Deborah Orr: Don't bother trying to exert yourself when everything has to be 'average'

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Can government education policy become any more confused? The headlines this week may have been dominated by the decision of the minister for communities to ship her child out of her community to be schooled. But the really gobsmacking thing is that the clumsy, weird legislation Ruth Kelly steered through Parliament as education minister precisely to wrong-foot all those ghastly middle-class state school users doing their best for their child, "like any parent", also came home to roost this week.

These enemies of the state, of course, are the ghastly cheats who spend their money on buying houses near good state schools and force up property prices. Why would they not?It's a measure of Labour's tacit surrender to the idea that they can't provide enough decent schools to go round that they have chosen to attack this phenomenon, rather than its cause.

The idea is to put a spanner in the works by moving away from offering places according to catchment area and instead attempting to conjure less homogenous school populations by imposing quotas on the kind of children a school must seek to admit. Bus in the kids from the poor estates far away, bus out the kids whose parents have recently found themselves drowning in negative equity, and, voilà, more average schools. Simple. Also mad.

Mad particularly because it's a lavish, grotesque extension of the central obsession that hampers educational policy so much already: the tyranny of "average".

If your reasonably clever child is managing "average" for their age group, then it doesn't matter at all how little they are fulfilling their potential. They could be dyslexic, depressed, mindlessly bored or even frothing at the mouth. But if their progress is "average" then everything is fine. No alarm bells will go off. If they fall behind "average" and if they are lucky, a little remedial treatment will be forthcoming.

It wouldn't be so bad if "average" wasn't so modestly pitched. But the very nature of mixed ability teaching means that the slow progress of so many of the sharp little knives only serves to ensure that average is even more average than it might otherwise be. Will this latest ideologically driven attempt to make schools as well as pupils more "average" make a difference? Yes, it will probably move "average" down a little notch more.

"Inclusion" is good for bringing "average" down as well. With neither the brightest nor the most vulnerable measured and catered to by what they may capable of, there's only one way for average to go. I can't imagine what forcing a bunch of recalcitrant 17-18-year-olds to stay at school is going to do to "average" either. Nothing spectacularly positive, I'd guess.

* At a comprehensive near my home, one that is celebrated as a beacon of success in teaching children who have social problems, the head teacher boasts of the number of politicians from Tony Blair down who have come to marvel at the school's success. I see in this year's league tables that the number of pupils achieving "five A to C GCSEs including maths and English" is 11 per cent. No wonder it is such a popular destination for Labour ministers - and such an unpopular one for their children.

Any word from Beijing?

Nick Broomfield's film Ghosts dramatises the story of the 23 Chinese illegal immigrants who died in 2004 on Morecambe beach while picking cockles, using the real story of Ai Qin Lin, who herself arrived in Britain as an illegal immigrant, to inform his narrative. It's a compellingly intimate film about epic human exploitation, all the more remarkable because it is entirely acted by Chinese migrants, with Ai Qin Lin herself in the lead.

A ghastly postscript to the film reveals that the bereaved families in China are still being forced with menaces to pay back the debts accrued by their unfortunate relatives, which amount, apparently, to £500,000. "The British Government," we are told, somewhat balefully, "refuses to help them." Instead cinema-goers are urged to go to a website and donate cash themselves.

Presumably, the Chinese government refuses to help its citizens as well, though so little is expected of that lot that its own dereliction is not deemed to be worth mentioning, let alone tackling. Therefore, the idea is that we all dip into our pockets to pay off a bunch of violent extortionists, to offset the decision that this may not be a suitable way of spending our taxes. Oddly, I find myself somewhat reluctant to do so. I've heard, dimly, of liberal guilt. But this is quite a trip.

Hold the front page: politicians discover poverty exists in Britain

When Matthew Parris, then a Tory MP, now a distinguished journalist, tried living on the dole for a week in Newcastle more than 20 years ago, I found myself avidly watching a serious-minded and sociologically worthwhile episode of World in Action. Much as Parris protested otherwise, the shock of his little holiday in poverty was written all over his face. When he returned a couple of years back, Parris was even more profoundly disquieted. He learned that life had not changed much for the people he had befriended in Newcastle, except for the fact that nearly all of them were now medicated to the hilt on anti-depressants.

When Michael Portillo, in the thick of his pre-Cameronian conversion, attempted life as a single mother on supplementary benefit more recently, the resulting programme was rather more of a comedy of manners, familiar from Wife Swap and its imitators to the point of contempt, but engaging nevertheless. Portillo was more forthcoming in admitting that the experiment had confounded some of his expectations, but since at this point he still nursed ideas of political rebirth as a liberal Tory instead of as a smirking heartless bastard, this was not a surprise.

Next week, in a two-part Tonight with Trevor McDonald, another Tory roughs it for a film crew. Ann Widdecombe hangs out with the hoodies on a couple of London estates for a week, and boldly discovers that it's not much fun. Neither television current affairs, nor political discourse emerges from the encounter looking healthy. Widdecombe and her crew discover that people housed on sink estates are pestered by low-level anti-social behaviour mainly generated by teenagers, and dealt with ineffectually by the police.

This the woman finds shocking, and appears to expect that her audience will find it so too. She has sat in Parliament for 20 years now and as Home Office minister for prisons must surely have gathered some idea of the shape of the terrain she now surveys with such indignation. Her concern, as she has been claiming for some years, is for "the forgotten decents". They were certainly forgotten, even by her, at the time when her party was in power, and busily whittling away at all the saleable council stock. The forgotten decents, Widdecombe now appears to think, need only to be seen strolling though the street with herself to be remembered.