Our children aren’t failures, we are

THERE is no better test of a nation’s civilisation than the treatment of its children. That makes the report of the United Nations Children’s Fund, Unicef, particularly shocking for Britain.

By William Rees-mogg

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Published: Thu 22 Feb 2007, 8:13 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 1:09 AM

If Unicef has got it right, Britain comes bottom in children’s well-being out of 21 industrial nations, some of them much poorer than ourselves. The Netherlands, where schooling is more relaxed, more varied and more stable, comes top.

The specific comparisons are shaming. British children are more than twice as likely to have had under-age sex than the Polish, eight times more likely to have used cannabis than the Greeks, four times more likely to have been drunk than the French, seven times more likely to have had a baby than the Japanese and are twice as likely to be overweight as the Poles. On Friday, another study was published, giving a breakdown of GCSE results by gender and ethnic group. In every group the girls did better than the boys. That comes as no surprise; girls are more methodical, work harder and are just as bright.

Taking all pupils together, 48 per cent of girls achieved five A* to C grade passes in GCSE, as against 40 per cent of boys. The most successful group was the Chinese, where 60 per cent of boys and a remarkable 72 per cent of girls reached that standard. Apart from travellers and gypsies, the lowest ethnic group was black Caribbean boys, with only 23 per cent obtaining these five passes.

These differences demonstrate the importance of family culture. Chinese girls are three times as likely to obtain good GCSEs as boys from Caribbean families. Yet good GCSE results are an essential step on the path to university and to professional opportunities in adult life. In 20 years’ time, we shall be seeing the longer-term social consequences of these GCSE results.

The most successful ethnic groups, including the Chinese and the Indian, will be rising to the top of the professions; the white British and the mixed-white and African will be in the middle; the black Caribbean will have fewer entrants to the universities and professions.

Whichever report one considers, the results are disappointing from a British point of view. If the British educational system had been as successful in educating the white British as it has been in educating the Chinese and the Indians, Britain would have soared in the Unicef table. These Asian groups are outperforming the much larger white British population in educational terms.

One can visualise the cultural difference, with the British young slumped in front of the television set while Chinese girls are industriously doing their homework. Chinese parents probably do have higher expectations, put a greater value on education and impose stronger discipline.

Many Chinese and Indian families still have the ambitions of immigrant groups, determined to make their way in a new country. That is a big advantage. Asian immigrants are equally successful in the American school system. The universities of California are full of Chinese students reading for higher degrees.

There was a similar out-performance by the Jewish children who came to Britain and America in the Thirties. Both countries enjoyed great benefits from the refugees from the Nazis, and both will get benefits from their Chinese and Indian students, though many of them may return to their families’ homelands, which are now part of the great Asian economic boom.

At the other end of the scale, we need to face the critical social problem of the underperformance of the Caribbean group. One should not lump together the black African and the black Caribbean groups, since the black African group is producing significantly better educational results, for boys and girls.

The Caribbean problem is partly the result of the historic experience of slavery. In conditions of slavery, which varied widely from one estate to another, the mother naturally became the dominant figure in the black family. Caribbean families remained matriarchal even after slavery was abolished.

That is still largely true. Caribbean mothers find it much easier to control their daughters than their adolescent sons, particularly when the father is no longer present. Without a family tradition of the importance of education, the brightest boys may be the most at risk. Once a poor school record has been established, the youth may feel himself locked out of normal advancement.

The sense of hopelessness of an unqualified black youth in a white society, with promotion controlled by exams he will never pass, can lead to despair. Despair can lead to the world of gangs, drugs and guns, for white as well as black youths.

All reports suggest there has been a collapse in the morale of many school-children. They feel that they are failures; that they are not standing up to the stress of endless examinations; that they are not clever enough; that they are the victims of bullying. Sometimes the bullies are themselves frustrated.

I have heard bullying described in terms of ‘school rage’, the educational equivalent of road rage. Very often teachers have been demotivated by red tape, endless forms, recurrent examinations, the strict limitations of the curriculum.

This weekend, UK Education Secretary Alan Johnson wrote a defensive article for The Spectator. He included a paragraph that was particularly disturbing: ‘We are introducing a new way of identifying and measuring the individual progress of every child. This will demonstrate to parents, in the simplest of terms, whether a child is making good enough progress at every stage of their education.’

This is turning education into a time and motion study. At every level, our educational system is stressed. Even in business management, there needs to be room for the staff to breathe —over-management is bad management. When applied to schools, it can destroy the possibility of real education. Learning truly educates only when there is an element of fun. It is no fun to be scrutinised every second of the school day.

Politicians cannot change deep culture. That happens gradually, if at all. But they can avoid interfering. What British schools need most is a relaxation from political controls. The Government is still tightening the screws on headmasters, teachers and students alike. It is the New Labour way, but it is wrong.

I know that the leading Labour figures, including Johnson and Tony Blair himself, are sincere about education. Lord Adonis is the most impressive education spokesman I have heard in the House of Lords.

But they are using the wrong language. They should be speaking of relaxation, imagination, stimulation, diversity; but Johnson is still speaking of control, reporting and supervision. British children need to have the windows of learning thrown wide open, as great teachers have always done.

Lord William Rees-Mogg is a former editor of the Times. This column first appeared in the Mail on Sunday

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