It might look as if Michael Gove is in hot water after being criticised by a High Court Judge for the manner in which he cancelled the £55bn Building Schools for the Future scheme, but the Secretary of State for Education has a far more serious problem on his hands. After Friday's court ruling, no doubt the six councils who took him to court will make their case all over again and this time he will have to consider it properly, but there's every possibility he will reach exactly the same decision.
Gove knows that the failures in our education system aren't the result of cracked toilets, nor of leaky or temporary classrooms. The high level of underachievement at primary schools has nothing to do with central heating or modern lighting but stem directly from poverty and poor parenting skills. We're trying to teach kids who haven't got anything.
Teachers say that 60 per cent of children from deprived areas are falling below expected standards of behaviour and understanding by the time they're five, double the number from middle-class areas. As these failing kids get older, they tend not to catch up – 9 per cent of 11-year-olds in English state schools have the reading level of children two years younger. At secondary school they just go through the motions, lost to the system. No wonder bosses say that up to 25 per cent of school-leavers applying for jobs are illiterate.
A new study by London University's department of education tracked 14,000 children. At seven years old, one in five was living in what's categorised as "severe" poverty, where a household exists on less than half of the national average wage, a grand total of £254 a week. Half of these children get no pocket money, and 7 per cent do not have two pairs of outdoor shoes.
I can attest to this – when I taught in a primary school in a working class area on the edge of Cambridge for a television series, I was shocked when several of the nine-year-olds in my class turned up in slippers, wearing their night clothes or in filthy sweatpants that hadn't seen a washing machine for weeks. These children had to get ready all by themselves each morning and get their own food and look after several brothers and sisters. Their clothes were torn and threadbare. It was heartbreaking.
Sir Michael Marmot, Professor of Health at University College London, says that poverty means underachievement at school, a shorter life and more illness. Statistics show that people born in wealthy areas live 10 years longer than those growing up in deprived inner city boroughs. Marmot believes that investing in children before they start school, in children's centres and Sure Start schemes, pays the most dividends – by the time kids are 10 it's too late to change behaviour.
Gove believes in tests – thousands of teachers disagree, and boycotted tests for 11-year-olds in English and maths after their unions said they encouraged teaching by rote. He's also limited the curriculum and introduced reading tests at 6. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with tests, but when a child arrives at school from chaos and confusion at home, they don't stand a chance. How on earth can they focus on learning?
Cutting the number of nurseries and Sure Start places is a really bad move too. I would sacrifice any number of swanky new building projects in this country if it meant that every child could read and write by the time they left primary school. That means extending school hours, with more breakfast clubs that include story telling and reading, more after school activities to build social skills.
When boys fall behind, they retreat into themselves, and their reading and writing skills lag behind girls. A primary school in Bolton seems to have found a pretty cheap way to get boys to enjoy writing – by sitting at a computer and producing blogs and short stories about what they've been doing. Starting at five, they were encouraged to write what they thought of their lessons in blogs – and swap them with pupils in other countries. Soon, some were writing 5,000 word stories, and have become highly enthusiastic about a subject they once considered a slog.
The Government wasted millions promoting reading with "champions", such as famous footballers. That scheme had little impact. Cut the money for school buildings – but re-invest it in more teaching staff with clever ideas like the blogging.
Michelle is Washington's Marie Antoinette
Michelle Obama has rarely put a foot wrong since she arrived in the White House, feted for her no-nonsense approach to fitness, parenting, and wearing affordable J Crew. Now, some are starting to realise that beneath that glossy, smiley exterior lurks a woman who's succumbed to a trait we normal mortals are guilty of.
She's a nag.
At a press lunch in the White House last week she announced hubbie had finally quit smoking after 30 years. When he was campaigning for the presidency, she went on television and begged people to call her if they saw him have a discreet puff. Now, after 'discreet pressure' – a euphemism for nagging – he's stopped.
Really? I was married to someone who spent four years secretly smoking in the garage and finally had a heart attack. I loathe smoking, but I hate nagging even more.
It comes on top of Michelle's irritating campaign to get Americans to eat more fruit and veg. One reporter said she reminded him of Marie Antoinette at Versailles, and said that if the President sorted out the economy, then his citizens wouldn't be anxiously guzzling tubs of ice cream and working long hours for such little reward they chose to eat cheap fast food.
Piped music kills the love of food
Hoorah for Peter Maxwell Davies, Britain's greatest living composer, Master of the Queen's Music, a man standing up for a cause I passionately support: the banning of mind-polluting recorded music in public spaces.
Sir Peter walked out of a Canterbury restaurant because he couldn't eat to the background bilge. Then he threatened to leave Broadcasting House over the drivel droning in reception. He stormed out of Waterstone's because of the pop pap, and joined Pipedown, a pressure group fighting the creeping menace of piped music.
In hotel dining rooms the whispering classes are drowned out by Enya, Tubular Bells or Simon and Garfunkel. Piped music sanitises any dining experience, and the food tastes worse.
The Edge faces flop after flop
It was not a great week for multi-millionaire rocker The Edge. On Broadway, the Spider-Man musical for which he co-wrote the music, with Bono, received stinking reviews from critics who were already furious that the official opening of this troubled production has been endlessly postponed.
Like Bono, The Edge describes himself as an environmentalist who wants to save the planet. Sadly, the local people in Malibu see him as a vandal who is intent on desecrating a pristine ridge on the Santa Monica Mountains, and overlooking the coastline, with his plans for five luxury mansions, each one around 10,000 square feet. The California coastal commission has recommended that the plans be rejected in advance of a final vote in April.Reuse content