Leading article: A failure that has been concealed for too long

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The Independent Online

The antipathy in some sections of the Labour Party to private education is clearly as strong as ever. The revelation that the Communities Secretary, Ruth Kelly, has sent her son to a private, special needs school has come in for a barrage of criticism this week - almost all of it from Labour colleagues. But is this a resigning matter? The answer is no. Ministers have the same right as anyone else to make decisions in the best interests of their children. But that is not to say that Ms Kelly's choice is not deeply embarrassing for her and the government she serves. The affair, with its whiff of hypocrisy and double-talk, throws the spotlight on the dreadful failure to provide adequate schooling for special needs pupils. And as a former education secretary, Ms Kelly must accept a good deal of responsibility for that failure.

Yet an even bigger embarrassment for the Government arises today. Two years ago, The Independent revealed that the official league tables were giving a false impression of the success of individual schools. Some institutions that have risen up the league tables in recent years have done so by pushing their students into vocational qualifications. In response, ministers decided that, this year, a school's position will be based more closely on its teaching of basic literacy and numeracy.

The results published today are depressing. They expose chronic deficiencies in the education being provided in English schools. The school with the worst exam results, Temple School in Rochester, shows the extent to which these problems have been disguised. Under the old league table measure, 17 per cent of its pupils taking GCSEs at the school scored five decent grades. But only 2 per cent attained a decent grade in English and maths. And the problem is getting worse in some areas. At 312 state schools, at least 80 per cent of pupils failed to get a C in English, maths and three other GCSE subjects. In last year's results, there were only 40 schools performing as poorly as this. We now see that the most essential skills are not being properly taught. This explains the concerns voiced by businesses and universities in recent years that many school leavers are alarmingly incapable, despite the fact that results have been improving on paper.

We should not exaggerate the problem. Standards have not fallen overall. The Schools Minister, Jim Knight will doubtless congratulate schools today for achieving the highest-ever GCSE results for English and maths. This will be technically true. The proportion of students achieving five A-C GCSE passes, including maths and English, has risen one percentage point to 45.3 per cent. But the implication of this is also that more than half of pupils are leaving school without the basics. This makes the Government's routine boasts of rising standards sound complacent.

This affair also exposes the absurdity of Labour's obsession with league tables. It is welcome that the Government has come clean on the raw results. But it is still attempting to spin them. It has designed a new table to show "contextual value added" by a school. This will take into account factors such as social backgrounds and pupils' results at primary schools. Context does matter: a school in a deprived area will face greater problems than one in an affluent region. But "value added" is surely irrelevant as an educational concept if pupils cannot read, write and add up properly.

There is a standard that all children should meet by the time they leave education. Far too many are not achieving that. Yet the Government is still trying to explain away the problem, rather than face up to it. That is an educational failure that should exercise politicians on all sides of the house.