Why Alice will go private

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The Independent Online
Dear Headteacher

First, may I thank you for meeting Alice's mother and me and giving us the benefit of your opinion about Alice.

Alice's mother is very worried about her schooling and that is why we both came to see you. It's hard for me, as the child's grandmother, to know what to make of the situation, quite frankly. You told us that Alice is a bright little girl and that it is only a matter of time before she 'catches on' to reading and writing after wasting a whole year running around the classroom.

Well, subsequently I spent 10 days with her. I found that she is a very clever child indeed, far in advance of her age (rising six) in terms of speech and general non- academic attainments, and not lacking in powers of concentration and application. So why can she not read and write properly, or, for practical purposes, at all?

You seemed so confident in your staff and the methods of the school, and impressed me as such a dedicated and energetic head, that until you actually showed us some pupils' work, I was almost convinced we should leave her there. But the discrepancy between the work at your school, and what we had seen earlier at two private schools in the area, made me wonder if you are aware of what can and should be achieved.

You told us with pride that eight of your top infant pupils (aged seven) had passed their national curriculum tests at level 4 ('outstanding'), but when you showed us their work I was quite bewildered by the apparent difference in the standard of judgement of the test-markers. The work you showed us of the '4s' would not rate even a '2' in the private schools we had visited.

There, children a whole year younger than Alice are able to read, many fluently, and write, in their own words, in clear print, an abstract of 'The Three Little Pigs' and other stories. But nothing is displayed on walls until it is correct. Nobody is muddling the children's heads with joined-up writing until they know letter- sounds and can form them properly. Nobody tells them that their own way of writing and spelling is acceptable.

I am not one to subscribe to conspiracy theories, but I cannot avoid asking myself whether an entirely different standard of judgement is being used in state primaries catering largely for working-class children, than for others.

Of course I'm aware of your difficulties, not least the large classes. This is the reason generally given for the difference in attainment between even non-selective private schools, and state schools. I think it an absolute outrage that our present administration does not provide the necessary funds to ensure that state-school class numbers are reduced, if that is all that is making this quite extraordinary difference. Because what it means is a perpetuation of our two-tier society, a cheating of working-class children of their chance to succeed in and through education.

I have been brooding ever since that day I met you, on whether this might, just possibly, be deliberate government policy. Would it suit the Conservatives to have an entire generation of young people (as distinct from a middle- and upper-class elite) growing up in this country with an equal start? Children who could all express themselves, who could all think and ask questions, who all had truly equal access to our cultural heritage and to the great luxuries, as they have become, of real, not flawed and partial, literacy and numeracy?

But apart from class size, I have to tell you that I consider that the methods by which Alice is being taught the three Rs are flawed. And, whatever changes last week's report on the national curriculum involve, the three Rs are the most important thing. After working with Alice, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that her teacher is not teaching her properly. She is not demanding enough of her, she is not giving her enough individual attention, but aside from that, her methodology is wrong. It is not just that Alice cannot read or write. She is learning wrong things, and she is not learning right things. Fifteen minutes a day with a lined notebook and a basic writing system proved it. I easily acquainted her with the difference between capitals and lower-case letters and I taught her the names of the letters. All this came as news to her.

Alice will, by osmosis, learn to read and write, eventually. She is too clever not to. But her handwriting will be awful and her reading will be a struggle and she won't be able to spell, all of which will put her at a disadvantage among better-educated girls. She will just be miles behind where she should be for her innate abilities, and the confusion she now feels about her lessons, her resistance to accepting help at home, may affect her eagerness to learn, which ought to last her a lifetime.

I have urged her mother in the strongest terms to take her away from your school and send her to a private day school. It is daunting to think of paying nearly (and, later, considerably more than) pounds 1,000 per term to get a proper education for her when the taxpayer is paying for her to have what should be that, free. And politically I disapprove of creaming-off. But we can't leave her where she is, because what is going on at your school just isn't good enough. If the test results say your pupils are doing as well as they could, they are lying to you, lulling you into a false sense of adequacy. They are lying to the parents, too, and indirectly, to the children.

I know this letter will offend you and I'm sorry, but if you believe what you told us with such elan, someone must burst the bubble by telling you the truth.

Yours sincerely,

(Photograph omitted)

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