Melissa Benn: Goldie and Toby's laugh-in

Stop going round setting up new schools. Support existing ones

Tuesday 16 February 2010 01:00

Not long ago the intervention of a zany Hollywood actress in the debate about our schools would have been extraordinary. Sadly, the news that Goldie Hawn and opposition education spokesman Michael Gove are in talks about Hawn's charity setting up schools in the UK, based on Buddhist ideas about mindfulness, now feels almost inevitable – the latest lurch in an increasingly desperate scramble by politicians to offer a quick fix to our education system.

First we had the razzmatazz of the academy programme – semi-independent state schools, occasionally stamped with the bizarre religious or educational character of their rich backers. Yet results in these hugely expensive, heavily promoted and in many ways unaccountable schools have been mixed at best.

More recently, there has been a flurry of interest in parent-led plans, with the Tories promising to relax red tape around building regulations and school places. We're told that hundreds of parents want to set up schools, but so far most of the publicity has gone to flamboyant writer Toby Young, who is trying to open a new school in west London, having rejected a local comprehensive which had been highly praised by Ofsted.

Young and Hawn's unproven initiatives are cleverly marketed as ways to improve the life chances of poorer children. But will they? Existing budgets will be used to fund these glitzy new establishments, reducing the resources available to thousands of others. The evidence from Sweden is clear: new schools lead to greater social segregation, and higher standards only in schools where better-off pupils attend.

There is an alternative for both politicians and parents. As David Woods, the government's chief adviser on London schools, has said, many middle-class parents are writing off excellent comprehensives on their doorstep because of their own "innate and uninformed" prejudices.

I know this from personal experience. A few years ago, in the area where I live in north-west London, many families were reluctant to use the local comprehensive – although predictably only the middle classes seemed to find ways to ship out of the borough or the state system altogether. It became a vicious circle. Although few would say it, parents were nervous not of the school's leadership but of its pupils.

Eventually, a group of families took that all-important leap of faith; waves of siblings and friends followed. Rather than set up a rival school, dozens of parents have worked enormously hard to support the school through imaginative extra-curricular programmes. Results have gone up steadily; the school is now oversubscribed and has a robust confidence which directly benefits children from less advantaged backgrounds.

Sadly, most of the political class are now so busy chasing the next big idea or famous name that they have failed to grasp a very simple fact. Most parents want a good local school with a universal guarantee of high standards and a fair admissions system rather than the creation of ever more diverse layers within the state system that will always benefit knowing or powerful parents. They are are crying out for politicians to take control of education – not cede it to myriad wacky untested schemes and heavy-breathing Hollywood stars.

Melissa Benn's latest novel, One Of Us, is published by Vintage

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