On Monday evening I found myself in Broadstairs. A free ice-cream for everyone who knows where Broadstairs is, but for those who don’t, it’s about as close as you can get to Moscow while still in the county of Kent, and without getting your feet wet.
I don’t think I had ever been before, and I was immediately reminded of Lyme Regis in Dorset, which I have visited a number of times on holiday (quick plug for holidays in Britain here). A delightful seaside town, with a lot of Georgian architecture and old-world charm. I stayed in the Royal Albion Hotel, which kindly gave me a room with a bay window overlooking the harbour. Well worth a visit.
The occasion was a UKIP public meeting in the Broadstairs Pavilion. It was remarkably well-attended — I estimate about three hundred — and most came from the local area, which had been leafleted by the local UKIP branch. On a show of hands most seemed to be general public rather than UKIP members — though a number joined up on the night. I very much doubt that any other political party could get such an audience in a small town, but UKIP seems to have the knack. I recall the similar meeting in St. Ives, Huntingdon, in March.
Of course Nigel Farage was the big attraction, but I got to do a short piece as warm-up-man. Leaving the big issue of the EU to Nigel, I concentrated on my specialist area of energy and climate change, and why we’re not fans of wind-farms. Broadstairs in blighted by a couple of off-shore wind farms which signally fail to improve the views from the cliffs, and have infuriated many local residents. The local area has also suffered from the closure of the nearby Kingsnorth coal-fired power station, a victim of the EU’s Large Combustion Plant Directive.
The audience was generally very on-side, and applauded a number of UKIP policies. But at the end there were one or two challenging questions (one from a greenie who had somehow strayed in and insisted that I was wrong on global warming — but he seemed to fail to catch the mood of the meeting).
One, however, was a teacher, and I was frankly astonished by his question. He started by quoting from a UKIP leaflet which stated that standards had fallen in schools and that exams had been dumbed-down. What evidence did we have for this, he asked?
Where to start? There’s a story in the Express today as I write (April 4th), “Warning on soft-touch test culture” saying that academics are losing faith in the ability of new students, who have a “shallower knowledge than in the past”, quoting research by Ofqual. We read of modular tests that allow pupils to mug up on a small area of the subject, gain a pass on test papers using multiple-choice questions, and then to re-sit failed modules. That’s a far cry from the sort of exams we used to do, covering the whole course in a single sitting, and posing open-ended questions requiring a real understanding of the subject.
Twenty years ago the UK was mostly in the top five countries for comparative academic performance in our schools. Now we’re often languishing in double figures, eclipsed by countries like Korea, which we used to think of as “developing”. Now they exceed our performance not only in academic attainment, but in broad-band availability too. Maybe the two are not unrelated.
Then we read that 20% of our school leavers are functionally illiterate, and that employers and universities are complaining that school leavers are not ready for the work-place or for tertiary studies.
The evidence that we are losing touch with leading nations is overwhelming. I am surprised that the teacher in the audience dared to pose the question.
I hate to describe a problem without offering some pointers to a solution. I believe we need more traditional teaching methods and more rigorous examinations. We need fewer modules and multiple-choice questions. We need to teach the three Rs (and if necessary — and it’s more and more necessary — ensure that all pupils speak English). We must engage children with the written word as a joy and a leisure activity — not a chore — and get them away from their computer games. Especially we need to convince them that success in life comes from hard work, and that any individual child is really rather unlikely to become a reality TV star, or a pop star, or a famous film-star or footballer.
And in my view (and UKIP’s view) we need to bring back grammar schools. We allowed selection to become a dirty word — yet it enabled education to be tailored to academic or vocational needs, and provided a route to achievement for bright children from poor families. It is bizarre that the “free schools” concept allows parents or other groups to set up any type of school they want — except a grammar school. So well done Kent County Council for planning to set up new grammar schools under the “second campus” loophole.