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Let's re-take our schools

I am a Canadian but my parents were both English, and my own education began in London. My daughter is a teacher in the south of England. She was trained there and has been employed there in an infant school since graduation.

I see my country looking to Mr Blair and borrowing from your system, and vice versa. The ideas they take may not always be the best, or their understanding of outcomes may be limited - but it is the politics that count. It is important for ordinary citizens to join the international debate, and the press can help effect this broader discussion.

There is a common theme in both your country and mine. It is as though, unable to grapple with the complexities of a turn-of-the-millennium community, we must find a minority to blame - and schools, teachers in particular, are it. The teachers, the very people who can make it all work, become the target for a lot of ineffective manoeuvres. We both under-pay our teachers, and we've both put in place measures to check up on them. This is a farce. Alice meets the unclothed emperor in reception! In England these measures revolve around Ofsted, your inspection system that I fear will soon be exported to Canada. If my daughter's experience is typical, then I can only hope it never crosses the ocean.

My daughter has been through this twice. This year her class was visited by one man who'd never been a classroom teacher. What were his credentials? It doesn't matter; sufficient to say he was from the revered "private sector" that has more prestige than Parliament, a concept both our countries borrowed from the US.

Did this man measure the fact that in this class of five- and six-year- olds there were 30 pupils, several with special needs?

Did he comment on the fundamental impossibility for the teacher, no matter how accomplished, to exercise sound teaching principles when 30 little ones, with all their various backgrounds and needs, are clamouring for attention?

Did the Ofsted inspector check these facilities and the health records of this school to determine if there was indeed a problem? Apparently not.

Did anyone tell him that the teacher was informed that owing to a shortage of funds she could either have the lights on after 2.30pm, or the services of an assistant part time, but not both? Did that influence his assessment of this school and its staff? No.

Did he ask the teacher about her concerns for safety in a portable set away from the main school and easily accessible from the road by any unauthorised person? No.

Did he discuss with the teacher the limitations to her programme in a facility without even a sink? Has he even heard of the extensive research results coming out of the US confirming the connection between the study of the arts at an early age and the positive development of other intellectual skills that will be required in the new millennium? These findings - instead of Disney - could usefully be imported from the US by us all.

Behind this entire system of planned outcomes, testing, and inspections in both the UK and Canada, is this misguided notion that the schools must and will make everything right for all of us. It is madness.

The schools can reflect only the society in which they reside, with all its flaws, its strengths, its differences and its contradictions.

Values are different from family to family, neighbourhood to neighbourhood, and the school is expected to adjust. Young parents struggle with the push-and-pull of child-rearing and wage-earning, with the schools expected to deal with the fallout.

In both our countries we raise expectations. Leaders in both countries go on about the results they will deliver via the education system; their officials construct new "paradigms", set targets, and release complex charts to assure parents that there will be measurable outcomes, all in a frenzy for centralised control. And all unschooled and uninformed.

The so-called debate about education on both sides of the Atlantic is in reality a politicisation of one of society's fundamental institutions. Our schools and teachers have become a convenient tool for politicians to gain votes. Every failure can be blamed on the schools. An army of officious bureaucrats, having lost control of other sectors to privatisation, now impose their "superior understandings".

It is time for the citizen to bypass the whole lot, to recognise that this non-system militates against positive results. It is time for the citizen to work with the teachers in their own communities, to consider all the aspects of education. Listen to the teachers, look around at the community, consider what is possible and what is not possible; talk to the pupils, review all of the components of a good education system, including the infrastructure, and above all create a dialogue, via the Internet, the press and other media to build a positive atmosphere in which all children may learn - and flourish.


Toronto, Canada

Home education doubts

Tradition has it that a couple of times a year educational supplements include a wacky article on the world of home education to amuse us. We're told such parents "are not mad, stupid or irresponsible". The article mentions a dissenting voice, but overall it is positive and upbeat.

My family enjoys the company of another family who bring their children up with a similar philosophy to the Vidal-Halls and Harris-Reids (EDUCATION, 10 June). My friends also believe passionately in what they are doing. But will their approach be successful? Do the parents have the ability to carry it out given their circumstances and resources?

Overwhelmingly positive reports of home education prompted me to search the Web. Home education sites were all equally supportive. I've never read an article, "I am so glad I sent my children to school, after educating them at home", or, "I was educated at home, and found it really hard to get a job".

Maybe I should withdraw my children from school immediately. I may be cynical, but it could be that, for example, being interviewed for The Independent is great when you are confident, but you tend not to advertise your failings.

I have also searched the Web for a survey comparing education in the UK, at home and at school, but have drawn a blank.

I have read opinions that damn conventional schools. I am aware of the stresses schools impose on children, but this does not promote understanding to those of us whose children attend with enthusiasm.

You mention that LEAs have the right to see evidence that children are receiving a "suitable education", and that parents have no obligation to adopt the national curriculum, have a fixed timetable, observe school hours, or give formal lessons. So, how does that work then? When a theory of education rejects achieving anything at any particular age, if at all, what criteria can the LEA possibly use to evaluate it? Many home-educating families are in any case not known to their LEA.

Home educators views on children taking responsibility for their own learning - and behaviour - are worth David Blunkett's attention. As he demands schools become more standardised and syllabuses and methods more rigid, I see more families opting out.


Dorridge, Solihull

Send your letters to Wendy Berliner, Editor, EDUCATION, `The Independent,' 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL (remember to include a day- time phone number). Fax: 0171-293 2451; e-mail: Letters may be edited for length and clarity