For the selected few, a bright future: Maire Nic Suibhne says some children are more equal than others as they join secondary education

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The Independent Online
IT IS laudable that Tony Blair wants to make nursery schooling a priority of Labour's education policy, but other crucial aspects of the present school system are in urgent need of attention and would cost no money at all. The one that comes to mind particularly at this time of year is the supposedly non-selective transition from primary to secondary school which leaves less-able children and the children of the less well-informed at a serious, and often permanent, disadvantage.

First, well done all you 11-year-olds who have made it into good secondary schools. To the rest, though, welcome to the scrapheap. But then you never had much chance anyway against those whose parents could afford to have them tutored for exams and groomed for interviews.

A glance through the annual league tables shows the gulf between the good - Beaconsfield High (Grammar), Bucks, where 100 per cent of 15-year-olds got at least five GCSEs last year, and Liverpool Blue Coat Comprehensive with 96 per cent - and the truly appalling - some schools in central London with not even 30 per cent.

If Ofsted, the schools inspectorate, worked in the way the Government claims, these places would be shaken up or shut down, but there are scores of such dumps. Teachers are all too ready to make excuses on grounds of deprivation, bad behaviour, lack of parental interest. But it is often they who are badly behaved and morally illiterate, having long since lost track of what is their job.

Schools exist to serve the needs of children. Many heads seem to think that the role of the children is to promote the school.

Tales of unscrupulous carry-ons are legion, with some secondary school heads encouraging parents to give false addresses when they want to snap up a particular child. There are even cases of downright blackmail. The head of one comprehensive blatantly told parents that if they transferred their eldest child - a high flyer - from a private school to his school, he would take on the second child. They refused, and the second child still languishes near the bottom of the waiting list.

Primary school heads, with rare exceptions, fail to act in the best interests of their pupils when it comes to finding a secondary school. They see their role as limited to ensuring that the national curriculum is delivered, but education is a continuing process and their efforts are rendered pointless if children end up in places that undo years of hard work.

These heads, employed by the local authority, think it is their function to feed their pupils into that borough's comprehensives en masse. No doubt if every child went to the nearest school the system would improve in the long term. But it is not for heads arrogantly to use our children as instruments for social change. We pay them to look after the needs of each individual child, which they are all too obviously failing to do.

The whole sorry process is a racket heavily weighted in favour of the educated, articulate and self-confident parent. Many popular schools interview parents as well as children. One woman I know has been reduced to a wreck by the whole procedure. She was aiming for a church school. 'I could see they didn't believe me,' she said through tears. 'I am a churchgoer, but I was so nervous I know everything I said sounded like lies.' Her very bright child was rejected.

She felt incapable of writing a letter of appeal herself, and the one person in a position to help, the head, said it was not her job. This parent did not know, and was not told, that one of our top grammar schools is a mere 25 minutes by train from where she lives.

Indifference bordering on callousness is widespread. When a girl asked her school for advice on the entrance exam she would sit the next day, she was refused. Like most state school pupils, she had never taken a formal exam in her life and had no clue what to expect. It would have taken no more than half an hour, but the head said she was too busy with the school play.

Even when pupils manage to negotiate their way through the system and perform well in entrance exams, they can come unstuck at the final hurdle - like the boy in my area who was shortlisted for a highly competitive private school only to be turned down on interview. It later transpired that he didn't understand the purpose of the interview or what was expected of him, so he sat there petrified and didn't utter a word.

Despite the Government's much-hyped assisted places scheme, most children from his background do not even get inside the front door of such establishments. Even when they make the grade academically, there is only one assisted place for every three who qualify and their parents have no idea about the options in the first place. And heads are not bothering to explain that they are eligible for schools over a wide area.

Grammar and grant-maintained schools have catchment areas across county borders and church schools recruit from the whole diocese, not just the local parish. Church of England schools take Catholics, though this is not reciprocated. There are places also for musicians and choristers. Yet no one I know has ever been advised to stick at their music even though it can make all the difference when the time comes to move on.

Transferring a child from primary to secondary level is one of the most stressful events for any family and it gets worse every year. If you are the parent of one of the 14,000 babies born this week, my advice to you is get it circumcised, baptised and immersed in all Christian religions. And the minute it reaches for a rattle, snatch it away and shove a musical instrument into its dear little hand. As for you, the sooner you take yourself off to a top head-hunting firm and get some training in interview techniques, the better.

It is all very well for Mr Blair to insist, as he did yesterday, that all children should be given 'a chance to shine', while at the same time pledging Labour to abolish the assisted places schemes at public schools, bring grant-maintained schools back into local control and support local authorities if they want to abolish grammar schools. But so long as good schools are in such short supply, it must be right that children should have an equal chance to benefit from them, not just those whose parents can equip them to pass muster with the heads.

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