Deborah Orr: We must stop trying to cure all our social problems in the classroom

Failing schools are often simply failing at something no school should be expected to succeed at
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The Independent Online

Interestingly, both sides of the argument have some force, or at least they would have if either set of ideologues were in a position to offer alternative solutions that promised real success. Unfortunately, though, what schools are nowadays being asked to do is to somehow provide an antidote to the breakdown of social and economic cohesion within British society and within the globalising economy, in between getting on with providing a conventional education. During her radio interview Ms Kelly declared that the Department for Education "had responsibility for parenting". Her interlocutor did not even pick her up on her ludicrous inflation of departmental responsibilities already burdensome enough.

Often, in reality, the impossible task of providing some imagined substitute for perfect parenting at school is covered up with the wielding of the "all shall have prizes" mentality, which seeks to shield children from the disquieting fact that they have varying skills and abilities.

Corrosively, this inevitably means approaching pupils in a dishonest way, treating them as if Britain is full of honesty respected and virtuosity rewarded, when even very young pupils can see instead that their society is highly competitive and that people like them and their families tend not to figure in the billboards all around that advertise above all other products, happy, shiny, aspirational Britain.

In other words, failing schools are often simply failing at something no school should be expected to succeed at - they're failing at fooling their children into believing their society is something that it isn't, and that within it they can be something that they aren't.

Failing schools, after all, are usually merely tableaux vivants, with pupils taking out the resentments of their community on the only members of the middle class they closely encounter - their teachers. Funnily enough, middle-class parents tend not to wish for their own children to share in such pillory, and opt instead for private, "out-of-borough", or religious education. Equally, for many deprived children, the local school is every bit as miserable an experience. Bringing in the police to coerce unwilling children into school has been a waste of money. Why would it not be? Parenting is the job of the Home Office no more than it is the job of the education department.

Tony Blair may now have admitted that for the poorest parents, educational choice is not an option, and that therefore schools are part of the problem with social cohesion rather than part of the solution. But his belated grasp of the obvious is not necessarily going to help, especially when his unabated faith in city academies suggests that he still believes that state education's woes derive primarily from within imperfect institutions rather than from wider social difficulties.

Teachers are the most vociferous group in suggesting that making a decisive intervention in the actual upbringing of their pupils is something that schools cannot reasonably be expected to do. But ministers make no apology whatever for ignoring such observations, and continue, without success, to seek solutions to all social ills - from poor diet to sexual incontinence - in the classroom.

The poor, the deprived, the bored and the angry are certainly causing a problem in Britain's most unfortunate schools. But the attempts being made to tackle these problems tend to be unsuccessful in themselves, but also to damage the primary work of schools - educating children - as well. Hence, at least in part, Britain's recent dive in the league table of the 30 leading industrialised nations from 13 to 22 in terms of secondary school performance.

There has been much persuasive evidence suggesting that by the time difficult pupils get to school, it is already too late for them. David Blunkett, when he was Education Secretary, was much taken with the idea that delinquent futures could be predicted from the behaviour of very young children. A programme was therefore developed that would help the poorest of parents to give their children a better start. Unhappily though, early research into Sure Start, the flagship government programme that seeks to offer targeted practical support to deprived under-fives and their parents, has not provided evidence of any decisive success in improving the development, language and behaviour of children in Sure Start areas.

This, alongside the other troubling failures in Labour education policy, is a bitter blow to all those who thrilled to labour's vow, five years ago, that theirs would be the first generation to end child poverty for ever. Acting on evidence that the life chances of children are dictated by their economic and social circumstances from a very young age, Sure Start aims to support parents in mitigating some of the incidental abuses that being brought up in a tough environment imposes. It is a simple idea, and an honourable one. An even simpler idea, however, might just have been to tackle the tough environments head-on.

At the start of Labour's third term, all this is more than dispiriting. Gulled not just by Blair, but by Brown as well, into believing that we could have it all - an endlessly expanding, globalising economy and social justice - we have wasted years trying to fashion an entire population into a template that it simply cannot fit. The emphasis on "skills" and on academic success assumes that we in Britain can all have fancy jobs if we work hard and get an education.

But the reality is that for those of us who can't, for all sorts of reasons, life just gets comparatively harder. For those in menial work nowadays there is neither money nor respect, and it's a part of our ongoing cultural idiocy that we listen to our politicians talking of the "respect agenda" because it's a good way of blaming the afflicted for their exclusion.

What we have to start grasping is that a globalised economy does not match the needs of the local population it ought to serve. It is time to understand that above all economies shape communities, and no one in the Home Office or the education department - nor even a chancellor fiddling at the margins of his booming market economy - is going to be able to change that.