The Pursuit Of Mediocrity

The Sats results for pupils at KS2 and KS3 were finally published yesterday, amidst continuing grumblings about the marking process.
This follwed hot on the heels of news that secondary schools regularly re-test the children when they enter Y7 as they have found that the grades they receive at KS2 are not compatible with the childs performance generally.
A further concern is that the number of children attaining Level 5, the highest level available to a child sitting a KS2 paper, has dropped.
This has led to concerns that brighter children are being neglected.
Too damn right they are. When Labour came to power in 1997 Tony Blair said his priorities were,”Education, education education.”
The first attempt to get over 75% of pupils achieving level 4 in each of the core subjects was quite simply to lower the pass mark on the papers and make the questions easier.
When SATS were first introduced in 1993 it was impossible to get a Level 4 on the English reading paper without answering what are termed ‘higher order questions’ where to answer correctly a child would have to form an opinion, or read between the lines and give reasons for their answers. All this changed after 1997, it became possible to achieve the pass mark, which was lower anyway, just by answering multiple choice questions, or simple comprehension type questions.
The same applies to Maths and Science where children were expected to be able to explain how they worked out an answer, how they would solve a problem, design an experiment or draw conclusions from a set of data.
However having instigated this change it was still not enough to achieve the target the government had set itself. So then they brought in booster classes. Teachers were asked to identify those children who were at a predicted level 3A or 3B, and these children were given extra tuition, funded by the government, in an effort to boost them up to level 4.
In many cases thase children would be removed from the ordinary class to be taught separately, in small groups, whereas the other kids, now the ones from both ends of the ability range, were left in the classroom.
But the trouble with cramming is that it just doesn’t stick. It’s OK if you’ve got the knowledge there, but if you are trying to get the knowledge in in the first place that is a different kettle of fish, so even though some of the children improved enough to get that coveted level 4 more often than not it wasn’t a genuine improvement, as the secondary teachers soon noted.

Now, 11 years down the line education is once again in turmoil, this year’s SATS ara a fiasco and standards do not seem to improve, only 61% of children who took SATS this year achieved Level 4 in all three subjects. Meanwhile the brighter kids get bored and are turned off education, cruising along without ever being challenged, because despite Mr. Blair’s belief that sleight of hand, smoke and mirrors could convince the public that things were changing it should now be obvious to anyone who cares to look that the only change has been the pursuit of mediocrity at the expense of excellence.

A COUPLE OF MONTHS have passed since fatsally posted this blog and now we read a post in The Guardian that under the title The Truth About Our Schools restates most of what our writer says about education policy imposing mediocrity. As usual it takes a while but mainstream media eventually catches up with Little Nicky Machiavelli and Boggart Blog

9 thoughts on “The Pursuit Of Mediocrity

    1. Answer: it’s crap. Despite all the protestations from government wonks through the ages you can actually measure the continuing lowering of standards just by looking at course requirements year by year.

      Why else did I have to explain the concept of ‘to four decimal places’ to a 2nd years degree student?


      1. Paul & techonomist,
        A fashionable phrase of the 1990s was “changing the paradigm.” They have done it with education, they have done it with information systems. I used to say Artificial Intelligence could never be created as machines cannot think.

        As it became clear people like me were right, machines would never be capables of the intuitive understanding and leaps of logic that make human minds so effective, the nerd fraternity changed the paradigm. Intelligence is now nothing more than seeking and matching strings of digits very quickly. Thus “context” takes on a new meaning (paradigm) too. Actually the person who coined the phrase “change the paradigm” did not know what the word really meant.

        So here’s an example of “Artificial Intelligence.”

        “He was content to sit and watch the river flow,” and “the content of the report was deeply flawed” have a contextual link – the same string of digits occurs in each.

        I still earn a couple of dollars a month from adsense for an article posted three years ago titled “My Problem With God,” a demolition of U.S. fundamentalist reasoning. It attracts a lot of “contextual ads” promoting religious books, records, DVDs etc. A contextual link again.

        In the same way the education paradigm has been changed. Education is no longer about equipping pupils, it is about making politicians look good. Thus statistics must show a constant improvements, the real results do not matter.

        Which is probably why my sister wrote the article and is no longer a teacher.


  1. Well, it’s just logical progression isn’t it?

    The first real indicator I got that standards were being generally lowered in favour of the university treadmill was when someone told me they did differentiation in their O’ Levels while I didn’t see it until A’ Level Maths. This was in 1995.

    So, A’ Levels, GCSEs, why not SATs? At least some schools are using Pre-Us.


    1. Yes I did differentiation as part of the GCE course back in the early seventies.
      Interestingly BBC did it as part of his IGCSE (International GCSE) however the government didn’t, or doesn’t, recognise this qualification resulting in all the schools that set it, mostly private, not achieving any students gaining grades A to C in Mathematics English and Science on the governments league tables. Hmmmm.


  2. SATS also ignore or at least seriously disadvantages the late developer. It permanently classifies just as the old 11+ did.

    And then there are those cases, such as one of your brothers (ahem), who are terribly bright a junior school, get utterly bored with school early in their secondary career and later blossom in further education where they can set their own curriculum and study what interests them.

    Thatcher’s and Blair’s education reforms dealt with a standard child thus introducing a bureaucratic tyranny in the education system. We need to get back to an understanding that pupils are individuals not machines.


    1. Not just my brother, both of the sproggs have excelled at junior school and coasted along, getting into minor bits of trouble at secondary, because for the most part they have been bored. Consequently I have encouraged both of them to get out of formal education, get a job and start studying at the university of life.


      1. Richard Branson and Alan Sugar (and ouur bro who never showed a spark of interest from infants to leaving) never went to University and nobody could write them off as failures – unlike some of the little lab technicians and social workers who came here when I was goading Ben Goldacre and his nerdy little followers about science, claiming they have PhDs in psychology (a qualificaion in making stuff up as you go along) and trying, but failing, to write clever responses to my putdowns.


  3. It seems to me that Dickens’ ‘Hard Times’ was curiously prophetic. Old Gradgrind would have felt right at home in modern Britain. Good grief, he might even have become education minister!


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