White paper holds out hope of change

Athiqul is in Year 8. His two older brothers are disabled and attend residential special schools, coming home in the holidays. He has cared for his disabled mother since he was eight.

Brian, in Year 9, shares a bedroom in his overcrowded house with his older brother. He doesn't like it much because his brother is a drug dealer and his stash makes the room smell bad.

Significant problems, you might think, for young people to handle. Indeed they are. Yet both boys, supported by skilled teachers, find school one of the few places where they feel safe and where their broader problems are addressed. The so-far unsolved problem for Athiqul and Brian - a problem that they share with every pupil in their school - is that they are invisible.

They are invisible because they and their friends have the bad luck to be attending a secondary school in one of the most affluent LEAs in the country. Athiqul and Brian are not affluent: they live in their county's poorest ward. The majority of their school friends are of Pakistani heritage. Athiqul and Brian, like nearly half their classmates, are eligible for free school meals. Half their classmates live in areas that are within the most deprived 10 per cent in England. Poverty and lack of opportunities have been familiar to their parents for a long time. Unless something is done quickly, Athiqul and Brian will, in their turn, experience both at first hand.

Their LEA boasts of its high academic achievement. But that achievement doesn't extend to Athiqul and Brian. Their school is predicted to get less than 20 per cent A* to C passes at GCSE next year, though most white children in their area get three times better results. Educating Athiqul and Brian costs a lot - they need additional literacy programmes, second-language programmes, mentoring, home visits, multi-agency support.

But their LEA's funding mechanisms don't acknowledge these extra costs. In fact, their LEA has just proposed that their school should have money taken away, to be redistributed to schools in leafier areas of the county. Robin Hood (in reverse) is alive and well at their County Hall.

Athiqul and Brian are taught in run-down, crumbling buildings. Their LEA acknowledges that the building needs total replacement - it has officially recorded 114 different parts of the building where the defects impinge on teaching, learning and morale. But when you're invisible, crumbling buildings don't count. Their LEA has turned down - on their behalf - the opportunity to become an academy, which would have replaced their school and offered hope of change. A school to be proud of? Not when you're invisible.

Their LEA won't close their school, even though it is falling down - could it be that they prefer having all their invisible children together? Nor does the LEA have anything useful to offer about how things might be improved. The only hope of change currently on offer to Athiqul and Brian is the white paper, castigated by some as a charter for the middle classes, but a beacon of hope for the marginalised and invisible. At last, their community - parents, community leaders, school governors - will have the chance to challenge their LEA's veto on future educational opportunity.

Other partners, with greater motivation for change than their LEA, will have a chance to get involved in the running of their school. Local people can see that the area's future prosperity depends on Brian and Athiqul having a good education in a decent school building. The local university, a local independent school, the bodies representing the minority ethnic communities in their town, all want their school to succeed.

The white paper will level the playing field and bring in new players from the sidelines. Parents will need support - but the community is rich in support mechanisms. All it needs is a chance to exercise the power that until now has been firmly held in hands that have been resolutely raised to resist change.

The white paper is about a shift of power. It will give rights of self determination to parents and communities who see their children's education as priority. No longer will they have to accept a compromise education designed to meet other peoples' complex agendas of geo-political and financial constraints. The white paper puts invisible children and their families in the picture for the first time. It offers hope. It can't come too soon for Athiqul and Brian.

Katy Simmons is chair of governors at a secondary school in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire. She is a lecturer at the Open University

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