Magazine article The Spectator

Illiteracy: The Written Evidence

Magazine article The Spectator

Illiteracy: The Written Evidence

Article excerpt

WHAT, apart from the appointment of the excellent Chris Woodhead as Chief Inspector of Schools, was the single most effective educational reform of 18 years of Tory rule? No, not grant-maintained status or primary tests or the national curriculum or city technology colleges or the expansion of universities. It was the introduction of written theory examination in the driving test. For this modest measure, designed purely to improve road safety (and perhaps bring in a little extra revenue for the Treasury), is now unwittingly but brutally exposing the inadequacy of British state schools. As thousands of teenagers struggle with the written test or simply avoid driving instruction altogether because of this new obstacle, we can now see both the disastrous consequences of so-called 'progressive' teaching and the hollowness of the claims from the education establishment about ever-rising standards.

The written theory test was first introduced in July 1996, largely as a result of the demand for yet more harmonisation across the European Union. Most other EU countries have long had a written section as part of their driving tests. In Britain, the change did not initially have the impact which many learner-drivers feared. With a low threshold of required correct answers, the pass rate stood at 85 per cent. But in January this year the test was made more stringent. The questions became less predictable; the number of incorrect answers allowed fell from nine out of 35 to just five; and all examinees had to pass their written theory test before they could apply to sit the practical one.

The results of this tougher written examination have been dramatic. Pass rates have now fallen to 65 per cent. The number of driving test applications in the first quarter of this year has dropped by 54 per cent compared to the first quarter of 1996. The number of tests conducted has also declined by over 50 per cent during the same period, from 391,504 in early 1996 to 259,802 in early 1997. Provisional licence applications are down 15 per cent. The effects of the test have been most keenly felt by driving instructors. The British School of Motoring, easily the largest company in the field, has seen its profits halved. Eighteen of its branches are to close, and 110 of its franchised instructors have already left. Smaller companies have been equally hit. `There has been an alarming drop in business, down well over 50 per cent in the first few months of this year,' says John Lepine of the Motoring Schools Association, the representative body for the trade. One local instructor near my home in Essex told me that his business has fallen by two-thirds since the introduction of the new written test. `Before Christmas, I was doing 30 hours a week. Now it's only between 10 and 12 hours.' Another Essex instructor explained that `work isn't nearly as plentiful as it was since the written test became harder'.

This startling fall in business cannot be explained by demographic and other social factors. With the birth rate static, there has been no decline in the numbers of young people, the group which makes up the vast majority of learner drivers. There are more cars on the road than ever, and affluence among the young is greater than ever. The reason must lie, therefore, in the intellectual poverty of today's youth and the consequent fear which a simple written test inspires amongst them.

The education establishment would no doubt dismiss this as nonsense. Look at primary test results, they would say, or GCSEs. Both show a relentless and heartening rise in educational standards in recent years. …

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