Classroom Failure

I expect many readers will have blipped over the latest news of disaster in British classrooms. You may not have registered the importance of the revelation that our 15-year-olds are now among the worst at maths in the entire OECD, and have slipped to 17th place in reading skills. Oh well, you may have said to yourself as you turned the page for more news of Maddy or the amnesiac canoeist; never mind. Someone else's children. Someone else's school. Some other set of parents who have failed to read to their kids, or who have allowed PlayStation to become a complete substitute for maths or any kind of academic effort. Was that, roughly speaking, your reaction? If it was, and if there really are Britons out there who think they are immune from this classroom failure, then they need to think again. The educational problems of the minority can help to trigger an economic catastrophe for the whole of society. That is because mathematics - whether we like it or not - affects all of us, and our economy depends on all income groups having a basic understanding of numbers. What is the single biggest financial decision we have to take? It's about buying a house. It's about how to finance the debt involved in taking out a mortgage. It involves understanding concepts of percentages and interest; and there is abundant evidence that millions of Britons either do not care about the debt they are taking on, or do not really understand the meaning of these squiggly figures for their future prosperity. I have a chum who provides shared equity mortgages for some of the most disadvantaged people in Britain. He is passionately committed to helping people on to the property ladder. He wants to give them the opportunity to have at least a stake in their own home. He wants them to have that liberating sense of ownership - the pride in their own possession that millions have acquired in the past 30 years. And yet he has been amazed at the deals they are willing to accept from less scrupulous lenders, and the risks they are willing to run with their lives. It's not that they are stupid, he says. "It's that they just haven't been educated to understand the maths. They don't see what an 11 per cent interest rate can do. They say, 'Never mind the rate, just give me the mortgage.' It's ignorance." The consequences of this ignorance can be profound for the individual debtor, and for the rest of the economy. Look at what has been going on in America. What was the original cause of the credit crisis that has spread across the Atlantic, and triggered the collapse of Northern Rock? It was the phenomenon described by my friend the mortgage broker. It was a sizeable minority of some of the poorest and most disadvantaged Americans who took on debts and obligations they did not really understand. Whether they were diddled, or greedy, or just naïve, they made mistakes; and when the housing market cooled, they defaulted. They left the lending institutions with bad debts that have been endlessly diced and sliced and repackaged and sold on throughout the world's financial system. It is as though the entire global supply of meat pies had been contaminated with a small consignment of BSE-infected offal, and because no one is sure exactly which pie to fear, the panic is universal. Banks are still reluctant to lend to other banks. Confidence shows no sign of returning, and if there is a serious downturn now in the economy, there will be suffering everywhere - but of course it will be the vulnerable who will suffer the most. It now looks very likely that there will be a fall in the property market, and in a sense that might be all very well if it actually enabled people to buy the housing they need. The reality, of course, is that Gordon Brown is likely to pull off the stunt of making houses cheaper without making them more "affordable" - because there will be less money around with which to buy them. The services sector is under pressure; people's disposable income is taking a knock, and there are now 1.5 million people who face being unable to make their mortgage payments; and though the credit crisis is a global phenomenon, Britain's position is especially bad, because we have higher levels of personal indebtedness than anywhere in the developed world. We are twice as indebted, on average, as the rest of Europe, and our personal debt levels have risen 59 per cent in the past 10 years. We have 27 per cent of the population with no savings at all, we have 8.2 million adults in debt, and we have one adult in three who makes no kind of financial planning whatever. To cap it all, we have a million people who use high-interest credit cards to pay off their mortgages. Now some will say that this is all the fault of the sharks and the money-grubbing lenders, and that we need new regulation to stop the British people from mainlining credit. There will undoubtedly be socialists who argue that the debt phenomenon shows that the British cannot be trusted to run their own financial affairs, and that we should stop encouraging them to set a toe on the housing ladder when they don't understand the implications and they can't afford it, and that we should instead encourage more social housing for those who are simply not suited to the property market. And though that is obviously true in some cases, it is also a counsel of despair. Surely what we need to do is give people the confidence - and the intellectual tools - to make the right choices; and that means driving home the message, long before our children leave primary school, that maths really matters. It's not just some abstract question of putting the right number in the box. It's the difference between happiness and chaos. Without a basic feel for numbers, people will continue to make choices that are both individually disastrous and disastrous for society. The American sub-prime crisis has shown how a few bad debts can put the world economic system at risk. The tragedy in Britain is that the most economically vulnerable are those who are failed by our educational system; and it is that educational failure that is now putting our economy in jeopardy - and that hits all of us.

34 thoughts on “Classroom Failure”

  1. Essential maths. Essential science. Essential ability to handle information communication technologies. All of those, I agree. Lifelong learning for all from 5 to 125 and a society thriving on that learning: is that not what we need?

  2. Apparently not. It seems we just need serfs for Gordon’s neo-feudalist kingdom. Never saw that one coming.

  3. They are failed by the education system. It is true in part, but only because the education system is being dumbed down to accommodate those same people.

    If they cannot be bothered to remedy their own ignorance, and lets face it in these internet days information is the easiest it has been to access to, they are beyond help.

    I would say that making them up as victims only worsens the problem.

  4. Hang on a minute Boris; you’re the one who’s always bangin’ on about ‘The Market’ and how it’s the best way to regulate the universe. The debt to which you allude is merely an exponent of a particular ‘market’ which is out of control.

    Go on, admit it: uncontrolled market forces are as dangerous to society as Socialism.

  5. Bozzer old man, rather than just not putting up any posts which seem at all contentious, get your wallet out & buy some proper hosting. This ‘don’t post anything interesting at all’ policy is ruining your blog.

  6. We need to invest heavily in creative and colourful video games as educational packages to be introduced to math teachers at schools, to make learning mathematics enjoyable.

  7. You’ve clearly described the problem, but what’s the solution? (The correct answer is ‘vouchers’, by the way)

  8. So why are the Tories not standing up for excellence, in the form of traditional teaching methods that demonstrably delivered, such as streaming, grammar schools, class discipline etc.

    If DC is too frightened to say what he must surely believe then who else is going to stand up to liberal establishment, the teachers, and the socialists?

  9. The ideological drive to move the mothers of young children into work does not help the situation. The early years at home and the one-to-one interaction between mother and child are vital in creating the base for the child’s further development. Labour latest drive to channel infants as young as two years of age into the communal atmosphere of the creche system. Children are being introduced into the pre-school creche and school itself at too early an age. The child needs a good five years learning from its mother before it is ready to go into communal education.

  10. Just to change the subject briefly, I note Boris recently said regarding higher tax for big cars:

    “A small car is just as capable of blocking a road as a big car. This is just Trotskyist guilt from Ken, which he

  11. I think you’re wrong Boris. People are doing the maths, the maths of 20+% hyperinflation in the housing market.

    They are doing the maths, just not the economics, they think buying any old house, at any price and any interest rate is a passport to easy riches.

  12. Now pauld is going to say lots of cars without high fronts will be caught up in this tax (bla drone)… (gillian-clarke)

    Er, scoose me. This pauld (and there aren’t many others around here) is not really in a position to comment because he can barely understand what you’re on about. Are you saying high-fronted vehicles should be more heavily taxed because they are more likely to injure a pedestrian? Odd logic, if I may say so, given that the vehicle with the highest front is a bus.

    No, the answer to all our city transport problems is personal rapid transport (PRT). But no politician is brave enough to be the first to install one of these systems.

  13. “Bozzer old man, rather than just not putting up any posts which seem at all contentious, get your wallet out & buy some proper hosting. This ‘don’t post anything interesting at all’ policy is ruining your blog.”

    I second this motion; and further promise not to write anything: glorifying terrorism or libellous (about anyone who is not a member of the Labour party anyway).

  14. “as a cyclist and pedestrian Boris is well aware that when struck by one of the cars facing a ban, he is much more likely to face serious injury due to the shape of the front (compared to a small car.”

    I can see how that may ‘make sense’ in a knee jerk kind of way, but this statement has no basis in fact.

  15. Hi Captain Badger. Seems we are going to get disjointed serfs. (there’s a thought – roasted?) If they take, and by some miracle, pass maths early, do you think they then get to learn a foreign language with the foreign language teachers we don’t possess? As primary school teachers are not required to have even a GCSE in a foreign language, never mind actually be able to speak one, it seems the Labour schools team needs some basic logistics training.

  16. In order for children to be obtaining such poor school results–particularly given the amount of public funding that has poured into schools (effect)
    you need to be looking for some substantial changes in a number of areas which might include population change, environment, early childhood rearing patterens, changes in education style, (cause).

    By considering each area in turn it might be possible to determine the paths of causality. After determining this you can begin to experiement with possible solutions which might include social policy such as inducements to keep mothers at home in the early years or an immigration points system that encourages people with skills you need (maths and science) to live and work in the UK.

  17. Excellent post Boris.

    You say “That is because mathematics – whether we like it or not – affects all of us, and our economy depends on all income groups having a basic understanding of numbers.” and I couldn’t agree more. But whilst I agree with you position on schools I want to also draw attention to another group of people in society, and it’s not as small as you might think, I mean those with depression.

    Depression has the unfortunate payload of being labelled a ‘mental health’ problem. The problem with this is that the label doesn’t distinguish from those who have suffered a loss or trauma and need time to get over it and those with schizophrenia or substance abuse or other issues. What I mean is that simple grief, over the death of a child or other loved one, may bring about the diagnosis of clinical depression. In my own case it was a road traffic accident and severe head injury that caused some loss of information processing ability.

    Reader, the State did nothing to help me – I couldn’t balance a cheque book or deal with anything really – they only offered ‘therapy’ which meant recounting the accident over and over till I could take no more. When I was diagnosed as suffering from PTSD and later another doctor said it was clinical depression, I was offered drugs. Drugs that have the side effect of causing anxiety and depression – work that one out! None of this gave me the help I needed. I asked for someone to come with me to the bank (I had great difficulty with speech) but no. There was no State help.

    Recently a young mother has had to flee the country because she had a depression when she was subjected to some abuse as a child. She had to flee as the State was going to sieze her child from her. The young mother got over the depression, the State obviously didn’t. It’s a black mark forever.

    The Social Services dept, though staffed with some really tremendous people, seem to me to be better named the ‘Social Judgement Dept.’ as that seems to be their function as deemed by the State, particularly this government.

    Here’s the science:

    Mixed anxiety & depression is the most common mental disorder in Britain, with almost 9 percent of people meeting criteria for diagnosis.
    – The Office for National Statistics Psychiatric Morbidity report (2001)

    Between 8-12% of the population experience depression in any year
    – The Office for National Statistics Psychiatric Morbidity report (2001)

    About half of people with common mental health problems are no longer affected after 18 months, but poorer people, the long-term sick and unemployed people are more likely to be still affected than the general population.
    – Better Or Worse: A Longitudinal Study Of The Mental Health Of Adults In Great Britain, National Statistics (2003)

    Depression is more common in women than men. 1 in 4 women will require treatment for depression at some time, compared to 1 in 10 men.
    – National Institute For Clinical Excellence (2003)

    Men are more likely than women to have an alcohol or drug problem. 67% of British people who consume alcohol at

  18. The housing shortage is because we aren’t building enough. There is no other way, no matter what financial packages you do, to get people inn houses. House prices could & should be far lower if only we didn’t have a state monopoly in housing. This sort of panic buying only happens when there is a shortage & is only maintined when that shortage is enforced by government. I have no sympathy for the banks & building societies (particularly the latter whose whole raison d’etre is to help people get houses) who have taken advantage of what they must know was an artificial price hike, to load people with debt. They should have spoken out years ago in favour of building things.

  19. “Men are more likely than women to have an alcohol or drug problem. 67% of British people who consume alcohol at

  20. Neil Craig wrote:

    “The housing shortage is because we aren’t building enough. There is no other way, no matter what financial packages you do, to get people in houses”

    There is one other way Neil.

    Recognise that there are too many people in our little island. Restrict the number of incomers to below the fall in population due emigration and smaller family sizes.

  21. pauld ” Are you saying high-fronted vehicles should be more heavily taxed because they are more likely to injure a pedestrian? Odd logic, if I may say so, given that the vehicle with the highest front is a bus.”

    Buses are not private transport. They are called public transport and therefore don’t even enter into this taxing debate.

    Incidentally, I note Boris Johnson has pledged to review the congestion charge if he gets into power.

    Right: a review. The classic reaction of a politician without conviction, or the bottle to act on his conviction.

    “I feel so strongly about this, I’m going to organise a review”.

  22. “No, the answer to all our city transport problems is personal rapid transport (PRT). But no politician is brave enough to be the first to install one of these systems.”

    Got to disagree here. The solution is to travel shorter distances to work, either by moving house (after forking out 7k to Gordo in stamp duty) or working from home as much as possible (with our dismal broadband infrastructure)

    I see your point. Where do I sign?

  23. News about housing mortgages are dangerously conveying negative message ; THIS IS POSITIVE FEEDBACK THAT EXACERBATES THE SITUATUION OF THE LOST TRUST! Debt need not to be demonized; it is not considered negatively in economic studies, and those who are involved in business know how valuable loans are. for others it can indeed boost the economy, increase savings, giving incentives for driving ambitious and pre-planned life style and strengthen further stability.

  24. Let’s admit it: the real reason these people are getting in over their heads is twofold: 1) they think if they don’t buy now at any price they’ll be rendered homeless by spiraling rents, and 2) they don’t actually KNOW anyone with a mortgage, nor were they raised with one.

    I bet you, Boris, can’t do the math, even without compounding, without looking it up.

    Familiarity with managing a mortgage is brought about by proximity and personal acquaintance. The best way to ensure that people know what they’re getting into with a mortgage is to have mixed housing, not gated communities segregated by class, so that people can actually SEE what paying a mortgage entails. Housing initiatives that have taken this approach have 80% fewer defaults; I aught to know, as I helped design one.

  25. So, Bozzer, in light of McBroon’s recent act of newly legalised treason, can your crew firmly commit to a referendum so the people, us lot who pay your wages, can tell you exactly what our relationship with the EU should be?

  26. what happened to my follow-up to pauld about buses / congestion charge?

    If you’re too slow to post stuff, this site will wither.

  27. Buses are not private transport. They are called public transport and therefore don’t even enter into this taxing debate. (gillian-clarke)

    What I asked was: “Are you saying high-fronted vehicles should be more heavily taxed because they are more likely to injure a pedestrian?” You have not answered the question, Gillian.

    Asdf, I understand that the site is slow because the webmaster is tied up with a major revamp. You were saying…?

  28. pauld, from last thread: “Asdf, I understand that the site is slow because the webmaster is tied up with a major revamp.”

    Right, and where do you get this inside information from? What is your relationship with the editor / this site pauld? Your posts seem to go up mighty quick after you send them.

    I -do- expect to see this post go up.

  29. The quality of teachers and teaching is at the root of the problem. I know several highly qualified, experienced mature would-be returning teachers (of Maths, Modern Languages, Science and English)who have been turned away from the state system on the grounds that their experience lay solely in the private sector.

    Red tape and ideology is strangling the teaching profession and turning it into the refuge of the second salary earner, usually female, which in turn exacerbates the frustration experienced in the classroom by fatherless boys who cannot find a decent male role model. This is made even worse by the current state of school sport. No teams, no matches. Is it surprising that gangs are one of the few places boys can find approval and belonging and attention from older boys they admire?
    There are many brilliant organisations run by volunteers. But they have limited funds. And they can’t reach everybody. Most children are in school for hours and hours a day. Teachers have just got to be better, paid far far more – on a level with GPs – and then the profession will attract and keep the best.

  30. Dear Boris
    If the banks would exercise that essential i.e. PRUDENCE they would protect themselves and us, the savers, from this madness’Give me what I want and NOW’. Sometimes the answer has to be ‘NO’. Banks used to do that for these people who can’t do maths.
    Yours sincerely Jean Forster

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