Deborah Orr: Parental choice means nothing when our primary schools are failing children so badly

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The Independent Online

Long ago when the concept of parental choice was introduced into the state education system, it was done under the assumption that this would somehow create a market in which schools would compete with each other and standards would be raised. A couple of decades on, I think it has become apparent that this theory has not worked. The worst schools are not compelled to improve because of parental choice. They just end up populated by the children of the parents whose choices are fewest.

Yet instead of admitting that parental choice is an experiment that has failed, the present government is instead doing something extraordinary. It is pressing on with parental choice, except that in a bizarre inversion of the policy it is looking at ways of limiting the choices of more affluent or savvy parents (it is not always the richest that manage best to procure good schools for their children, but sometimes just the most organised and committed), in the hope that this will maximise the choices of the others.

The situation is so bizarre now that it is amazing that politicians, educational experts and the media are still locked in passionate debate about it all. Sure, critics always trumpet that the real problem is not enough good schools, but this does not seem to stop time and energy and money and expertise being wasted on working out how the ratio of children to decent school places can be somehow changed through admissions procedure rather than educational reform. This year, it seems, more cash and more time than ever will be spent on the mounting of appeals by parents whose children have not got their first-choice schools, because more people than ever before have been disappointed.

Meanwhile, all eyes are turned towards Brighton, which has gone further than any other council in taking up the recommendations for admissions reform recommended by the government, and has started allocating some places by lottery.

Ideologically, this experiment may be terribly interesting. But practically it is, under the present woeful circumstances, marginal. It is not going to raise educational standards in Brighton. It is just going to introduce an element of chance into decisions about which particular individuals gets the messy end of the stick. It is a disgraceful state of affairs, the acme of a system that should be called parental powerlessness, and recognised by its name as dangerous and sick and wrong.

The real nightmare is that while all this agonised attention is being expended on secondary schools, the basic skills that a child arrived at secondary school with, whether he is there because his parents bought a house, or because his parents won a lottery, are the most sound indicator of how his or her education will proceed from there. That's why, dear reader, private schools make such a song and dance about it.

A child whose reading, writing, spelling and numeracy skills are not as good as they could be by the time he or she is 11 is unlikely to catch up without the specialist attention that should have been provided ages before. Yet we have now reached the parlous situation whereby one in five children starts their secondary education having achieved exactly that level of attainment.

Let's just allow our imaginations to run riot and consider that the "bad" schools might be the ones which end up with a disproportionate number of children thus disadvantaged on their rolls. Let's also think about whether it might be pretty dreadful to be placed in a school that expects you in four years to sit exams that will hugely influence the course of the rest of your life, when your basic skills are at the level of a seven-year-old or an eight-year-old.

Why are we so focused on secondary schools when so many children arrive at them already so damaged that by their nature those schools cannot meet their needs? And why, also, do we scratch our heads about "standards of behaviour" when it is so obvious that secondary school must be such torture for so many trailing adolescents?

This is another question to which an awful lot of people believe they have the answer. The rot set in with fancy new teaching methods that focused on whole-word recognition instead of phonetics. Yet the government has for some time now recommended that synthetic phonetics should be the preferred method of teaching, and most schools have taken heed.

Those most wedded to the idea that synthetic phonetics solves every problem insist that the technique isn't working because it is not being done correctly, or is being done in conjunction with some of the other, less sure-fire methods. My own belief is that whatever system of teaching is being utilised the problem at every stage of primary school is the same as the problem that is so glaringly apparent when children arrive at secondary school. Children are simply ushered on to the next stage of their education before they have mastered the stage before. They are left to drift, languishing at the bottom of a mixed-ability class when what they need is an individual assessment of what is providing their "barriers to learning".

Parents who dare to suggest that their child isn't stupid, and shouldn't be at the bottom of the class, are often viewed as pushy and deluded, and are not able quickly to prove that this is wrong unless they have the resources to hire an educational psychologist themselves.

Again, the shape of educational debate looks as if this cannot be happening. Children, we are told, are tested more than ever. The controversy is bitter, and it rages on and on. But it isn't true, not at primary level anyway. The children do have to jump through lots of hoops. But that is all to test their teachers and their schools, not them.

All those tests provide no real information at all about what an individual child may need, and even if the child's needs are spotted and some extra tuition is supplied, it all has to be fitted in around a national curriculum that a child isn't quite skilled enough properly to explore. If further help is required, then a statement of special educational needs must be procured. It is accepted that this is often a long and stressful process, and that our old friend the postcode lottery decides whether that help will be available anyway, even after the statement is in place.

How did we get to this ridiculous place? Why has the an assessment of a child's abilities become something that is done not as a matter of course in a school, but instead as part of an elaborate outside process. Why is it so important that every child in a class should be born in the same year, rather than working at a similar level? Why are children hustled on and on inexorably through the system, whether they are at an ability level to deal with it or not? Why, if they are not working at a level commensurate with their abilities, is this not remied at the earliest possible moment?

These are the questions that really need to be asked. We're all obsessed with who is getting into the better sausage factory when the goal of sausage-making is the thing that is wrong.