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Never did me any harm...

Old picture of schoolchildren

Nostalgia for a mythical golden age of education and a pessimistic view of the present are distorting the public's view of how good our schools really are, says former headteacher Adrian Elliott. 

The failure of state education, especially in comprehensive schools, is routinely presented as a proven fact in the media today. One Times columnist claimed recently that "only a blend of ideological zeal and intellectual dishonesty" could now defend comprehensive education. Writers describe a 'golden age' when bright children received an academic education in grammar schools while others emerged from secondary moderns with the basic skills so lacking now.

Today's schools are portrayed as disorderly and violent, their academic performance compared unfavourably with schools overseas, while ideology is said to have eliminated competitive sport.

When I researched these issues I found the truth to be even further from this picture than I had expected. I am convinced that there was no golden age 50 years ago. I scrutinised HMI reports, government documents and GCE papers and examiners' reports. I also received hundreds of accounts of their school days from readers of Saga, the magazine aimed at people over 50.

HMI made allowances for schools' socio-economic circumstances in the 1950s and 60s to a degree unacceptable now ("in a school such as this, it is impossible to judge progress by academic achievement"). Yet the number of failing schools, to use the modern term, was far higher than today - at least 20 per cent. 

Surprisingly, the proportion of 'unsatisfactory' grammar schools in the large sample I examined was as high as that of other schools. "Years of further difficulty lie ahead" was one verdict; elsewhere "problems with academic studies, as well as education in the widest sense" remained.

Dire teaching

Although the best teaching was inspirational, the worst was truly dire. Forty per cent of my Saga correspondents had negative memories of school, despite most being of above average ability. One recalled: "Little marking was done...often the lessons were simply regurgitation of the teacher's notes from when they themselves were at school. One or two just had their old exercise books propped up on their briefcases."

The Sunday Times claimed recently that "grammar schools were wonderfully successful". In reality, in 1959, 38 per cent left with three or fewer O levels. When HMI asked one head in 1956 why a third of his pupils left without any O levels, he responded: "There are always some who fail to rise to the challenge of the grammar school." That school admitted the brightest 17 per cent.

Those who exaggerate the achievements of the past often disparage state education today. Ofsted's overwhelmingly positive views of schools are often misrepresented. In 2005 the Daily Mail claimed that, according to Ofsted, 40 per cent of secondary schools were letting down their pupils. 

HMCI had actually written: "More and more young people are achieving better and better results. We can say with confidence that more is better... Commentators are too often wont to describe the past against some mythical golden age. The facts tell a different story."

National test results are invariably presented negatively. Newspapers write of many leaving primary school "unable to read or write", based on failure to achieve level 4 at Key Stage 2. Yet the descriptor for level 3, achieved by most so-called 'illiterates', states pupils "can read a variety of texts fluently...handwriting is often organised, imaginative and clear. Grammatical structure...is usually correct...spelling and punctuation usually accurate."

This 'illiteracy' is often compared with the position in the 1950s when, supposedly, it had largely disappeared. Actually HMI then reported problems everywhere. In Cheshire there were "girls who could barely read on entry". In 1956 in a Devon secondary modern, inspectors found: "Form 1 pupils are learning to read" while, in a nearby school, one governor said "most children left several schools unable to read or write".

In 1955, a civil servant wrote that a recent survey gave "no grounds for much happiness about the standards of literacy amongst many modern school leavers".

Furthermore, the literacy benchmark was set lower than today's. Illiteracy was compared in one 1957 report to the inability of the average English person to "read a word of Arabic".

Improvements in test scores are frequently dismissed as the result of papers becoming easier. Yet I believe that commentators often exaggerate the difficulty of examination papers in the past. As a personal example, after studying only three books for literature O level I was asked for the source of Pip's great expectations while those examined in A Midsummer Night's Dream had to explain the quarrel between Oberon and Titania.

Essay titles from one language paper in the 1950s included 'Coach tours' and 'Washing day'. Candidates had to explain the meaning of 'humility' and alternative meanings of words such as 'vice' and 'lap'. Was this so demanding for the brightest pupils?

Examiners' reports from that time highlight surprisingly basic errors, particularly given this selective entry. Some howlers - "Wordsworth sat on a bus on Westminster Bridge and saw the town and cinemas" - may be untypical.  But often errors were attributed to many, even most, candidates. A level examiners reported that "paragraphs are absent, commas used instead of full stops and apostrophes unknown".

In A level maths, "Too many candidates clearly had no understanding of the subject matter of most questions," while many O level history candidates spelt 'independence' incorrectly, despite it appearing on the paper. Spelling errors in one general paper included 'deffinate', 'fivety', 'polytitions' and 'Poit Loriet'. English examiners in 1955 bemoaned the widespread misuse of 'of' as in 'he should of done it', a mistake I believed to be of recent origin.

Competitive sport

One common charge is that schools today oppose competitive sport on ideological grounds. In 1998, The Times wrote that the decline in competitive sport in state schools was the result of 'aggressive political correctness' while Ferdinand Mount claimed recently that "educational reformers took the opportunity of the introduction of comprehensive education to imbue the new schools with a different ethos - one hostile to competitive sport". Where is the evidence for this criticism?

In a recent survey of ASCL Council members, like myself none had ever come across such views, let alone held them. The strongest dismissal came from an independent school head who said: "I know of no maintained schools that do any of those iconic 'anti-standards' things that are so often demonised."

Ofsted's findings, that participation in sport outside lessons in 2005 was good in 89 per cent of schools and in other activities in 81 per cent, suggest that any decline in extra-curricular provision has been exaggerated.

Schools across the country continue to play fixtures against each other and run sports days, while the range of extra-curricular sporting activities is probably wider than in the past.

I have also researched behaviour, comparisons with schools overseas, the academic achievements of schools today and the portrayal of state education in the media. I found overwhelming evidence that schools are much more successful today than is widely accepted, despite all the demands they face.

In particular, I believe the use of ill-informed nostalgia as a weapon against heads and teachers to be both dishonest and demoralising, especially when combined with a pessimistic view of the present which is as false as the exaggerated picture painted of the past. 

Adrian Elliott is a former headteacher. His book State schools since the 1950s: the good news is published by Trentham Books www.trenthambooks.co.uk

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