Editor-At-Large: If kids can't read or count, how do they get a job?

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The Independent Online

Who's right? Last week, Ofsted, the body which monitors standards in education, delivered a blistering report which claimed that around a third of our schools are substandard, with lessons that did not "inspire, challenge and extend" pupils. Employers would seem to agree – the boss of Marks and Spencer echoed remarks made by Sir Terry Leahy of Tesco, who recently described educational standards as "woeful". Sir Stuart Rose told the CBI conference that school leavers "were not fit for work" – they "can't do reading, can't do arithmetic and can't do writing". The minister for schools, on the other hand, says kids are "better equipped than ever" for the world of work.

Two controversial new additions to the teaching curriculum were unveiled last week – all pupils from five to 15 will receive lessons about violence against women, and Ed Balls announced he wanted to junk the traditional teaching of subjects like geography and history in favour of broad themes. Forget about the Tudors or the Second World War – now kids will be learning about "social understanding" and climatic change. In the right hands, this could be a real chance to engage with pupils and ignite their interests – in the hands of sloppy or over-worked teachers, it will be a disaster. With one in three city academies underperformin (less than 30 per cent of pupils get five decent GCSEs), coming up with "themes" is like sticking plaster on a gaping wound.

I feel sorry for teachers, who are always on the front line of some new whacky government directive. The Tories have said that if elected, they will keep traditional subject-based teaching in primary schools. They have no choice – at present a fifth of children leave primary school without reaching the expected level of literacy. And if you start at secondary school illiterate, then all the trendy ideas in the world aren't going to make you magically "fit for work" when you leave. At present we've got a record number (nearly a million) 16- to 24-year-olds out of work, the highest number of any EU country.

Sadly, the Government treats learning as something that has to be constantly re-evaluated and re-worked. Instead of focusing on basics, now pupils have lessons in citizenship, and PSHE (personal, social, health and economic education). There is no point in teaching 15-year-olds about money if they can't actually add up. There is too much focus on the social issues surrounding children and their backgrounds, and not enough on the reason why they are actually at school. Ed Balls seems determined to become the unwanted extra member of every child's family – substitute parent, social worker, bank manager and counsellor. It is as if the Government is embarrassed to admit the best present it could give every child in Britain is literacy and numeracy - because they're not trendy enough.

Instead it coms up with rewards and incentives – points towards laptops, treats and iPods for punctuality, as if kids have to be bribed to be educated. Some academies have spent up to £30,000 on these sweeteners, which a recent survey reveals to be totally counterproductive, since offering rewards reduces motivation. Schools are places where you go to learn, and that is the end of the matter. If we don't address core values, we continue to fail a huge number of children.

Can-do: You have to hand it to Palin – she's a fighter, and then some

I celebrated Thanksgiving last week on the East coast of America, where it was as unseasonably mild as the UK was. Watching the huge Macy's Parade on television, a lavish extravaganza celebrating every aspect of modern Americana from Spiderman to giant Turkeys and the Rockettes, it's easy to see why Sarah Palin is such a divisive character: Thanksgiving might be a national holiday, but there's not one nation, as the new president is finding as his popularity plummets. On the East coast, Palin is anathema to the educated classes – but the story is very different in the middle of the country, where huge crowds turned out as she launched her autobiography Going Rogue: An American Life (published here next week).

Critics panned the book as a work of fiction in which Palin's accounts of her time on the Republican presidential campaign have been "embellished and embroidered" and the end result is a "work of magical reality". I'm no Palin fan, but many women who loathe her folksy manner and right-wing politics will relate to the rollercoaster of emotions she experienced on being told she was pregnant with a Down's syndrome baby. By sharing this, Palin touches a chord.

She admits she didn't think she could cope and eventually wrote a letter "as if from our Creator" to her family and friends to explain the condition. It's easy to sneer, but she admits she had no idea how her child would grow up. Campaigning, she met a teenager with Down's, and has a revelation – her child will be beautiful. Over the next few months, a Trig fan club grows up, kids with Down's turn up in T-shirts that say "we love Trig" and "Trig in the White House", and Palin's bumper sticker reads "my kid has more chromosomes than your kid". That brash can-do approach to disability is very refreshing.

Why Damien is never cowed

When Damien Hirst stopped drinking and taking drugs, he changed his approach to making art. He went back to basics, started painting again. The first batch of work, at the Wallace Collection, was condemned by the critics, who couldn't wait to slap down the world's most successful artist. Most people would have retired hurt – not Damien. Undeterred, last week he unveiled two more collections of new paintings at both White Cube galleries in London. In the West End, a group of portraits dominate the room, elegiac and mysterious. Damien might not be your cup of tea, his sheer doggedness is impressive. That's worth a lot more than the bile written by art groupies, which generally tells us more about them than the work they're condemning.

Braced for an avalanche of books

The demise of Borders has reignited the debate about bookshops. There's been a lot of hand-wringing about the closure of small local traders who can't compete with Amazon, but they also can't compete with big chains like Waterstones and WH Smith or the supermarkets who offer heavily discounted titles. Book buyers are just as likely to pick up a paperback along with the nappies and the vegetables as make a special trip to a shop which hasn't got what you want anyway. But publishing is still big business, even in a recession. Large book chains account for around 34 per cent of the market, a decline of only 4.5 per cent in four years, while internet sales have doubled in the same period, to 13.6 per cent. We're approaching "cyber Monday" – the first in December, when more books are sold online than any other day. We should be honest about how we buy books: we like a bargain.

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