Deborah Orr: No matter what they say, my local school is still not good enough to send my kids there

What needs to be tackled is the sterile demand that all children be treated the same
Click to follow
The Independent Online

I mentioned, in a recent column about the education White Paper, that I couldn't get steamed up about the Government's attempt to release some schools from local authority control, even though it is considered one of the most controversial measures in yesterday's Education Bill. The reason? Because my own local authority had been offering a strikingly poor service for many years, particularly at secondary level. Parents from all walks of life, in this part of London, come close to nervous breakdown when trying to find an acceptable state school for their 11-year-olds. Why should such dereliction of duty be zealously protected by the left?

It's certainly not because the left likes the results of its blind allegiance to local authority control, however appalling the resulting service. In fact, the very results that left-wing critics say will occur if trust schools are introduced, are what happens anyway when local authority schools are badly run.

In my area, as a direct result of years of poor management, those who can afford it often go private. Those whose budgets are more modest, plump instead for special tuition aimed at getting their children through the entrance exams for nearby boroughs. Those who are shrewd or lucky get their children into the couple of schools that have recently improved enough to be reasonable. And those without the capacity - for whatever reason - to be thrusting advocates for their children send them where they are told to. In other words, the borough is so ideological that it drives people to opt for selection, even if they would prefer not to.

According to the zealots, the problem is that we don't all adopt the latter course, and send our children to the nearest school, whatever its record. When Oliver Letwin proclaimed that he'd rather tear his arm off than send his child to a particular school in the borough, he had to publicly apologise for being truthful about the service his taxes fund. Rather more modestly, I simply got a phone call from a councillor, explaining how dispiriting it was when I slagged off Lambeth, especially as now, under the Liberal Democrats, it was improving. Could I see my way to refraining from making negative comments in the press?

I could not. I pointed out that the improvement was from a crushingly low base line, and that as long as the service provided was not acceptable to me, I had a right and a duty to complain. The councillor then said that he would consider sending his own son to my local comprehensive. When I replied that I would not, he suggested that I was wrong to dismiss the school.

Results had massively improved and he was proud of what had been achieved. Last year 47 per cent of pupils had passed five GCSEs at A* to C grade. This is supposed to be something to celebrate - even though it means that 53 per cent left the school functionally illiterate after 11 years of full-time education. A check in the league tables for this year is even more depressing. Only 21 per cent passed five GCSEs at A* to C when maths and English were included in the calculation. Wow! Just 79 per cent illiteracy? Sign us up now. The school Oliver Letwin referred to, by the way, scored 13 on the same measure. How dare he criticise!

The councillor argued further that the school's added value score is excellent. This is true. The school is indeed dealing with a concentration of extremely deprived children and no doubt has a dedicated staff catering well to their needs. My eccentric, middle-class children though, would not thrive in such an atmosphere at all. This, the councillor said dismissively, was a decision made for "social reasons". I thought bullying and victimisation were supposed to be taken seriously. Now I learn that concern about them is merely an indication of snobbishness.

Except that what I want for my children is a social mix, of the kind they enjoy at their local state primary school, rather than a school that functions also, however admirably, as a social services centre for children with troubles. Not that I'd cavil at the inauguration of such places. If there were specialist schools that, say, children with English as a poor-second language could be sent to temporarily, until they were up to speed, then I'd be very happy. If establishments existed that took on troubled, disruptive boys and girls, and really helped them to work towards re-entry into the system, I'd be pleased as punch.

But the temper of the times, instead, is geared towards "inclusion". No one can be told they are different, let alone, perish the thought, unique. Instead, everyone has to be treated the same, until their troubles are so big that "permanent exclusion" looms, and "pupil referral units" beckons. I remain against the idea of grammar schools simply because I know several adults who labour under the misapprehension 30 years on that they are thick because they failed the 11-plus. It is cruel to divide up children so profoundly, and subject some to such irreversible feelings of failure at such a young age.

But the over-reaction against the 11-plus is damaging too. The very terminology of the modern state system is ham-fistedly hypocritical. The only reason why we are all obliged to say "passed GCSEs A* to C" really is because those let-down young adults with Ds or Es or Ys or Zs are protected from the upset of knowing that they have failed. They are unaware that their qualifications exist only on a technicality. Their potential employers, of course, labour under no such delusion.

Sadly, as far as this problem is concerned, the structural changes in Labour's new Bill are neither here nor there. My local school and Oliver Letwin's are not going to be the ones that apply for trust status, even though they're the ones that need to most.

Smaller class sizes or, if that really can't be delivered, then more rote learning; a rethink about inclusion; the serious pursuit of streaming; a delay in formal teaching in favour of early socialisation; a positive alternative environment for children at risk of "exclusion"; and the instillation of the idea that doing one's best rather than being average is what to aim for - these are six ideological shifts that could transform state schools in trouble (and by no means all of them are).

It is a great pity that formal politics remains bound up so much with markets and systems, with the two main parties both appearing to believe that getting the right bureaucratic production line offers a mechanical solution to the problem of how to process children through mass education. Most of the education Bill is concerned with triggering changes in management structures. Instead, what needs to be tackled is the sterile and literal approach to the concept of comprehensive education that demands that all children should be treated not equally but the same. Such patronisation doesn't fool the children. It simply bores them.