We should by now be used to the headlines that scream about falling standards and the statistics that are used to back such claims. Often gross exaggeration, sometimes partial truth, they do however tend to indicate issues worth consideration.
The Daily Mail (24 January 2012) revealed the outcome of a recent survey of 10 to 12 year olds.
Among the results were: • Twenty-two per cent cannot use the correct version of “they’re”, “their” or “there” in a sentence • Thirty-one per cent cannot use apostrophes correctly • Half of children do not know what a noun is or cannot identify an adverb • Twenty-seven per cent could not add £2.36 and £1.49 • Thirty-six per cent could not divide 415 by 5.
Now we’ll park these statistics and return to them shortly. The point of the article gradually unravels with some totally separate statistics.
• Forty-eight per cent of parents think their child is worse at maths than they were at their age and thirty-six per cent think the same for English • Thirty-nine per cent of parents say they spend less time helping their children with their learning than did their parents • Fifty-nine per cent of parents spend less than an hour a week learning with their children • Most parents who are struggling to find a work-life balance spend less than ten minutes a day helping their children with their learning because they are too busy.
The one professional comment the Daily Mail invited on these statistics is from the head of a home tutoring company. He said: “Hectic modern lifestyles are leaving parents with less and less time to spend learning with their children – whether that is helping with homework or other educational activities. Many think that their child’s learning is suffering as a result, yet fewer than one in ten of the parents we asked had used private tuition to give their children a boost to their learning.” So now we understand the problem for over-worked, middle-class parents: too little time, too much stress, a life so hectic that there isn’t time to spend with the kids. No wonder poor little Nigel and Felicity can’t master their mental arithmetic. It’s time to salve the conscience and pay for a tutor. Perhaps what such children, any children, require is less concern about their slipping academically behind their peers of a previous generation, and more about their requiring the love, care and attention of parents who are committed to them.
Let’s return to the statistics. Let me state at the outset that, educational liberal though I consider myself, I am an enthusiast for teaching basic skills, including times tables, grammar and spelling. Having said that, the fact the 78 per cent of children at the end of primary schooling can correctly use “they’re”, “their” or “there”, that 69 per cent can accurately use apostrophes and 73 per cent can add £2.36 and £1.49, seems to me reasonable. And on the matter of parts of speech, here’s a test for readers: read the following sentence and identify the three adverbs.
There are also three adverbs in this not too difficult example.
If you, dear reader, well-educated as you are, can honestly say that you immediately spotted the three adverbs, congratulations! I frankly doubt if 50 per cent of 10–12 year olds could do so. (If you’re still puzzled, the answers are “also”, “not” and “too”.) Research on educational standards is essential.
Statistical data on basic skills requires serious analysis. Let’s analyse the provenance and the purpose of such research and statistics, however, before we accept the message they are purveying.
The above article was first published in Holyrood Magazine on 13 February 2012: http://www.holyrood.com/articles/2012/02/13/slipping-standards/

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