New orthodoxies for inner cities;Opinion

29th January 1999 at 00:00
Tony Blair 'understands' why some parents flee to selective suburbia. So does Trevor Phillips, but not Mary Marsh (below)

CHEERS, Tony. Well set-out analysis, but still a way to go on the solution. The words "public-private partnership" fall from ministers' lips like autumn leaves in every area of public service, including the sacred NHS. Yet when it comes to education the Government tiptoes round the approach that it adopts to failing public services in every other case. The lessons of the increasing number of alternatives to neighbourhood schools, chosen by many inner-city parents, have to be part of the answer to the question posed by the PM.

Tony Blair's speech at Moulsham High School last week with its encouragement for independent schools dismayed teachers. His off-the-cuff remarks stung: "When I look at some of the inner-city schools, it is no wonder parents feel they have to move their children out, and some feel they have to make other arrangements for their children."

These clearly include the private option, as well as middle-class flight to selective suburbia. Coupled with a zero-tolerance approach to poor teaching it would not be surprising if some inner-city school staff- rooms felt they'd just had notice of a visit from the Spanish Inquisition, with the brushwood being gathered for their immolation.

Of course, the flight from inner-city schools has been going on for decades. I was a rather extreme version. As for most other Caribbean families, education was and is paramount in my clan; my own parents dispatched me to the (state) schools my older brothers had attended in Guyana. There was a price - I have spent less than six years living in my parents' home; but I think it was worthwhile.

I wish I could offer some balm to inner-city staffrooms. But let's be honest. It's understandable that inner-city parents would look for alternatives. The upward drift of achievement levels nationally masks crashing failure in many schools in cities like London and Birmingham. Bright inner-city children's chances of academic success drop by the year. The London secondary I attended for a couple of years only got one in seven pupils through five GCSEs last year; two students passed A-levels. Exclusions are up, expectations down.

As ever, it is the poor and ethnic-minority families who are doing worst. It is usual in response to criticism of inner-city schools to point to the raw material with which teachers are presented - children with poor home backgrounds, low family commitment to education, large numbers of pupils with little or no English. However, this is tantamount to saying that any school with a large proportion of children from minorities has an unacceptable burden.

Like the PM, and thousands of inner-city parents, I made "other arrangements". My two daughters won places to a top-ten independent girls' school. It is a city school with, up to a third of the children from ethnic minorities. It is selective, but not all its parents are wealthy. Multiculturalism works to its advantage; it is exceptionally successful socially as well as academically. These schools may have much to offer the state system in the way they manage the inevitable problems of the city mix.

But there is a third alternative. In many of our large cities, schools which are based on different sorts of communities are emerging. Traditional inner-city communities , based around an estate or a district have been destroyed by poverty and the planners. But new communities are emerging. Fee-paying Muslim, Jewish and black denominational schools are queuing up for state recognition; many show good results. All claim strong parental support. Could these be the new lines on which inner-city excellence can be built? And are we as a society robust enough to acknowledge that different kinds of communities may demand different kinds of schooling?

We may, in the end have no choice; if they want to save a generation of inner-city children, Mr Blair and Mr Blunkett will have to grasp the nettle.

Trevor Phillips is a broadcaster and journalist Libby Purves, Last Word, page 44

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