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Start to raise standards from the bottom up

I was intrigued by Marks amp; Spencer's most recent advertising push:

"Exclusively for everyone". This could be the slogan of our education system. If Marks amp; Spencer can do it, why not the schools?

As the headline over a recent article by schools minister David Miliband proclaimed: "Every schoolchild is special." He has rightly been emphasising the fact that children need individual attention if they are to achieve, and he also asserts that equity and excellence are not incompatible.

But what he does not admit is that the tensions between social competitiveness and fairness are hard to resolve. While I think we'd all be satisfied with a Marks amp; Sparks level of education across the board, we also know that there will always be people who opt out, preferring to spend their money on designer wear - buying themselves an extra-special status and identity.

Where education is concerned, extraordinary levels of selfishness have become the norm. Shockingly, some Church of England primary schools are reportedly reluctant to follow government guidelines and prioritise the admission of children who are in care - for fear of endangering their league-table position. What kind of "standards" are at risk here? Standards of morality and common decency, it would seem. And don't church schools have some kind of special duty towards the poor and oppressed?

It is going to be hard to row back on the spirit of competitiveness which has driven education improvement for the past 20 years. But this is what needs to happen. Policies have to change and adapt as reality shifts.

Focusing on the achievement of individual schools is of course important - but after six years of pressure and support, the Government is coming up against the law of diminishing returns.

There is still much to be proud of. Standards of achievement - as measured by Ofsted, exam results, and international league tables - are higher than ever. Let's stop sweating over the "gifted and talented". What is really crucial now is what we knew in the first place. In our polarised and unfair society, a sizeable minority of young people cannot achieve through our current school system. Bullying schools over their league-table performance is not going to help most of these children.

For a start, how much do we know about those who leave school with no qualifications? Many will have undiagnosed special needs, some will be in care, some will be mentally ill. Some will not speak English fluently; they may be refugees or asylum-seekers; still others will have been sucked into their local street culture from an early age. Their parents may have serious problems: alcoholism, drug addiction, depression, criminal records, poverty or unemployment. The truancy figures have not improved. How many of the "underachievers" have given up on school?

Currently, such needy children are disproportionately clustered in certain schools which, unsurprisingly, struggle to raise their levels of achievement. Teachers in such secondary schools often go to extraordinary lengths to try to get children through their exams, but schools simply cannot make up for society's neglect.

In order to help these children effectively, we need genuinely to make them our priority. Let's start with a data collection exercise which focuses on, say, the bottom 10 per cent and finds out who they are and why they have gained so little from their 11 years of schooling. Then we might get some idea of what to do next.

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