Fleeced by selective madness

8th June 2001 at 01:00
Your divisive policies leave the weakest to the wolves, Jenny Owl tells Mr Blair

Dear Tony Did you spot the misprint on the doctored photo in The TES which announced your education Green Paper (February 16)? The two adjacent school entrances read "sheep" and "goats" instead of "sheep" and "votes".

The "sheep" are those children pushed from pillar to post - from struggling primary to difficult secondary - by a system over which their parents, too poor to move to a more affluent area and too alienated by the electoral process to vote - have no control. And the "votes"? Those children who represent the votes you needed to be re-elected yesterday.

The subtext of your Green Paper is simple. Give those who vote what they want and hang the rest. I am happy for all those children who go on to achieve more in one of your promised new specialist schools than they would have done elsewhere.

But should you really be telling the heads of struggling schools, desperately scrabbling for specialist status because not doing so will turn their schools into "sink" schools: "While you continue to support your demoralised staff in their work with your disproportionate number of disadvantaged pupils and pull your hair out trying to recruit more of the highly talented and experienced staff you so desperately need, just do a quick tour of local businesses and drum up pound;100,000 of sponsorship."?

I have taught in schools where the percentage of pupils gaining five A*-CGCSE grades is 9 per cent, and in others where it is 99 per cent, and have worked with colleagues in "bog-standard comprehensives" who daily work miracles - colleagues whom your official spokesman, Alistair Campbell, has written off. And I know that the quickest way for a school to raise its five A*-C GCSE pass rate is to recruit high-attaining pupils in Year 7 who would previously have applied elsewhere. Such is the hidden agenda of the annual open evening of oversubscribed schools.

Professor David Jesson (TES Opinion, February 16) rightly asserts that we cannot afford the waste created by the success of grammar schools, often at the expense of poorer performance among those not selected. But, while trumpeting the benefits of specialist schools, he stunningly fails to acknowledge the parallel beween grammar and specialist schools: both succeed by sucking the academic lifeblood - in the form of higher-attaining, motivated pupils with a high level of parental support (and yes, parental help with GCSE coursework) - from neighbouring schools.

In your dog-eat-dog educational world, undersubscribed schools are left to fight for the scraps. A selective state secondary recently added a Year 7 class to its roll. How do you think this will affect the GCSE results - and the prospects - of the schools that would have picked up these higher-attaining children?

When I lived in a deprived part of London, a new secondary was about to open. A neighbour applied for a place for her child. I asked what she would do if her application failed. Admittedly she was rather tipsy when she answered: "Hold a pillow firmly over his face." Her desperation - and that of others who suddenly saw serious money being spent on a school - was enough to ensure the school was oversubscribed and had a fighting chance of "success", which, in GCSE terms, was heavily dependent on recruiting some middle-class children.

Meanwhile, not long ago, our local beacon secondary turned to me - bog-standard me, in my bog-standard school - to help train our authority's NQTs, because my department was recognised as stronger than its own. The NQTs were appreciative but the beacon school neglected to pass on to my school any of the funds it received for the purpose of spreading good practice - my departmental colleagues' good practice.

But the beacon school in question does not sit idly by. It daily bombards my children's primary school with invitations to sample 101 activities outside school hours in its splendid facilities. It is less effusive with its invitations to our two other local primaries. Might this be because my children's school has an almost exclusively middle-class intake, while the other local primaries are fed by, in Will Hutton's words (TES, February 16), "catchment areas (which condemn their pupils) to low standards, classroom violence, and minimal ambition"?

Hutton concludes that the correct response should be to focus investment in the comprehensives that are in crisis. How about it, Tony?

Jenny Owl is a pseudonym. The writer is a head of department


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