Slim chance of win in funding lottery

OPPORTUNITY for all is the current education buzz phrase, with Tony Blair joining the debate. But why is it that only the potential university applicants are being given public attention? What about the pupils who aren't even getting as far as applying to university?

Shouldn't ministers be making speeches about all the young people who are "lost" because they don't attend school or don't achieve? Shouldn't they highlight the lives of those children who leave school even before 16 - who opt out because they don't see the curriculum as relevant?

Many of these youngsters spend the day hanging around with friends, working illegally - possibly in a family business, or simply sitting at home in front of the television. All of them are a far greater loss to the country than that of one 18-year-old, Laura Spence, who has decided to pursue higher education abroad. The children who are lost are our country's future - a part of the communities in which we all live and work.

The 52 per cent of 16-year-olds who don't pass five GCSEs at A*-C, the 6 per cent who get no GCSEs at all, the 10,400 children permanently excluded, the unknown, far greater number who are temporarily excluded: all these are being told that the education system is not for them. No wonder they become part of the 160,000 16 to 18-year-olds not in education, training or employment.

Many government initiatives pick up the "lost children", usually based on bids and zones. Superb projects have been set up as a result, for example, of education action zones and Excellence in Cities and are making a big difference to the lives of young people.

But why should a school have to spend time and money bidding - shouldn't the onus be on the education authority or the Government to prove that extra facilities and resources are not needed? Some primary schools have as little as pound;1,500 per pupil, and secondary schools pound;2,000 per pupil. Even excluding London boroughs (where funding tends to reflect higher spending needs) some schools get as much as 25 per cent more funding than others - not an equal funding system by any reckoning.

Being forced to bid for extra funds takes heads away from managing a school.

And what happens when funding streams change and projects can no longer be funded. What will happen to the innovaive work done by the voluntary sector once the five-year life of the action zones is over? What will happen to the children who are half-way through a programme? Such schemes are helping to sustain and nurture those who would otherwise be lost to the sustem. Yet they can only be funded through the short-term lottery of bids.

Relying on targets alone - to increase university entrance, improve GCSEs and national tests, and reduce truancy and exclusions - will not help. If you try growing tomato plants and set them targets for growth by the end of next month, they will not grow any faster just because of the targets have been set.

However, if you support them by giving them a good, safe environment, nurture them well, encourage and restrain them when necessary, then they will grow and produce fruit - maybe far more fruit than you ever thought possible.

The vast majority of pupils who won't be applying to Oxbridge, who see the money and attention going to those who will make a difference to league tables, or the "gifted and talented", are being given a clear message that education doesn't value them as highly.

Among these will be the children who turn up at school faithfully, despite difficult home circumstances, the children who can't stay after school for sports or music because they're caring for younger or older relatives, the children who have been moved into mainstream schools from special schools, and for whom no allowance will be made in league tables. They need to be given the message that education is for all, not just those aiming for university.

We need the "active community", described by the Prime Minister, in his speech to the Women's Institute this week. That means valuing and investing in every child's future, particularly of those children who live in deprived areas.

So, Messrs Blair, Blunkett and Brown, improve opportunities for all, but don't do it through area-based initiatives and target-setting in isolation. Do it by increasing core funding to education so that schools can be well staffed, smartly decorated, clean places with plenty of resources.Give all children an equal chance. Stop the lottery.

Carol Toms is policy officer for Rathbone CI, a charity supporting young people with special needs. The views expressed are personal.

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