Opportunities and hard knocks

2nd June 2000 at 01:00
"EDUCATION, education, education" is dead; long live "opportunity for all". The latter is New Labour's new catchphrase bequeathed to us by the Laura Spence shenanigans. (Spent half-term on Mars? Bright Geordie comprehensive schoolgirl gets rejected by Oxford, admitted by Harvard and made political football of the week).

But what is the reality behind the slogan? Compare and contrast the stories of Robby Swift and White Hart Lane secondary.

Robby, 16, took his Latin GCSE on a Spanish beach, invigilated by his housemaster from the pound;10,000-a-year Sevenoaks school. He is the top UK under-18 windsurfer, and the exam clashed with the European championships. Happily, he came 19th and has a place in the world championships. "There aren't too many masters who have to put on shades to supervise an exam," remarked Robby, whose father paid the teacher's expenses.

Over to 1,220-pupil White Hart Lae secondary in north London, which has 500 refugees speaking 55 languages. This is the highest number of nationalities at any state school.

"If there is a trouble-spot in the world... sooner or later that community will arrive here," explained head Christine Daubney. White Hart gets no more in real terms for language teaching than when it was half the size a decade ago, and a funding cut is imminent. Meanwhile, refugee pupils throughout England are being abused and beaten up by fellow pupils.

Will White Hart Lane earn Government praise for doing its best to provide opportunity for all, or will it be attacked when too few of its pupils get five GCSEs? Of course poor old Robby has problems too: will he pass his Latin? Perhaps the Government should have stuck with its original catchphrase: there's a long way to go before pupils at Sevenoaks and White Hart Lane get the same chances.

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