Comment: I did my bit for my kids' school - but it isn't enough

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The Independent Culture
LAST SUNDAY afternoon I made a rare contribution to the social life of my daughters' primary school. Given that I was running a temperature in the early 110s and that my throat had been scoured out with Brillo and then sluiced with Vim, I think I did quite a good job as an auctioneer at the Christmas bazaar. In an hour of selling off a variety of donated items, from the inevitable squidgy bottles of aromatherapeutic gunk, to a weekend at another set of parents' seaside cottage, my assistants and I made more than a thousand quid.

And I thought to myself, as I trudged home in a self-congratulatory mood, what wonderful things this money could do for the school. I'd also re- learnt an old lesson. Our primary school stands in an affluent part of London. Even so it hits the national averages for the indices of deprivation, whether you are looking at free school meals or English as a second language. That's because, round here, lots of mummies and daddies go private the moment their kids are conceived. They don't even bother visiting the local primary schools, to see what they're like; instead they shell out large sums to send Junior to a school where they have the Tatler and Country Life in the head's waiting-room.

My auction was run by three middle-class parents; the items were almost all bought and paid for by a group of 10 other middle-class parents, several of whom work for the BBC.

Elsewhere in the bazaar it was probably different, but - nevertheless - the basis on which the whole school might enjoy that bit extra seemed painfully narrow. Middle-class parents tend to be pushier, wealthier and more confident than others, and state schools could do with more of them.

Sequestered in their private ghettos, the largess of many is expended over and over again on children who already enjoy marvellous facilities. Once, the quality of education received at direct grant and at state schools was broadly comparable. You could recognise the parentage. The classrooms would be similar, the science would be all sinks and Bunsen burners; even the school societies would have the same aims. That day has passed. Now we have something more akin to apartheid.

During the Conservative years the gap between private and state schools in, for instance, laboratories, gyms, school journeys and musical provision became an unbridgeable abyss. During the summer months, as I travelled around England, every private school I passed seemed to boast a construction company's logo proclaiming a new science block or language lab; none of the state schools did.

The day after the auction I was told that all the money we had raised was going on books, and nothing else; and that the pounds 1,000 represented a considerable shortfall on previous years, despite the pleading and cajoling that had been put into it.

Worse, the school was strapped at the moment, because a bequest had run out. No longer could it subsidise school trips for the less well-off, and therefore - rightly, in my view - no one would be going on one next term. I began to worry that the muttering of "contemplating private" among some wealthier parents would lead them to leave the school, and that next year's auction would fetch even less money. And all of a sudden I was taken with the urge to sit down and write a letter to the PM to complain. It was going to go like this:

"Listen, Mush, I'm a reasonable person, and I don't blame you - as some do - when France won't let our beef in or when Russia invades Chechnya. But I do recall something about education at the last election. And what I want to know is when it's all going to start happening. This is the one you'll be judged on, because there's only so many auctions a bloke can hold. Yours ever, etc."

But I didn't write; I phoned. And here's a distillation of the conversation that we had, someone in No 10 and I. By the way, I can't guarantee it, but for various reasons I think that Ms Z, as I shall call her, was telling me the truth.

"When we came in," said Ms Z, "we identified primary schooling as the priority. Sorry, was that a sneeze or a harrumph? Well, hold your horses; now where was I? Our primaries were producing kids who couldn't learn, handing over large groups of disaffected 11-year-old boys, mostly, to secondary schools who couldn't do much with them.

"So we decided on a complete re-engineering of primary teaching, from curriculum to teacher-training. A lot of that's in place; some results already. But the big money bits are still to come. There'll be a huge increase in capital spending, from pounds 1.2bn this year, to pounds 1.7bn in 2000- 2001. It was 800-odd million last year.

"Starting in May, more than a third of the teaching force will get increases of 10 per cent, as they are deemed to have crossed the quality threshold. Revenue will be up by 5.4 per cent in real terms, too, though a lot of it will be ring-fenced for specific projects, and you should bear in mind that pupil numbers will be up by 0.5 per cent.

"Are you getting all this down?"

I was, I said, but what did it all amount to? By, say, May 2001 (I slyly mentioned the bookies' favoured date for the next election), what would I and a critical nation really see?

"We'll get there on class sizes for six-, seven- and eight-year olds," said Ms Z confidently. "Well over half of all schools will have had access to significant capital projects, we reckon."

(And just under half wouldn't, I thought.)

"There'll be nursery places for all fours and half of all threes. All that manifesto stuff. But, more important, when we came in we had 43 per cent of all 11-year-olds below level 4 [the recommended minimum achievement level] in English and 46 per cent in maths. This year, that came down to 30 per cent and 31 per cent; and we think we will manage 20 and 25 per cent by the end of the Government's first term. That's quite a big change, don't you think?

"And, oh," she added, before I had had a moment to reply, "here's one you'll like. The increases over three years are 5.1, 8.6 and 5.4 per cent And what's significant is that, for the first time, we are roughly matching the rate of increase in the private sector. The gap may not be narrowing, but at least it isn't getting any worse."

"But Ms Z," I implored her, "Is it enough? Does it constitute a revolution, or a reduction in pressure? Are we just applying bandages, or striding forward into the new millennium holding a sextant and an ear of corn?"

"It'll be a revolution," she said, "as long as we keep going, keep the expenditure up, and don't get hit by recessions or by demands to put the money somewhere else. Then we'll have laid the foundations for getting stuck into the secondary schools.

"If we let go, then we'll have lost the one great opportunity of our lifetime, and people will think that we were a waste of space. Well, I've got to go and pick the kids up. Was that all?"

I supposed so, I told her. I'd write it down, and see what the readers made of it all. A large number of them, I conjectured to myself, also run school auctions, and would also like to see more buck for their bang.