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We have words for it

Logically enough, the pygmies of equatorial Africa have no words for snow and ice. The Scots most certainly do, of course, but as our News Focus (page 9) makes clear, the concept of "failing schools" is completely alien to them. In England and Wales, on the other hand, we speak of little else.

Gillian Shephard returned to the once taboo subject yet again last week when she officially unveiled the latest batch of measures designed to help schools with serious weaknesses (readers of The TES were, of course, given an exclusive preview of her proposals on May 19). The money involved - about Pounds 100 million - is substantial, but predictably enough it is not new cash, having been filched from other projects. Furthermore, as it is being paid in the form of Grants for Education Support and Training, local authorities will have to meet 40 per cent of the cost.

As a result, less cash will be available for such initiatives as the mentoring programme for new heads - the value of which has hardly yet been established. It is worrying too that schools' subject co-ordinators may in future find it harder to obtain vital national curriculum training. As Alan Parker of the Association of Metropolitan Authorities has pointed out, there is also a regrettable "lumpiness" in the planned cash-injection programme. Is it really wise to pour money into schools in the year of an inspection and leave them relatively under-resourced in the other three years when school improvement is recognised to be a continuous process?

Those reservations apart, Mrs Shephard's initiative has much to commend it. Ministers appear to be unusually willing to involve all interested parties in the school resuscitation process. The Teacher Training Agency, academics and local education authorities have been asked to work with the Department for Education and the inspectorate as a paramedic team. Teacher, parent and governor associations are also being invited to discuss their ideas on school improvement with Ministers and officials.

It is easy to be cynical about such invitations but Mrs Shephard does seem to recognise that solutions cannot simply be imposed by Westminster. Local authorities certainly feel that Mrs Shephard has involved them and are eager to expand their "critical friend of schools" role. After years of snubs from central government they must also be pleased to be given a substantial say in how and when money is to be disbursed.

Mrs Shephard's reminder (which went largely unreported) that, despite all the talk of failure, schools throughout the country are "getting it right" also sets the right tone, as does her plan to assemble information on what makes some schools so effective and disseminate it as widely as possible. But perhaps there should be a simultaneous exercise to establish the common characteristics of the schools that the Office for Standards in Education has identified as failing. Weak heads, poor teaching and inadequate discipline are referred to time and again in the inspectors' reports on the 50 schools deemed to be failing, but there is another trait that has received much less attention from politicians. According to Professor David Reynolds of Newcastle University, 46 of the 50 serve disadvantaged neighbourhoods. This is particularly true in the secondary sector where all but one of the failing schools are in urban areas - especially London - and most have large numbers of Asian and black pupils.

As Donald Hirsch's analysis of secondary admission policies (page 7) shows, the intake of the capital's schools has become more polarised since the abolition of the Inner London Education Authority, which used to require its comprehensives to admit children from three ability bands. Now there is an increasing tendency for children from advantaged families to get into the most highly-regarded schools, largely because mobile, middle-class parents are often prepared - and able - to move into their catchment areas.

Mr Hirsch has suggested schools should have wider catchment areas and select their intake randomly rather than on the basis of who lives closest. Conversely, they could allocate a fixed proportion of places through a lottery system. It seems unlikely, however, that the aforementioned aspiring parents or the politicians who depend on their votes would tolerate such social engineering. Even a Blairite commitment to greater fairness is unlikely to involve the return of the genie of consumer choice back into the bottle.

Donald Hirsch is right to draw attention to this polarisation, however. If it is true that we are always 10 to 20 years behind America, it may prove to be one of the biggest educational and social issues that Britain will face in the coming decade.

A more practicable approach to it, though, would be to try to persuade some of the most able and experienced teachers to work in schools euphemistically classified as "challenging". This would entail paying higher salaries. As the National Commission on Education has suggested, it might also be necessary to offer such teachers regular secondments and sabbaticals to renew their commitment to the difficult task in hand.

In short, it would not be cheap but as Mrs Shephard seems to appreciate, the alternative of muddling on much as we have until now will ultimately prove to be much more expensive.

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