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Who cares to keep up with the Blairs?;Opinion

ISN'T it time to dump the Islington dinner-party vocabulary of debate? The divide between old and new Labour is at its sharpest over comprehensive schooling, and the Government's newest inner-city initiative to woo the middle classes has brought out the usual sneers.

First, assume that the chattering classes are concerned only to protect little Hugo and Sophie (to use the stereotype roll-call) from the rougher classes; then, that any reform designed to tempt them out of selection or the private sector is doomed to failure so long as they behave according to class. Probably over dinner.

In my experience, Islington citizens are more likely to be stroppy with friends and enemies who don't send their children to the local comprehensive than to shed sympathetic tears into the grilled vegetables, but we don't need to be anecdotal. It would be better to accept that most parents simply want to send their children to a good school - in terms of both education and behaviour - and preferably in their local community. Keeping up with the Blairs is a minority educational interest. The search for all-round good quality is not.

The stumbling block is social mix. The most persuasive evidence shows that comprehensive schools perform best when that mix is balanced. This is easy to demonstrate in Scotland, where it is as normal for all classes of children to go to the local comprehensive as it is for most parts of England - outside the inner cities. It is when all the neighbourhood's social, ethnic and economic troubles are tipped into its schools that good behaviour and standards are harder to achieve, and this is the city problem which confronts parents who want something better, and who know how to find it.

None of this is new, which is all the more reason to keep looking for solutions that will promote social balance - and thence the quality of life and results - in all our schools, but especially in the inner cities. Islington is convenient shorthand for the debate, because of its wide and high-profile social mix, which makes it is all the more shocking that its schools perform so badly - a scenario which might be transformed if all those local professionals and media people did the right thing by their local comprehensive.

Could you make them do so? The days when compulsion might be even thought to work are long gone. Waiting for results to improve before you commit your own children doesn't help if your child is part of the solution. It seems reasonable to assert that local community leaders have a duty to lead the way with their own children, but you need to be an activist to make a difference and it can be a time-consuming and arduous option, and a lonely one too.

What we surely need is a coalition of Government, school and parents, which can agree to tackle standards and social balance together. The Government must supply the lead and the money. The school faces the hardest challenge, which is to commit itself to the needs of the children it ought to have, as well as those it has. Then parents can reasonably be expected to show collective faith, rather than dare to go it alone.

Dig beneath the spin and the suspicions, and the Government's pound;350 million for "Excellence in Cities" confirms that it has signed up for the essential coalition. It may be hard to sort the logistics of master classes at specialist schools, but if the idea reassures parents that their children will be nurtured, it sends the right messages, especially when the package also offers everything from mentoring and home computer loans to learning centres and disruptive units.

Inner-city schools are knee-deep in initiatives, but the money is welcome and a better mix of parents and children must have its attractions. Even if some of them are middle class.

Patricia Rowan was editor of The TES from 1989 to 1997

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