MPs take grassroots message to Whitehall

A year 11 pupil this week gave MPs a sharp reminder of the problems facing schools as they launched a year-long series of inquiries into secondary education.

Sheryar Naizi, of Sheldon Heath community school, Birmingham, said: "It is improving slowly but it needs to go faster. We do not get the same results here as in other schools."

Despite protestations from deputy head Ruth Williamson that resources had improved, Sheryar told Barry Sheerman, chair of the Commons education select committee, that friends at other schools in the city enjoyed better facilities. School books had improved little since he was in Year 7, he added.

Staff at the school, one of the two secondaries in Education Secretary Estelle Morris's constituency, were also not shy of voicing worries.

MPs heard how the admissions system makes life harder for schools in deprived areas. Despite improving results and rising popularity, Sheldon Heath has familiar inner-city problems. Half of pupils are eligible for free meals and until recently the school struggled to fill its places. That meant taking children excluded from other schools.

"Pupils who join us late are often the ones who leave without any GCSEs. They bring our overall average down," said Ms Williamson. That in turn makes it difficult to recruit pupils.

The committee is to spend five days in the city's schools, making it a busy week for Birmingham. Shadow education secretary Damian Green visited the city on Monday. MPs decided to see life at the chalkface after criticism from Michael Bichard, former permanent secretary at the then Department for Education and Employment, who said that they had not "got their hands dirty".

MPs may yet decide to issue a separate report on the city's education but the main focus of their visit, and next month's trip to New Zealand, is to inform four inquiries into secondary education.

They want to find out how government policies are affecting schools and will look at diversity, underachievement and staffing.

Admissions will be the final issue studied by the committee this year. Mr Sheerman admits this will be "tricky" - especially as the report is likely to cover the part faith schools play in the system.

MPs were impressed by Al-Furquan, the first Islamic state primary. The support it received from the wider community, with 10 per cent of applications coming from non-Muslims, came as a surprise.

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