Schools and children 'are suffering under Blair'

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The Government's obsession with parental choice is leading to the creation of "bloody awful" schools, Labour's most influential backbench voice on education said yesterday.

Barry Sheerman, chairman of the Commons Education and Skills Select Committee, said efforts to give parents more say over their children's schooling were creating a, "whole section of good schools but some bloody awful schools as well".

Middle-class parents were becoming ever more desperate to get their children into top performing schools, he said. Some were even encouraging their children to perform badly in tests to take advantage of new "banding" arrangements for schools - whereby they have to admit an equal number of talented and poorly performing pupils. Mr Sheerman made his comments during a wide-ranging critique of government policies at the Professional Association of Teachers annual conference. He also called for the start of compulsory schooling to be put back from five to seven years old - in line with Nordic countries.

"We are stealing their childhood away from children in this country," he said. He added that the only way to introduce fair school admissions and avoid creating poorer performing schools was a lottery system.

"I don't blame parents wanting to get their kids into the school of their choice," he said. "But this has to be balanced by other needs. To have a scrupulously fair system, you'd do it randomly in a computer."

But he acknowledged such a move would cause "a little bit of disturbance" among parents.

Mr Sheerman also revealed that his committee would be launching an inquiry into testing in the autumn. He said he had visited New Zealand recently where educationalists told him: "We don't want your system of testing at seven, 11, 14, 16, 17 and 18 because everybody knows your people are teaching to the test and they're not doing that in a way that's best for the development of the children."

He also criticised the constant upheavals at the Department for Education and Skills, saying: "I have seen five secretaries of state and I've only been here five and a half years. Can you imagine any other enterprise when you keep changing bosses every year? If it happened in a school, you'd know there were problems."

Mr Sheerman's comments may well fuel more rebellion in Labour's ranks when its controversial schools legislation comes back to Parliament for final approval in the autumn.