Strawberries for the cream

30th October 1998 at 00:00
I had a rare opportunity recently to observe two contrasting educational institutions struggling to adapt to new, uncomfortable circumstances. My journey began at a junior school serving a deprived housing estate. It concluded in Cambridge, where a college choir sang.

As I drove past boarded-up council houses, I spotted the hunched school building through the surrounding steel fence. The playground was empty, apparently sealed off from the world.

I bumped my car on to the pavement and ducked past a group of youths. Bemused, I completed a lap round the enclosure before discovering a barred gate at the front. Inside, the lobby was decorated with paintings and pottery. I examined a montage of photographs of the head and staff.

The head told me 60 per cent of the children have special educational needs. The Office for Standards in Education judges you against national figures, with no allowance for intake, so the infant school, the junior school and the secondary school are all in special measures.

Numbers in the area have fallen, so the budget has been cut by half over the last four years. Experienced staff are not replaced. At one time the head had to manage without a deputy, and she does the laundry herself because finances are so tight. OFSTED's acid comment about "meagre resources" implies the teachers are to blame.

The head showed me round, careful not to disturb classrooms in the last hour of the week. It seemed as if the children were nurtured in the depths of the ocean, their growth hindered by intolerable pressure and lack of sunshine. Undaunted. the staff have worked to increase attendance and improve test results.

AT TEATIME in the Master's garden, college servants pressed us to accept salmon sandwiches or strawberries and cream. My tutor, now in his eighties,allowed himself a wry reflection on the generous pensions given to the heads of large comprehensives.

The evening sun caressed the begonias, geraniums and fuchsia in the crowded beds. Later, in the college chapel, dressed for dinner, the silver-haired reunion throng glistened in the candlelight.

The choir, its young faces full of promise and hope, processed down the aisle to lead the commemoration of benefactors.

Their cadences cascaded around us as we prayed that Almighty God, who has been good thus far, shall not desert us. My soul soared from the depths of the ocean, carried high by the voices confirming my membership of this noble body of distinguished men. Sipping wine before dinner, we told our stories, 30 years summarised in a handful of words. Corporate lawyers, chartered accountants, surgeons, professors and clergymen - but no teachers. They teased me: "Are you a Government hit man?" Over dinner, I described my adventure. "Imagine, 33 kids all day, 60 per cent of them with special needs..." I visualised the children, waifs from Dickens caught up in a literacy drive.

My neighbour was an economics professor who advises the Government on funding formulae. "Nobody understands it, of course... LMS stops local authorities helping schools like that."

The Master is in the United States fundraising, so another Fellow rose to address us. The college's excellent student:teacher ratio is threatened.Higher education, especially Oxbridge, is seriously under-funded. Brilliant students may be denied education for want of a bursary or scholarship. "But do we deserve the money?" he asked. "I believe we do. Our students top the tripos lists! The men's and women's boats have won their oars! They are your worthy successors.' As the claret passes, I am charmed by the songs and the stained glass. The steel stockade on the estate lingers in my mind, an uncomfortable contrast with the decanters and silver plate.

But my afternoon and evening defy connection. The college and the junior school are unaware of each other's existence. Few choristers attend state schools. The rich and successful appeal for funds; the poor grumble unheard.

The Cambridge #233;lite believes it deserves the money. For its members, inequality is an inescapable fact of nature. But their self-regarding acceptance of injustice ensures that the extremes of wealth and poverty are reproduced in perpetuity.

Is it right that we worship success and condemn the hopeless? Yet this is the education system we have made. Children who achieve results are feted as Hollywood stars. Top sets, small classes, prizes, certificates and awards shower upon them all their days.

We treat our choristers as if an infinite supply of carrots were needed to sustain their motivation. OFSTED praises the schools where this magic happens.

Meanwhile, behind the wire, teachers struggle with large classes of under-nourished, underweight children whose prospects are blighted from birth.

Thanks to OFSTED, there are no carrots and many sticks for those who work with the boys and girls whose results are the ballast of the league tables.Their failures will cling to you like ivy. You will be monitored until you despair. Our drive for standards is creating two nations, the worthy and the unworthy, the A-Cs and the rest. Our definition of success has become part of the problem.

Bernard Barker is principal of Rowley Fields Community College, Leicester

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