Johann Hari: So what about the children of the poor?

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The Independent Online

The real education bill, the one that affects the school at the bottom of your road, is about to sink into a swirling sea of gossip and trivia - how has this affected Blair? is Cameron up or down? But before this Westminster Village blather wins out, it's worth picking through the debate that ended last night, because its failures will shape Britain's failures in the decades ahead.

The biggest problem with Britain's schools has only been hinted at in dark whispers over the past six months, by government and rebel alike. It is the extreme social polarisation of Britain's playgrounds. The children of the rich and the middle classes are educated in broadly successful schools that select by mortgage price. The children of the poor, by contrast, are ring-fenced away in warehouse schools, where they mostly falter and fail. Because there is little academic selection, this system is called "comprehensive", and all sides accept this label as if it was true.

But this is a delusion. It can only be sustained because we have defined comprehensives down, accepting as a comp any school which doesn't overtly select by academic ability.

Real comprehensive schools - as envisaged by their pioneers and backed by the evidence - have a genuine mixture of pupils, both rich and poor. This is precisely the opposite of the system that prevails throughout most of Britain today. If you want to know why this is a disaster, listen to Margaret Maden, the former head of the Centre for Successful Schools at Keele: "If you have something around 20 to 25 per cent in a class or in a school who are well motivated and come from homes where it's instilled in them from very early on that education and learning matter, that makes progress with less well-motivated children much easier."

So motivated middle-class children - and their pushy parents - can act like yeast scattered through a school, helping everyone rise. "But when you get a concentration of children - you could call them disturbed or disadvantaged - there is a critical mass of children who will wreck any school. I will defy any teacher to teach when you have more than 30 per cent of kids like that in a school," she continues.

If too much poverty and disadvantage are concentrated in one classroom - undiluted by other kids - it will burn through even the best teacher's talents.

If this sounds like an arid, abstract debate, let's talk about two real places - Kent and Grampian. Kent has the most socially polarised schools of all, the rich skimmed off by grammar schools and private schools. Grampian, by contrast, has real comps, with rich and poor children schooled side-by-side. On every indicator, Grampian is strides ahead.

Real comprehensive educationwould be almost unimaginably radical. It would require abandoning the idea of parental choice and bussing kids to far-off schools to ensure a genuine social mix, determined by central planners.

It's hard to imagine this being compatible with the expectations of a consumer society, but the research shows it would produce by far the best results.

The rebels' Alternative White Paper avoided any such suggestion, instead allowing itself to be trapped as a defender of the deeply uncomprehensive "comprehensive" status quo.

The actual education Bill has been such a hodge-podge that it is hard to see what long-term effect it will have on our socially stratified schooling. Some of its clauses, such as the abolition of disgraceful parental interviews, won by the rebels, will make it harder for schools to cream off rich kids. But its core idea- the expansion of parental choice - will intensify the instinct of middle class parents to herd together, fighting to get their children into socially cleansed success-stories.

I suspect real comprehensives, as opposed to the parodic husk of them we have today, will disappear even further on to the horizon, as Westminster contents itself with tedious Blair-Brown-Cameron babble.

Richard and Judy - heroes for the left

Has anybody else relished the bewildered, haughty response of literary London to the success of Richard and Judy's Book Club? OK, so I have a personal investment here - it feels like a vindication of the thousands of hours I spent skiving off school, watching This Morning.

But it is also vindication for a certain kind of politics. R&J are egalitarianism personified: whether chatting to Chantelle or Clinton, they have the same unimpressed-but-warm manner, informed by their instinctive belief that nobody is better than them and nobody is worse.

R&J have shown that millions of ordinary people have a thirst to read literary fiction and drink good wine - without ever implying you are worth less if you would rather get hammered on Thunderbird.

A few weeks ago, Judy demolished Boris Johnson for sneering at the expansion of higher education, saying it's easy for him to say because Etonians were always going to go to university - what about working-class kids? Savour Richard and Judy - it's popular, levelling-up left-wingery in action.

* One group of Afghan men have discovered a non-violent way to drive out occupying troops, a radical blood-free alternative to the throat-slashing and head-cutting of Zarquawi. It's easy: try to shag the marines. Troops stationed around the Bagram base have reportedly refused to serve and "fled in horror" after a tribe of gay Afghans kept hitting on them.

"It was hell," Corporal Paul Richard said. "Every village we went into we got a group of men stroking our hair and cheeks and making kissing noises." He later commented, "Lots of the guys turned tail and fled. It was hideous."

So, opponents of the occupation - enough with your conversions to jihadism. Convert to homosexuality and you'll be free, free, free.

j.hari@independent.co.uk

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