A question of balance;Opinion

19th June 1998 at 01:00
For many, Alexis de Tocqueville's assessment of Manchester in the 19th century still holds true: "Here humanity attains its most complete development and its most brutish." It is a city of stark contrasts; famous for its music and sport, infamous for its drug culture and violent crime. Some of Britain's richest people live in its suburbs and many of its poorest are trapped in its central wastelands, where child malnutrition and premature death are disturbingly prevalent.

So it is hardly surprising that the Office for Standards in Education found high truancy and exclusion rates and low attainment levels when it subjected the city to the first of the new series of local authority inspections.

But how much of the blame can be attributed to poverty? OFSTED says it cannot be used as an excuse for poor provision. Manchester's indignant education officers disagree. Both can advance tenable arguments.

The inspectors were right to highlight the unacceptable tally of surplus school places (12,000, costing pound;2 million) and the large number of children who appear to have "retired" from education long before the official leaving age. OFSTED can argue that its report is balanced between the positive and the negative. Teaching quality, for example, is commended. But some of the compliments seem rather backhanded. The city's education advisers and its renowned music service are, we are told, "often effective".

Manchester's officers are, however, justified in claiming that the existence of grant-maintained schools outside their control has made it much more difficult for the city - as with other LEAs - to reduce excess places. And they will doubtless suspect that political considerations have contributed to their embarrassment.

Can the city's Labour politicians really be absolved from blame? Is it coincidental that OFSTED has shamed Manchester over its 142 excluded pupils barely one month after David Blunkett declared that "school exclusion and truancy are not insoluble"? Probably not.

Nevertheless, if the net result of this controversy is that more serious attention is given to the welfare of excluded children, OFSTED's strategy will be vindicated. No city needs more alienated young people on its streets. Especially not Manchester.

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