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Why Tories and media cannot stomach GCSE success story

Posted on 27 August 2009 | 4:08pm

Lots of happy young people around today as the GCSE success story unfolds around the country.

Cue lots of middle-aged, middle-class, media-driven moaning about dumbing down.

There is something peculiarly and unpleasantly British about the refusal to take at face value the idea that in part because of extra investment, in part because of sustained commitment, and above all because young people in Britain are not nearly as bad as they are often painted, standards are rising to record levels.

To those who have received good results, I say well done for all the hard work you put into it, and well done to your schools and teachers for managing to teach you well despite all the space in your lives that goes on social networking, fads, trends, clothes, and crap telly programmes.

And understand that the reason the media questioning of your success increases with every rise in standards is that the vast bulk of newspaper editors, columnists, commentators, broadcast executives and senior broadcasters send their own kids to private schools, and their coverage of State schools is slanted to justify their own choices.

When their kids do well, it’s because they are good caring parents and their kids are jolly bright. When you do well, it is because of dumbing down. It is called snobbery. And nonsense.

Interesting to see in Alan Milburn’s recent report on social mobility that the percentage of journalists using the private sector is rising considerably. Maybe they actually believe all the bilge that fills their columns on State schools, the vast bulk of which do a great job, and the vast bulk of which are better than they were under the Tories.

That’s the same Tories who ventilate the dumbing down charge by having a policy for public services rooted mainly in the idea of talking them down.

  • alexblac

    you don’t have to be a tory or a journalist to question a pass rate that has increased each year for the last 20.

  • kardinal birkutzki

    Sometimes people deny the sky is blue!
    The case against the attitude shown in this typically disgusting post is so totally cast-iron and irrefutable that it only merits the following comment: I just wish someone amongst the governing political elite would stop lying to us (and specially to the kids), admit there is a problem and start fixing it.

  • @jlocke13

    and when the “lots of happy people” become unhappy and disillusioned when they find their qualifications mean nothing when searching for a job with over 20% youth unemployment, due to the disastrous policies of this government, who will you blame?
    Social mobility, dont make me laugh, the best method for increasing social mobility was the grammar school system, which you and your ilk abolished… and I note that you gained your degree without even reading the works….now how dumb a degree is that?

  • Charlie

    AC. You are becoming a tediously predictable and out-of-date Stuck Record

  • Nick

    Under Labour, everyone is a “success”. There is no such thing as failure. We are all equal now. New Deal was a great “success” and youth unemployment has been eradicated as a result. The war against the Taliban is a great “success”, even though I doubt a single Labour minister would want their kids in our ill equipped Armed Forces at this time.

    And of course our education system is a “great success”, even though Blair, Harman, Abbott etc opted out of their local, bog standard comps for THEIR kids.

    Message now ends, off to read a very similar blog by F.Miller in the Guardian…..

  • Vj

    Bet you don’t post this Alastair. Isn’t it extraordinary. A member of the most hypocritical party
    (yes the labour party) is criticizing those who seek higher standards in education. This is the party of Harriet Harmann. More importantly of Suzie “leather” the latest class warrior. The woman in charge of the assault of the charities commission on private schools. She who benefited from a brilliant private education, she who educated her children of this great British institution, and once having done so is happy to deny the opportunity to a lot of hard working parents around the country.

    Alastair as usual your argument is tribal, slanted, and without base. Yes there is no doubt a great deal of children have done very well across the board in the recent examinations. However the evidence is that the standards in the requirement to pass. Do you really believe if the state system was that good people would be breaking the bank working very hard to afford the fees of these schools. If more people who can stretch to afford these schools are doing just that its not because the state sector is so good they feel they have to pay the fees AND THE TAXES to cover the cost of their child’s education.

    I like the way you have slanted your piece it is nothing lees than i would expect of the man who brought us so many”truths ” over the years.

    A simple lesson in a free society, something you will struggle with but give it a go. If one is prepared to work and pay for something they are entitled to it. Parents who work PAY the exorbitant taxes, and stretch for the fees (ie pay twice for their child’s education) are entitled to do so.

    And yes their are a lot more people than the tories whoe feel the education system is a farce in many ways here. I have had the fortune to experience many around the world. You have managed the impossible i thought. masses more money for a worse result.Still education isn the only service the labour party have managed this feat. Well not for long now it seems. Excellent

  • JM

    Alastair, this debate comes around every year, not because one side is ‘unpleasant’ or ‘snobbish’, but because there is a fundamental difference of opinion on what qualifications are about and for.

    The left sees good A-Levels and GCSEs as a bar of quality to which we should all aspire, and therefore uses the number of A, B and C grades as a useful barometer for educational standards(in an ideal world as many people would get As as possible). The right sees A-Levels and GCSEs as a way of differentiating the able from the less able, and therefore believe that in a situation where everyone gets As and Bs, they no longer serve that purpose.

    While one side is wrong to denigrate the clear improvements in education that have been made, the other is wrong to ignore the problems ever-increasing numbers of A and B grades give to universities and employers seeking to differentiate between high quality and very high quality students.

    It’s a shame that both sides of the debate pick this time of year to call each other names rather than trying to understand each others’ position and work towards solutions.

  • vj

    Didnt think so..usual fear of debate

  • Thomas Rossetti

    If you compared a modern languages ‘O’ level paper from the early 1980s to its 2009 GCSE equivalent, I think you would have to conclude that the exams have become easier. Young people should indeed be congratulated, but to pretend that standards haven’t gone down is just nonsense.

    When it comes to private schooling, let’s take a look at where Labour figures like Tony Blair and Dianne Abbot chose to send their children. It’s not just newspaper editors who shy away from their local comprehensives.

  • simon gittins

    When you have an ‘A’ level pass rate of around 97% it’s hard to see how these exams can be really meaningful. I wish all of these kids the best of luck in finding a job when they leave full time education, though all these qualifications should come in handy when they need to fill out their benefit forms. Six million and rising, one area where New Labour has made a real difference !

  • Jane A

    The Tories should beware of whom they belittle.

    These “kids” will have the vote in very short order.

  • Maggie Henson

    To Charlie’s stuck record point — sometimes it is only by repeating yourself that a message can get through. The link between media personal choices and media perception of the whole cannot be stated enough. It is because the media is like a stuck record in its denigration of state schools that there is such a gap between general perception – schools bad – and actual experience – for most, schools good.

  • Charlie

    Sir Michael White in his Guardian column today says:

    “The trouble is that universities and employers keep complaining that many of the undergraduates, apprentices and new employees they get are not fit for purpose at a pretty basic level – literacy and numeracy. The FT carried a big whinge about it only yesterday.”

    Who has been in charge of “Education, Education, Education” since 1997 ?

  • gary Enefer

    So much anger directed at you , the government and in a side swiping way at our great young people. You can compare different times in all walks of life-would a boxer in the 1950’s beaten a boxer in 1980’s,would that football player/racing driver had succeeded now?Who knows what the futures holds for our young school leavers – but they are our future and good luck to them.

    Someone once asked Nelson Mandela what we could learn from people of his age and his response was the old should learn from the young.

  • David Kingston

    Teaching techniques and technologies improve year on year. Logically, results should improve as well – and they do. No one suggests that the 100m gets easier just because Usain Bolt’s times improve. In athletes’ cases training systems and equipment improve and so do times. Why can’t the expensively educated who attack school standards understand this?

    Criticism of A level pass rates shows even greater ignorance. Post 16 education is voluntary. AS results at the end of Lower 6th give a good indicator of final A level grades. Anyone with poor AS grades is quite properly advised to drop subjects they are likely to fail. With this addittional factor pass rates of near 100% should be expected.

  • Trevor Malcolm, Portsmouth Hampshire

    BBC Newsnight just featured three FruitCakes, opinionating about school exam results. Then, when I saw your blog post today on the same subject, had received such an emotionally vehement, fervescent pasting from readers’ comments, I reckoned “divert attention fast”

    Urgently head for the shallow end of the swimming pool, (less sharks roam there), breathe deeper, restore perspective overnight, then blog ‘em back with avengeance tomorrow, if you wish. Conflicts on education policy won’t go away, but hot-air spouting won’t help, either – regardless of how well-intentioned or from which direction it wafts inland

    So, to avoid us all going to bed, depressed, conflicted and frustrated, here’s a safe bet: news of your charitable good works, instead

    Bedtime News, let’s begin …

    Dapper Alastair, Suave Melvyn – Mind’s Finest “Men About London Town”

    Despite family holiday commitments, the month of August has been a boon for Alastair Campbell photo-fans and picture enthusiasts, with the picture gallery on AC’s website, justifiably remaining one of its most popular features for fresh guests to visit

    For those waiting to view a summer holiday 2009 snapshot, whilst AC has been physically out of sight this month, he’s seldom been out of mind – the charity National Mind, as their winning Mind Champion of 2009

    Sir, you look magnificent in the press photos that illustrate features promoting the charity, for example, in the pull-out supplement, Mind News, inside the magazine, OpenMind, photos taken at the Mind annual awards night on 14 May

    Better still, the colour pictures that grace the front page of Mind Update, the fundraising issue, to highlight this year’s Mind Week, and its emphasis on focusing attention on the “Get it off your Chest” initiative you support

    Even during your Acceptance Speech, how magnanimous of you to describe our President, Melvyn Bragg, as “suave” – your kindness must’ve made His Lordship appreciate the Mind bash proved worth his while getting all dressed up like a dog’s dinner for

    Abit like winning the Red Rosette at the Kennel Club’s Crufts annual canine romp

    Yourself, too. A Champion, a thoroughbred. Superlatives fail me. Dapper, dressed in (guesswork follows here, sloppy research, my apologies in advance) immaculate Savile Row suit, tailored by Ozwald Boateng, underplayed by a pale lemon, pure silk tie

    It looked suspiciously like a Hermes of New Bond Street. Yes, the same brand and label Princess Diana chose to send her men friends as gifts, say, on their birthdays or near Christmas. So much celebrity fashion gossip to wade through

    Then there are those Turnbull and Asser 100% English pure silk pocket hankies Mr Stephen Fry swears by – as do Prince Charles’ Highgrove Set and other male members of His Royal Highness’ extensive entourage. They all shop there for their breast-pocket silk hankies

    Handily placed, too, for gents outfitters nearby, frequented by followers of contemporary Gay Icon Chaps, including David Beckham, Andrew Flintoff, Shane Warne, Alastair Campbell, oh and that much-missed camp comedian from Carry On films, Mr Charles Hawtrey, best-known for immortalising the film “Carry On Up the Khyber” character of Private Widdle, they all shop round London’s Savile Row. Patriotic

    Perhaps a Campbell family relative who loves you will fork out for a Turnbull and Asser silkie for your top pocket – if you’re a Lucky Boy. Or from a relative that loathes you, (most families endure one, at least), might get lumbered with a signed copy of John Prescott’s book, if you aren’t so lucky

    Either way, here’s celebrating Mind Champion Alastair and Mind President Melvyn. Despite as you report in today’s blog, 27 August 2009, “ … all the space in your lives that goes on social networking, fads, friends, (friends?! Having friends, they wrong, too?), clothes and crap telly … “ we can still boast this country’s most illustriously gifted novelists, the pair of you. Dearest dapperlings

    And you both write nice adjectives; lovely

    Trevor Malcolm
    National Mind Member No 2122166, of long-standing


  • Michael

    Well there are a lot of great kids out there and much modern education is imaginative and interactive but…if stats drive funding then the stats are going to improve. Science is being watered down and modern languages are less prevalent – both these subjects are difficult and you have to know your stuff to pass. In independent schools, 53.7% of GCSEs sat were awarded an A or A*, compared with 55% in grammars and 17.3% in comprehensives – hardly ringing endorsement of the state’s education? And it’s not just journalists who favour private education over the state – Ruth Kelly and Diane Abbott seem to prefer it too.

  • TD

    Good topic, AC, and I think David’s two paragraphs are as succint a supporting argument as you could ever wish for.

  • Alan Quinn

    As a governor at a local primary school for the last 14 yrs I think I can comment on Labour’s record. Before 1997 our school never had a computer, we had constant threats of education cuts and protest marches.
    To date our classrooms now have whiteboards, all linked to the internet, we have a computer suite, over 30 PC’s in it. We’ve had two badly needed extensions, we’ve had a new gas boiler (over £30K’s worth), the playground resurfaced, a new wall and fences, new double glazed windows and many other improvements. Most of all class sizes are under 30 and we have classroom helpers and our budget is in surplus.
    Our special needs teachers and SSA’s do an outstanding job (how many grammar schools accept Down’s Syndrome kids?) and our results are good.
    Up the road the local secondary school is excellent, it’s just had a £7m extension. Both my eldest kids achieved good results there, my eldest son is studying medicine thanks to Labour’s funding to make sure there are enough doctors.

    Labour has made a difference…… to ordinary kids.

  • kardinal birkutzki

    Alan Quinn,

    I do hope that the children at your school are taught to think more clearly than this.

    You are conflating two issues. It is a matter of fact that the education budget has been increased. It would be incorrect and absurd for anyone to claim otherwise and I do not think that any comment on this blog has suggested that.

    We are not talking about the amount of money spent; we are specifically talking about outcome.

    That is also clearly a function of what is taught and what standards are set.

    Whilst the discussion has not been specifically about primary schools, it is worth noting that, as at older age levels, standards are falling further behind the private sector and other comparable countries, despite the increase in the education budget.

  • Alan Quinn

    Is that the private sector were class sizes are 12 or less and kids with special needs or learning problems aren’t admitted?