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Educational disadvantage begins in cradle

I'm not going to write about student debt, up-front fees or two-tier university systems this week because I'm sick of the whole thing. The frustration of being a specialist writer is that when an education story becomes big news and gets into the mainstream, you have to read and listen to high-profile columnists and TV pundits spouting the most obvious platitudes as if they were fresh-minted.

So over the past year we had to listen to them wittering on first about how their children's creativity was being destroyed by too much soulless testing, then how their children's hopes were being destroyed by discrepancies in A- level marking, and now how their children's futures will be destroyed by university fees.

Where were they when The TES warned in the 1990s that too much pressure would encourage teachers to "teach to the tests" with dire effects on music, art and sport? Or that the enormous growth in exams risked stretching the exam boards to breaking point? I suppose you can't blame them for not having been around in the 1980s when Sir Keith Joseph was slashing public spending on the universities - the root of the current fees crisis - but you catch my drift.

What most columnists - with the noble exception of Nick Cohen in the Observer - prefer to ignore is that educational inequalities start in the cradle. There is a linguistic gap between the most and least privileged toddlers by the age of 20 months. Sure, children may be born with greater or lesser degrees of intelligence, but the environment within which they are raised, the stimulation they receive from their parents, and the resources the family can call on, are what make the difference. School is crucial - otherwise why would ambitious families compete with such ferocity for the limited number of places in certain elite institutions? But much of a school's success depends on the raw material it has to work with.

If we really want more young people to succeed at schools, two things need to happen. First, the empty cliche that young people in poverty-stricken areas are "disadvantaged" needs to be taken seriously. Both primary and secondary schools in these districts need a new mission: to make up for that disadvantage. To do so, they need more money than others, more highly-paid teachers, and more staff such as sports coaches, counsellors and nurses. They need to be open for longer hours and have better facilities than other schools - not worse.

The second is already happening. Gordon Brown's Sure Start programme, which supports parents who are struggling to bring up their babies and small children on inadequate incomes and in difficult surroundings, looks like it is working. This is one of the Government's most far-sighted and admirable policies. But as it is extended, the spending must be kept up, so that the scheme does not become diluted as others have in the past.

But this is long-term. The fees row is here and now. As it happens, I'm in favour of well-heeled students and their parents contributing to their higher education, especially since many have just emerged from private schools where the fees were much higher. That hypothetical debt of pound;21,000 would only be faced by a student from a well-off family who refused to pay any of his or her costs. What really matters is what the poor have to pay.

Last month I exhorted Charles Clarke to bring back maintenance grants - and he has. So I suppose I should stop whingeing.

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