Deborah Orr: Primary schools: the shocking truth

Too much is expected in the way of home input from families who cannot, or will not, offer any
Click to follow
The Independent Online

This year's Sats results suggest, for the third year in a row, that only 67 per cent of pupils are achieving the writing standard required of them. For boys, the figure is worse, with just 60 per cent able to put pencil to paper with any proficiency. I use the word "any" advisedly. I think that many people would be pretty shocked to see the unimpressive level of literacy that is needed for pupils to manage a pass. Yet the numbers achieving even this modest benchmark, teachers themselves say, offer an exaggerated picture of the writing ability of schoolchildren.

Nearly all secondary schools now feel obliged to re-test their intake when they start this new phase of their education. They cannot trust what Sats tell them, and feel obliged to find out for themselves what sort of remedial input a child really needs. Such measures attest that the problem is not marginal. It is not without the bounds of probability to infer that as many as half of all boys are going into secondary education without having mastered the basic skills needed to express their thoughts on paper. How dismal.

This miserable state of affairs gives the lie to the fantasy that has been long promulgated by the Government, which insists that primary education is fine, and all the trouble begins at secondary school. Of course pupils will run into difficulties at secondary school, if the groundwork laid down in their previous six years of education has not been thorough. This has been happening for years.

No wonder secondary teachers despair at the behaviour of pupils when they turn up so badly prepared to engage in education. How bored and disillusioned many must already be, arriving on their very first day. The most problematic children disengage from school at 12 or 13. The idea that this collapse occurs in one or two years is absurd.

A spokesperson for the Department for Families, Schools and Children continues to insist that "standards are rising". The Government continues to focus on secondary schools as the institutions that need to change. They are wrong. Changes are needed at primary level, in many schools, as well.

Many excuses are offered for poor attainment among pupils, and most of those argue that the trouble begins at home. Children arrive at school unable even to talk properly, or to talk properly in the language of the country in which they live. Even if they can converse decently, they are not being read to at home, or even seeing the good example of their parents reading, or even having books or newspapers in the house. Children arrive at school without understanding discipline, and parents refuse to support the school in tackling such problems. And so on.

Actually, in my experience, the problem is almost exactly the other way round. Parents are expected to support the school, even when they are not capable of doing so. Likewise, parents are expected to support the school even when the school's approach is patently damaging to the education of their own child. If anything, there is worrying complacency about the children with stable backgrounds, who are left to get on with it, while too much is expected in the way of home input from families who cannot, or will not, offer any.

I learned this the hard way, by watching my own son, and some of his classmates, being let down by his primary school, year after year. My first query about his education came when he was still in the nursery class, and I remarked that the books that were being sent home for us to read to him were far, far more simple and dull than the ones he chose for himself for us to read to him at home.

His teacher, a dedicated and inspirational woman in many ways, explained to me that there was nothing that could be done about it, because a lot of the children in his class arrived without ever having seen a book. I was awed by this answer, and immediately sympathetic to her position. I was so stupid, looking back, not to question the wisdom of this whole approach from the beginning.

What is the point of sending books home to parents so clearly resistant to reading to their children? Wasn't it plain, even at that stage, that any education these children received had to be delivered to them within school hours? And what, further, was the point in allowing the neglect of such parents to dictate the standard that everybody else had to work at? My son learned early on that school was boring and undemanding. Needless to say, this knowledge has done him nothing but harm.

Yet I persisted in being assuaged by the answers the school offered when I expressed my anxiety at my son's lack of progress. Things would soon "click". He would soon "fly". He was attaining the "national average". When, far too late, I removed him, mainly because he was so miserable, the decision was greeted with amazement: "But he is on course to pass his Sats." The possibility that there might be more to education than this was not considered.

This particular school is not remarkable. Many parents are happy with it, and a number are not. It is just a school like many others. It teaches to the test and has come to believe that this is all that matters. It has a high number of pupils receiving free school meals – around 40 per cent – and so it could be said to be doing rather well, considering how much of its intake are from poorer backgrounds. That is certainly what its value-added league-table results say. Yet in the case of my son, value has been taken away, and he now sees school and all he associates with it as negative and unbearable.

There must be many individuals like him among the 220,000 11-year-olds who this year have not reached the level required in at least one subject. Yet all will be found a place at some secondary school or other, and asked to sink or swim as they have been expected to do for six years already. At this point, even the most supportive parents can only cross their fingers and keep on hoping for the best.