’t see the Scandinavian model of massive taxation and public services translating well here either.  I imagine it’s hard to cherry pick policies from a very different culture and expect them to work without a lot of investment and commitment.

Apparently, after a world tour of educational approaches and outcomes, top of the action list is that we need better teachers.  “Under-qualified, under-motivated teachers and sub-standard schools are at least partly to blame for England’s poor performance” said Richard Cairns, head of Brighton College and the man doing the world touring.  And yet today sees our junior school among many others across the UK closed due to the teacher’s strike against performance-related pay and other aspects of Michael Gove’s latest reforms.

Really?  I admire and respect all the teachers I know for the jobs they do: it’s a lot of work, full-on days, and often incredibly challenging. It doesn’t look to me like the pay or pay increase potential is particularly motivating and I know zero teachers who do it for the money.  But I don’t understand why performance related pay isn’t a given.  Why would we not incentivise our teachers to do their best to receive greater rewards? And make it less attractive to do a poor job of it?  Surely no teacher except a poor one wants a system that allows poor teachers to get the same rewards as teachers doing a brilliant, or even average, job.

Perhaps the gripe is about the way the performance aspect is implemented or the percentage value.  I’m sure there will always be things that could be done better and I don’t pretend to know the details. Irrespective, it seems to me that fundamental change is needed when the outcomes being delivered are so poor.

I see many examples in life of how small changes make big differences.  The big picture is important, but it’s nothing without the small steps that create it.  I feel hopeful that the changes discussed in this particular article might start to make a dent in this problem.  And I’m relieved that the UK scores better on other quality of life indices (see this helpful OECD site).

As so often when I read articles about issues that touch me, I also feel a little helpless and at sea with what to do with the strength of my feelings.  It feels wrong to read it, react to it, put it aside and go back to life as normal.  But what can I do about it?   The issues are complex, my time is limited, and the options to influence or get involved are so often not realistic, let alone choosing which of society’s issues I believe most passionately in helping address.

Spot the person well beyond the single-minded idealism of youth.

My awareness may be an important first step, choosing my politics and bringing up my own children according to my beliefs two others.  But none of those make a blind bit of different to the illiterate or obese young people in our country today.

I know this is not the England I want to live in.  The question is, what can I, will I do about it.

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One thought on “What is going on with our country?

  1. I agree with every point you’ve said. I also remember a news report which I can’t seem to find (from last month) where Christopher Ray attacked the education system, saying that teachers have fallen victim to the bureaucracy of the system – and are then being blamed by aggressive parents, or even pupils!

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