The conversation with my former school friends that I reported earlier showed a great deal of disagreement. A good number – I guess a majority – could not believe that the rising GCSE and “A” level grades could be the result of improving practice, which was my theory. I didn’t say that kids were getting better at physics or economics, just that they are getting better at achieving high grades in physics or economics exams, for a number of reasons.
The analogy I used was climbing Everest. I said that just because more people can climb Everest these days doesn’t mean the mountain is any lower. This caused particular spluttering. One guy decided it was time to inform me that the reason people find it easier to climb Everest was due to better equipment and training. Which, I think, was exactly my point. Another correspondent told me it stretched credulity to think that results could improve every year for thirty years. I then made the mistake of pointing out a number of areas where results have improved consistently. The number of road deaths in the UK, for example, which have fallen from 7,900 in 1966 to 1,900 last year – itself, about half the number of deaths in 1926. We know also that survival rates from many forms of illness have risen. In the 1960s, the survival rate for childhood leukaemia was less than 10%: it’s now around 90%. Why is it so hard to think that clever and hard-working people don’t get better at doing things ? It would stretch my credulity (itself a pretty elastic material) if teachers got no better at doing something after thirty years practice.
So I thought I’d consider what has got better. Obviously, athletic performance is one. Hicham El Garrouj – 1500m in 3’26” – is much faster than Sebastian Coe, who was faster than Emil Zatopek, who was faster than Paavo Nurmi (3’52” in 1924). Does that make him a better athlete than the others ? Hmm, depends on definition. I don’t think the worst of Nurmi, or believe he would be lapped by the modern generation. My favourite game is cricket. The very first limited overs final in England was won by Sussex, who scored 168 runs from 60 overs – not even 3 runs an over. India scored at 5.7 runs an over to win the last World Cup.
But many other things have improved – like cars. I gave my dad a book about family cars of the 1950s: it revealed his proud Standard Vanguard went from 0-60 in 22.2 seconds, and obtained 25 miles per gallon. Today, the cheapest Ford Focus goes from 0-69 in 12 seconds and gets 58 mpg. This could be replicated in a thousand other technical areas. The good old days were not that good if you wanted to drive from Leeds to London without breaking down.
One thread was to ask about the politics of the ‘things can only get worse’ debate on examinations. The consensus was that it wasn’t political at all, yet in the distant past it would have been. A central part of Conservative belief in the past was that progress was an illusion. Generally, right wingers support reform only as long as it took place 100 years ago – see child labour, Irish freedom, slave emancipation, votes for women and so on. Nowadays, though, we have a strand of neo-liberalism, believing that a particular kind of change – namely to institute profit-based market solutions to all areas of life – will yield great social improvement. This is in fact a form of utopianism, and probably just as dopey as William Morris’s idea. Well, rather more. And it has been tried before, in the mid 19th century, as you will find from Karl Polanyi’s masterpiece, The Great Transformation. And what a cock-up that was.