Remedial lessons for Tony

If Blair thinks his latest scheme is anything other than risible, it's time for him to go back to school
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The Independent Culture
I'VE HAD a brilliant idea! Let's take a long, hard look at all of our politicians, find out which ones are performing brilliantly, getting results, utterly capable of doing everything that may be expected of them, then send them off for extra tuition in politicking.

Then let's make an exception for hopeless duffers like Tony Blair and send them off for tuition as well. Because Tony is really in need of education, education, education (and if he responds, then he can take time out and reward himself with a little education).

If Tony thinks that his latest initiative, whereby talented pupils can volunteer for extra tuition in the evenings and on Saturday mornings, is anything other than risible, then it's time for him to go back to school. And this time he can go to the kind of school he's had no experience of - a comprehensive.

For there are a few lessons Tony really ought to have learned before he decided he was the best person to run the country on an education ticket, which he clearly knows nothing about. Lessons like: what it is like to be educated at a comprehensive school; why it is that some comprehensive schools are such a mess; and what teenagers at comprehensive schools are like.

In the Seventies, I was educated at a huge new comprehensive myself. So I'm in a good position to teach Tony a few lessons. One fine day in spring 1974, a day that had seemed perfectly normal to myself and the 40 or so other children I'd grown up with though our seven years at primary school, something unusual happened. Without warning or explanation some grown-ups joined our teacher in the class and handed all of us odd booklets full of gnomic questions, which we were told to fill in under the exam conditions we'd been familiar with from our school's end-of-year tests.

Although it wasn't spelled out to us, we knew that this was something to do with "the big school", which, in the days before parental choice, we'd all be attending the next year.

We were all in the catchment area for Garrion Academy, in Motherwell, which was a source of a little bitterness to some parents, my own included, because we lived about 200 yards out of the catchment area for Dalziel High. Dalziel was a long-established school which had recently gone comprehensive, and had maintained its excellent academic reputation. Garrion, on the other hand, had been recently built to accommodate the children from the new council estates. Its reputation was not so hot.

We duly turned up on the first day at the big school that September, to be greeted with lists pinned to the noticeboard. All of our names were on these lists, we were told at assembly, and we should look at them to find out which teaching class we'd been allocated to. I was thrilled to find I was in 1:1, the top set. But as we all regrouped to discuss what classes we were in, the same problem kept coming up.

Lots of the names on the lists didn't make any sense. Children we knew to be academically weak had been placed in the top sets, while children we knew to be very clever had been placed near the bottom. Margaret Simpson, who'd generally been considered at our primary to be The Cleverest Girl In The Class, had been allotted to 1:3. She was gutted, because only the top two sets got Latin, and she'd fully expected to be amo-ing and amas-ing with - to use a phrase regarded by some as having no place in discussion of state education - the best of them.

As indeed she was, because at the end of the first term there was a huge reshuffle, in which every pupil in the streams that we - in our 12-year- old wisdom - had known to be wrong was reallocated. What a good job we hadn't been sent to different schools on the basis of the IQ test we'd all taken.

If that had been our fate, these mistakes, frustrating for the bright kids who'd been placed in undemanding sets, miserable for the less academic kids who were humiliated daily by their inability to keep up, could not have been rectified so easily. This is an important lesson not only for Tony Blair but for everyone who feels strongly about grammar school selection.

There are all kinds of arguments for and against grammar schools, posited for all kinds of reasons and driven by all kinds of motives. For me they are mostly irrelevant, because it is utterly impossible to create an infallible system of categorising the academic abilities of children anyway, especially when it focuses on a particular time in a long school career. That's why, above all else, our school system should be built with flexibility in mind, and why it's important that all schools should be designed to cater for all possible academic needs.

It's also important that it should be recognised that there are all kinds of different academic needs among any group of children. While I thrived at my supposedly crappy comprehensive school and, like quite a few of my fellow pupils, went on to study at university, the experience of my younger brother was quite different.

By the time he went to the big school, four years later, setting was out and mixed-ability teaching was in. The idea, laughably, was that it wasn't fair for pupils to be stigmatised by the knowledge that they were in low sets. But as the accurate assessment by my classmates of the shortcomings of the initial setting process at Garrion illustrates, children form pecking orders and are aware of their places within them without any guidance from adults at all.

By the time my brother left school, at 16 and with barely any qualifications at all, he was under the impression that he was thick. He believed that further education was not for the likes of him, and his qualifications backed this up. It took many years to persuade him that this was not so, and he is now a mature student, sailing through the course at a leading art college, just as he could have done 15 years ago had he not been taught in classes unsuitable to his needs and also the needs of most of his classmates. So Blair and Blunkett should not be "encouraging setting". It should be reinstated as compulsory.

But this of course was not the only factor which made my brother's education at the same school so much less effective. Just as the Spartists of the loony left implemented policies that went too far in addressing the world as they would have liked it to be, rather than as it was and is, the Thatcher government came in. I was in my final year at school. I missed the cutbacks, the erosion of morale, the ghettoisation and abandonment of the initially working, later redundant, classes that continued unabated for two long decades.

It is unbelievable that Tony Blair still needs to be taught this, but he does. A flurry of misguided and inflexible educational initiatives, driven by ideological theory rather than academic need, were disastrously followed up by 20 years of hostile and systematic neglect. That is what is wrong with our schools, and every penny possible should be spent on improving them for all pupils. Earmarking a chunk of funds for those who are, by definition, doing just fine, is the kind of policy that caused all of these troubles in the first place.

If this were the only reason why the new "master class" policy is mind- bogglingly inappropriate, that would be bad enough. But it isn't.

I'll hark back again to my own schooldays and to a particular class, which was the most mixed-ability of the ones that I took part in. I chose physics as one of my O-level subjects, and since only about 12 other girls had chosen the same subject, we were all taught together. Some of the girls were among the most glamorous in our year. Generally bright enough, the thing that marked them apart was that they knew how to be cool. Here, in this intimate environment, I desperately wanted their approval.

Since part of being cool involved assuming a tremendous nonchalance about education, I would not win their admiration by sticking my hand up and answering the teacher's questions. So I didn't. I was interested by the subject and enjoyed it greatly. But I kept quiet about that, and adopted a classroom performance which was, to say the least, muted.

It didn't matter, because when exam time came, I could, and did, perform. But if good exam results had meant extra tuition I'd have decided to deliberately bugger them up rather than undergo the ignimony of being singled out and punished for my success. And there was no one in my class who would have done any differently, even though all but one of us passed physics in the end.