Education Quandary

'My primary school pupils always get good test results. Why are results at 14 so poor?'
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Hilary's advice

An excellent question, to which nobody knows the answer. If they did, results would keep on improving. But education is a complex thing, affected by all kinds of variables and laced with human fallibilities and failings. In fact, experts have always warned ministers that they will not be able to keep on "driving up standards" without hitting some kind of wall.

Here are some possible answers to the question: not all teachers are as good as you are; heads vary (and some lead great schools, others don't); primary schools drill pupils more than secondaries; children's schoolwork dives as hormones kick in; secondary schools use their best teachers for GCSE and A-level, not for key stage three; children are sick to death of tests and rebelling against them; social background has more impact as children reach their teens; peer pressure gets stronger; the work gets harder and not all children can keep up; children who struggle need more individual time and attention than schools can give them; the proportion of struggling children is growing as the incidence of learning and behavioural problems rises.

In short, for all children to do well at secondary school you need: better teachers; better heads; better families; less poverty and disadvantage; more money and staff to give individual attention; and a national culture that elevates the status of learning and doing well in school above that of bling and binge-drinking.

Simple, really, isn't it?

Readers' advice

As a former secondary-school teacher, I deeply resent what this question implies. Many primary schools flog their children through a whole year of revision and test papers in order to get the results they do. The poor pupils are treated like performing seals. But this is not real learning; they just know how to jump through the hoops they are given. Let off the hook in the summer, they forget it all because it hasn't gone deep.

In September, we have to start with them all over again, and also in a much more difficult situation, where they have many different teachers, not just the one.

Ross McGuire, Cheshire

Today's 14-year-olds are completely different creatures from 11-year-olds. According to newspaper reports, they are already smoking, drinking, clubbing all night and having sex. Obviously government school tests are not going to be the main thing on their mind. With teen-targeted advertising and no parental boundaries any more, we have created many children who are adults long before their time. Then we wring our hands over why they do so badly in school.

Maisie Murcatt, Dorset

Secondary schools can be big, impersonal places where children slip through the cracks. My children's school had a mini school-within-the-school for year sevens; they had their own assemblies, tutorial groups and rooms to go to to relax. The pastoral care was excellent. It allowed them to find their feet and not feel intimidated. This school's results were first class.

Teresa Campion, Bedfordshire

Next Week's Quandary

Dear Hilary,

We live in north London. We badly want our child to attend the good church primary school that's just round the corner rather than go to one of the other two less good schools, both of which are further away. But we feel very squeamish about pretending to be churchgoers just to try to get a place in the school for our child. What can we do?

Send letters or quandaries to Hilary Wilce, to arrive no later than Monday 9 October, to 'The Independent', Education Desk, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS; or fax 020-7005 2143; or e-mail Include your postal address. Readers whose letters are printed will receive a Berol Combi Pack of a cartridge pen, handwriting pen and ink eraser.