MP urges schools to come clean

2nd February 1996 at 00:00
Geraldine Hackett reports on the Labour party's efforts to get back on top of the education agenda, while Soraya Madell finds an improbable Harriet Harman supporter in Tottenham's black MP Bernie Grant.

Bernie Grant has never been one to shun controversy. In 1985, after the death of PC Keith Blakelock at the Broadwater Farm riot, he said that the police "got a bloody good hiding", a remark he has since learned to regret.

In 1993, he caused a stir by suggesting that black Britons seeking to avoid unemployment or racism should be eligible for pay to resettle them in the Caribbean or Africa.

There are some on the Labour left, still smouldering at Harriet Harman's decision to choose a grammar school for her son rather than a local comprehensive, who believe Grant's decision to support her is even more contentious.

But Mr Grant, having put his three sons through the local comprehensive school, has become very angry indeed about the state of inner-London schools.

While pinning the blame on the ravages of 17 years of Tory Government he believes schools, including those in his Tottenham constituency, should come clean about the appalling problems they face.

The answer to raising standards in London's worst schools, he says, is more resources, better teaching and tougher discipline.

Some of his constituents are already trying other routes like Ms Harman rather than choose their local comprehensive. The number of pupils gaining five GCSEs at higher grades is 43 per cent nationally, 27 per cent in Haringey and just 4 per cent at White Hart Lane School where Mr Grant sent his three sons. It is for this reason, he says, that middle-class parents avoid these schools while poorer families try to have their children educated in the Caribbean or pay for extra private lessons.

Teachers, as well as parents, have been telling their local MP what is wrong with the system. One teacher complained of the unsatisfactory state of primary teaching, especially in basic subjects. Young teachers could not control their classes while many had poor spelling and grammar.

Views such as these have convinced Mr Grant that levels of achievement can only be raised if "we put more resources into schools, raise the quality of teaching and teaching methods, and improve discipline. These are the three things we should start with".

That means a return to the basics, concentrating on the three R's and getting children to do sums in their heads rather than use a calculator.

"When kids leave primary schools they should have the basics, but that's not happening," says Mr Grant. "In every subject, the methods are bad. The kids arrive in the secondary sector without the basics and they are taught what they should have been taught in primary schools."

Traditional methods of teaching need traditional teachers. Mr Grant says: "We need to bring in those old-fashioned teachers, maybe some retired teachers, who still have the skills. We need them to re-train current teachers in how to control a class and get the message over."

Mr Grant has tried to repair relations with White Hart Lane School which has been irritated by his public criticism. He has written to the school explaining that he had spoken at the parliamentary party meeting of the severe problems facing many inner-city comprehensives while appealing for unity after the Harman controversy.

Mr Grant wrote: "As is the case in many inner-city schools, my children and thousands of others have been sold short in recent years . . . We have only the Tory Government to blame for the sorry state of comprehensives in London. "

Mr Grant urges schools to come clean about their problems. He told White Hart: "For too long schools have tried to cover up a scandalous situation, often for fear of prejudicing the reputation of their particular school. When so many schools are in the same boat, I see no future in continuing in this way. "

Jacky Tonge, director of education at Haringey Council, says the authority is committed to improving its schools and raising achievement. Haringey is about to set up a school improvement team, using Pounds 150,000 from its own budget and Pounds 120,000 in Grants for Education Support and Training money, to give schools support and advice. The team will consist of a team leader, two former heads and four advisory teachers. They will identify weaknesses and make sure that schools follow action plans.

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