The Sweeney

23rd June 2000 at 01:00
I would love to invite Tony Blair to address the next awards ceremony at Holy Rood. We would promise to extend to him the deference and respect denied him by the Women's Institute. The only possible explanation for this glitch in the silky Labour communications strategy is that the aficionados of the rhubarb crumble had not been adequately briefed by the gurus of spin.

A remedy is at hand. The delinquent damsels could be offered compulsory attendance at a reprogramming camp and required to undertake the new Intermediate 1 marketing unit on adulation and applause.

Edinburgh Council is in the process of reviewing its support for schools. It is rumoured that the new, all-purpose council officers who will offer help and advice to Edinburgh headteachers are, with delicious topicality, to be assigned the title of LEOs (link education officers). This would be a fitting tribute to the new-born prince of publicity, whose very incarnation would appear to have been timed for maximum political effect.

Headteachers need LEOs to keep us right on council orthodoxy. We also salute Leo as a harbinger of hope for a brighter future and as a living witness that equal opportunity will prevail in the new millennium.

A place will be reserved for Leo in The Oratory School, where his big brother has been educated, securely insulated from the proletariat and their obnoxious grannies who frequent the Women's Institute.

Nor will he be denied entry to a traditional university because of his Labour background. He will be free, if he chooses, to apply to Edinburgh University in the footsteps of William Windsor, a friend of his dad.

This citadel of learning, attracting hordes of well-heeled English students, does not appear to do so well by its local lads and lassies. Only 61 per cent of Edinburgh University students come from tate sector schools and colleges. The converse of that statistic is even more startling, that 39 per cent of its student population is from private schools.

This revelation is puzzling for a headteacher whose pupils have benefited handsomely from the involvement of Edinburgh, Heriot-Watt, Napier and Queen Margaret in the Lothian Equal Access Programme for Schools project. The LEAPS initiative is specifically targeted at areas with a traditionally low participation level in higher education.

Elspeth Turner, the LEAPS co-ordinator, turns out faithfully at parents' evenings to preach the gospel of higher education. Her approach is non-partisan and pupil-friendly.

The number of Holy Rood pupils opting for higher education has increased steadily in recent years. This reflects a change in pupils' expectations and aspirations, but is also a direct result of the intervention of Elspeth and her colleagues. They have brought the potential for university education within the consciousness of families who might not otherwise have contemplated the possibility.

Student tutors have worked in the school year after year, offering attractive role-models to pupils. Open days provide the opportunity to sample the ambience of university, while summer schools give a chance to enhance their qualifications.

Lindsay Paterson, professor of education policy, says universities do not deserve a monopoly of blame for unequal treatment. He argues that inequality is embedded in the lives of children by their school experiences and by social circumstances. He cites the charitable status of independent schools as an instrument of institutionalised bias.

Life chances are established at an early age and not all of us are born under the influences of Leo.

Pat Sweeney is headteacher at Holy Rood High School, Edinburgh

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