Deborah Orr: The Government's new plan for education - if you want anything done, do it yourself

Our elected leaders have told us we can open our own schools if we're not satisfied
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The Independent Online

For the political left, the betrayal is surely the prospect of "creeping privatisation", as schools are encouraged to become independent of local authority control, so that they can trade in futures, just like the money men who Tony hopes will be coughing up some funding. For the political right, as ever, the contemptible cowardice is the failure fully to embrace privatisation. Limited selection won't appease the right; their only answer is a voucher system, and the prospect of the nation voting with its feet, like Diane Abbott, for "public school".

And for the parents, the voters and the taxpayers, we who are supposed to be empowered by this weird, disjointed, contradictory paper? For us, the betrayal is that our elected leaders have told us that we can open our own schools if we're not satisfied with what's on offer, because after eight and a half years and an investment of £39bn, Labour has not been able to sort things out. If the taxpayer wants anything done, Ruth Kelly and Tony Blair have told us, then we really ought to do it ourselves.

No wonder the media were not allowed to sit in while the Prime Minister and the Education Secretary met with parents in Dulwich on Monday. Parents in this part of London, surely the worst place in Britain for state educational provision (though by amazing coincidence one of the best for liberal private schooling), must have made short work indeed of these two great ministers of state. Kelly, it is reported, told them that "local authorities will have a completely new role. They will have to come and talk to you, find out what you need and then make sure that something happens as a result".

Since in my experience you can't get a new wheelie bin in Lambeth without falling into a bottomless pit of bureaucracy, the chances of anyone "making sure that something happens" in this part of the world are somewhere close to nil. Especially as the main problem here is not just low standards but an actual shortfall of many, many thousands of any places in school at all for 14-19-year-olds.

Actually, that's just the main education problem. For while Lambeth council has a long-standing reputation for utter uselessness, the sad truth is that lack of decent educational provision is only one of the borough's social problems. In common with the catchment areas for most failing schools, much of this area is poor, physically and mentally unhealthy, drug-ridden, crime- ridden, badly housed, poorly paid, culturally diverse and socially excluded. The awful truth is that much of Labour's educational failure - but by no means all of it - is actually just an indicator of its much wider failure adequately to deal with social exclusion.

It is significant that in this same week as the White Paper was published, Shelter launched a campaign highlighting just how many families live in overcrowded accommodation. This is one reason why children are not doing their heavy screeds of homework. They just don't have the luxury of peace and quiet.

Likewise, a recent Panorama highlighted why some parents - "hard to reach parents", Ms Kelly calls them - don't take an active role in their children's homework. They're too busy working 14-hour days to get enough money - in poverty pay - to put food on the table and to pay the rent.

There's great irony in the fact that two conflicting stories are circulating about why 5,000 copies of the White Paper were pulped earlier this week. One is that the problem was content. The paper was phrased in a way that suggested local authorities would be left running only "sin-bin" pupil referral units if the Government's recommendations were followed. Yet since that problem still seems clear, the chances are that it was Ms Kelly's explanation - spelling mistakes - which was the genuine reason.

There, in tandem, are the two real problems the state system has. One is the failure properly to teach basic skills - a failure that the paper makes yet more marginal attempts at solving while skirting round the big issues that would really make a difference. The other is the failure to make helpful provision for those children who are unable to cope with the demands of classroom culture - those too often called "disruptive" when "unhappy" would be more appropriate.

Despite the huffings and puffings of John Prescott - who is supposed to be leading the Cabinet revolt against the paper's bias towards helping the middle classes - sometimes private individuals rather than councils or educational authorities, or governments or the heads of public schools, have the answer here.

Paulette Wilson, who runs the Tabernacle School in west London, manages to take failing boys out of the state system and set them back on track. Camilla Batmanghelidj, who runs the south London charity Kids Company, provides support and love to some of the most deprived and abused children in the nation, sometimes turning their lives around.

Likewise, scores of teachers specialising in difficult schools, troubleshooting round one special measures institution after another, have the personal experience to be able to set up the sort of specialist schools that are really needed. In some cases, the best thing would be to keep some schools on "special measures" permanently. Because often failing schools that have been turned round find themselves in a much worse situation than ever, once the target has been reached and the extra money and the extra support have gone.

If the White Paper had specified the need for such schools to exist, specialising in turning round traumatised refugees, children whose first language is not English, children who have anger management issues, and so on, then there would still have been outrage from some. But the truth is that the tools needed to establish such institutions are buried all over the White Paper, yet with no committed vision guiding it.

The greatest pity of all is that as long as Britain's deep-rooted social problems are tackled mainly through the agency of an education system that is not encouraged to offer intensive specialised solutions for troubled young people, a rather wonderful fact is hidden. Despite the lack of political leadership which has dogged the system for so many decades now - only slightly ameliorated in the past few years - Britain's schools teem with talented and clever teachers, many thousands of whom would make education secretaries a hundred times more impressive than the four so far fielded by Blair. Considering all they have to put up with, that's a miracle.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

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