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British Education: A Failure?

Are we too thick to realise the world isn't flat?
By Niall Ferguson 21/01/2007

At the 1996 Labour Party conference, Tony Blair famously stated that his three top priorities on coming to office were "education, education and education". But when Gordon Brown takes over from Mr Blair as prime minister later this year, I predict that he will announce four top priorities: "Educashun, edukashon and edukayshin."

Yes, I know that's only three priorities. And I know that's not how you spell education. But what do you expect after 10 years of New Labour? Numeracy? Literacy?

For answers to those questions, I turn to Sir Digby Jones, the former CBI director-general, who was last month appointed "skills troubleshooter" by none other than Gordon Brown. In a speech last week, Sir Digby pointed out that fewer than half of pupils sitting the General Certificate of Secondary Education in English and Mathematics gained grades higher than D. (For the record, 47 per cent got A, B or C grades in English, and 44 per cent in Maths.) And this after more than a decade of grade inflation! In 1989, as the former chief inspector of schools Chris Woodhead has pointed out, the mark needed for a C in Maths was 48 per cent. By 2000 it had fallen to 18 per cent.
Sir Digby described the British secondary school system as having been "dumbed down to the lowest common denominator" (a term which I don't suppose you need to know to get a C in Maths these days). As if to prove his point, Gordon Brown himself gave a speech last week in which he made "a real deliverable promise, that we can give people the skills for the future buy [sic] investing in education science technology and the creative industries". "Our aim in Britain," he went on, "is to continuously innovate in new products and services." I make that one spelling error, three missing commas and a split infinitive. But no doubt his speechwriter scraped a C at GCSE.

The embarrassing thing is that Mr Brown was giving this speech in Bangalore. This Indian boom town has become a mandatory stop-off for Western finance ministers, eager to demonstrate that they too have read Thomas Friedman's best-selling book The World Is Flat. (Chapter One opens at the first tee of Bangalore's smartest golf club, where the author is advised to take aim at either the Microsoft building or the IBM building, gleaming symbols of the Indian economic miracle.)

"Over the next five years," Mr Brown told his hosts, "India will create one in every four of all new jobs in the world… In less than three decades from now you will be the world's third largest economy." Hailing the "seismic shift in social and economic power brought forward by globalisation", he gave his backing to his hosts' long-standing demand that India be made a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council.

That was supposed to provide the headline. Unfortunately, all this flattery was set at naught by the antics of Jade Goody and Danielle Lloyd, participants in the "reality" show Celebrity Big Brother, who chose the eve of Mr Brown's Asian jaunt to give vent to some distinctly unflattering anti-Indian prejudices. To give you a flavour, Goody referred to her fellow contestant, the Indian actress Shilpa Shetty, as "Shilpa Poppadom", while Lloyd disingenuously inquired: "They eat with their hands in India, don't they? Or is that China? … You don't know where those hands have been."

To my mind, it's not just the racism that's depressing about these utterances; it's the ignorance. I use the term "ignorance" advisedly. In her first appearance on Big Brother, Goody revealed that she thought Cambridge was in London, East Anglia was abroad and Saddam Hussein was a boxer. As for Lloyd, surely everyone knows that the Chinese eat with chopsticks… But hang on a moment. As she is at pains to point out on her website, Miss Lloyd is not ignorant. At least, not officially. She left school with nine GCSEs, proceeding to a "Beauty School" where she "qualified as a Beautician with Massage and Indian [!] Head Massage".

This brings us to the great mystery of British education — which is not unlike the great mystery of education throughout the English-speaking (if not English-spelling) world. We spend, there is no doubt, a great deal of time and money on educating our young people. According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, Britain ploughs around 4.6 per cent of gross domestic product into primary and secondary education, ranking fifth out of 30 developed countries. Moreover, a British child now aged five can expect to spend longer in formal education (an average 20.7 years) than his or her equivalent in any other OECD member-state. An achievement, you might think, of which Mr Brown should feel proud.

Except that in education, as Kingsley Amis famously observed, more can mean worse. The more that has been spent on British secondary education, the worse the outcomes have been. According to an OECD study published in 2005, fully a quarter of the UK population aged between 25 and 34 are "low-skilled" in terms of their educational attainment — five times the proportion in Japan.

Even more damning statistics are produced by the US Institute for Education Sciences, which regularly surveys international standards in mathematics. In its most recent assessment, British 14-year-olds were out-performed by their contemporaries in 17 other countries. The average score in Singapore was 605, in Korea 589 and Hong Kong 586. In England and Scotland it was 498. In Western Europe, only Norwegians and Italians did worse. Interestingly, many Eastern Europe countries — Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Russia, Slovakia and Lithuania — did better. Note also that the other English-speakers performed at roughly the same level as the Brits: Australians and Americans slightly better, New Zealanders slightly worse.

In the past, educational under-achievement was not very severely punished in the English-speaking world. Our agriculture, our industry and our military offered numerous relatively well-paid jobs for boys who failed at school. Those who just scraped home in terms of literacy and numeracy could also expect relatively comfortable lives as clerks. And those who inherited wealth and status could be as thick and ignorant as they liked.

But globalisation means that those days are gone. It really is a flat world, in the sense that the global labour market is an increasingly level playing field, with fewer and fewer barriers preventing Asian workers from competing across the whole range of tradable activities. That spells disaster for the unskilled in the West. In Britain today, fully 40 per cent of adults who left school at the earliest opportunity are now unemployed.

On the other hand, it emphatically isn't a flat world in terms of the returns on intelligence and education. The smart and the skilled get paid vastly more than the dumb and the dropouts, regardless of whether they come from Birmingham or Bangalore. Almost everywhere the story is the same: even as Asian average incomes catch up with Western average incomes, the distribution of income within both Asian and Western economies is becoming less equal. Paradoxically, greater international equality translates into greater national inequality. Once, only a handful of Asians were richer than poor Brits. Pretty soon, millions will be.

So remember: the next time you gasp at the difference between executive pay and average wages, which has widened dramatically since around 1980, you are not only gasping at how well the smart and skilled are doing. You are also gasping at how badly the people at the other end of the scale are doing. According to Save the Children, there are one million children in Britain whose families are living on less than 40 per cent of the median income (£124 per week for one adult and two children, after housing costs). This country's worst council estates have become little Africas within.

This, then, is the single biggest problem that Gordon Brown is going to inherit when he finally becomes prime minister: an uneducated and unemployable underclass, whose only hope of upward mobility is one day, like Jade Goody, to make it onto Big Brother. If Mr Brown has a credible answer to this problem, it is strange that he has kept it secret for — just count them, if you can — 10 wasted years.

• Niall Ferguson is Laurence A Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University

See also
Education is the key
Comprehensive education bad
Why US senior Education is superior
This Stupid Britain