Deborah Orr: No excuses – only better schooling

Saturday 21 February 2009 01:00 GMT

Another of Labour’s supposed successes has been stripped of its baubles, with yesterday’s damning investigation into the state of Britain’s primary schools, describing them as being in “severely utilitarian and philistine times”. I suppose one should be glad that the charade has finally been completely exposed. But I just feel so angry that what has been clear to me for years – through a simple “investigation” that involved nothing more or less than watching my own children, and many of their friends, flounder in a system that taught them only that learning was unutterably tedious – has remained unacknowledged by the Government for so long.

The Government has been told a million times that “teaching to the test” was destructive, because it blighted the schooldays of children in order that they could jump through hoops to make their schools look good on paper. But minister after minister kept on retorting that the schools did look good on paper and so the cycle of denial continued. It was not until last year that the Government’s delusions about primary education began to crack, and it admitted what many parents knew already: that many of our children are not being properly taught to read and write. Until then, Labour’s honest, stupid, belief was that primary schools were fine.

Educational problems, they genuinely believed, suddenly and inexplicably appeared at secondary school. Their current prescription? Keep all children, even the least enthusiastic, at school until they are 18. And what? Hope they die of boredom before they blossom into Neets? The report suggests that children enjoy school more if teachers “blend literacy and numeracy into the wider teaching of other subjects”. Leaving aside the sheer utilitarian philistinism of those words – “literacy” and “numeracy” – that statement gets to the heart of the problem.

I can’t speak for every school or every child as this report, the most comprehensive for 40 years, does. But the level at which such blending does not happen is, in my observation, utterly basic and totally staggering.

You’d think, for example, that children might be taught about handwriting through drawing. Or at least that drawing might be seen as a fun way of getting young children to hold a pencil and form a letter properly. But my sons gained the very strong impression early on that it didn’t really matter how they held a pencil, or how they formed a letter. Trying to teach them the right way of drawing or writing at home became a nightmare, because it contradicted the stuff they were being told at school.

You’d think, as well, that the introduction of writing into the things that the children did enjoy would be seized on. Yet no opportunity to hand the children a photocopied sheet of computer-generated and non-cursive lettering is ever missed. The idea of asking children to take down the lyrics of a song themselves, or make their own list of spelling words, seems lost in the mists of time. Children seem never to be asked to pick up a pencil as a means to another end, and as a way of getting them to practise their writing skills. They appear to pick up a pencil only for “literacy”.

The report goes much more deeply into all of this, explaining how so many of the other subjects are sacrificed in favour of literacy and numeracy that don’t even work that well. But the biggest blight in our primary schools is lack of ambition for children.

They seem to be taught that learning is hard and that the smallest effort is to be applauded. I want my children to understand that writing is a mechanical process that with practice can be done with barely any thought at all, except for thought about the ideas you are trying to express. What they seem to understand from school is that writing is jolly difficult and should be resorted to only when there is no alternative.

I’m foolish and reckless enough to believe that, as a person with the privilege of a public space in which to make my observations known, it is important that I educate my children in the public sector, like 93 per cent of the population do. Anyway, as a product of a “bog-standard’ state education myself, though in Scotland, I know it does not fail all children. But I’ve learned a lot more from this commitment than my children have.

So, fearful at his ruined confidence, and non-existent skills, and lucky enough to have the option, financially, I moved one of my boys into the private sector last Easter to spend his last year of primary education at a school that didn’t patronise him, and wave away his difficulties. It expected him instead to roll up his sleeves and get down to the business of catching up. He, and his chances, have been transformed, more thoroughly than I could have imagined.

Yes, the classes are smaller. Yes, the teaching is exceptional. But the crucial difference is that one school offered him excuses, while the other wouldn’t dream of accepting any that he offered. Likewise, no one should dream of accepting the Government’s excuses, or those of its apologists, for one moment longer.

The curse of the rom-com that never was

I suppose that if you appear in both Bride Wars and Rachel Getting Married in quick succession, then you are going to leave some people confused. Anne Hathaway, in Rachel Getting Married, certainly has. My friend Susannah was touched that her boyfriend stifled his hatred of romantic comedies in order to take her to the latter on Valentine’s Day, and not at all suspicious when he insisted that he had no idea that it was actually a harrowing drama about a recovering addict. But now it is being said that Hathaway may be denied her Oscar for Rachel Getting Married because Bride Wars was such a lame romantic comedy. How can this be? Maybe the Oscar judges all went to the wrong movie too.

Veil of silence is slowly lifting

The man who is the main suspect in the fatal stabbing of my 18-year-old neighbour, Frederick Moody, last year is still at large. It is not of much comfort that he is rumoured to be living abroad. This week, however, three young men were convicted of violent disorder, because they were among the group that all set upon Moody, but did not wield the knife. One, Jeffrey Adu-Sarfo, 19, admitted to the charge. Two, Abdul Wahab, 18, and Shane Isaacs, 21, were found guilty at the Old Bailey after admitting their involvement to friends. Yet still their own motives for the attack are unknown. The mulish silence that so often veils the prosecution of crimes such as this one is as chilling and repulsive as the crimes themselves. In this case it can only be hoped that information is being withheld for fear of damaging a future conviction. These three will redeem themselves somewhat, if they co-operate now.

Commendable conduct from a grieving father

One of the guests at Jade Goody’s wedding tomorrow is to be admired. Jeff Brazier, the father of the reality star’s sons Bobby and Freddie, is separated from their mother, but is by no means an absent father. He is already, to all intents and purposes, their primary carer, since the children live with him while their mother is in hospital.

Brazier will shoulder the baleful task of helping his sons to understand the loss of their mother. Since he is a television personality himself, there is no reason to think that he will be unable to meet the material needs of his boys. Many men might have felt a twinge of unease when it is so widely implicated that without their mother’s wealth, the children would face an uncertain future. Yet Brazier wisely acquiesces in the implied portrayal of himself as a negligible force.

No one begrudges Goody the fulfilment of her dream of a big white wedding. Even the Prime Minister has wished her well and the Justice Minister has stepped in to bend the rules so that Goody’s fiancé, Jack Tweed, can stay with her for all of the celebrations.

However, it would be quite understandable if Brazier had some qualms about the hasty acquisition of a stepfather for his boys. He is impervious to all enquiries. Instead he offered support for his former girlfriend, by visiting her at home as she prepared for her marriage. Not everyone would be so circumspect in the face of huge media attention. His conduct is impeccable.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in