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Wide Education Gap In Multi-Cultural Britain
By Neena Bhandari
Inter Press Service

    LONDON, Apr 11 (IPS) - Underfunding of schools, overcrowded classrooms, and the wide gap between the state and private-run schools are major challenges for multi-cultural Britain.
  Eighteen months ago, Education and Employment Secretary David Blunkett had announced that the government would put in 19 billion pounds in education between 1999-2002 ''to give everyone in our society (a chance) to realise their full potential''.
   He emphasised that this was the ''fulfillment of our (New Labour government) pledge that education would be number one priority''.
   The extra resources were to transform standards in the education sector, boost literacy and numeracy for those under 11 years, cut truancy and exclusion by a third, and give half a million more people access to higher and further education.
   Non-performing schools, where at least 15 percent of pupils have not gained five A to C grades at the GCSE or General Certificate of Secondary Education over three years, were targeted for closure, the minister said.
   By the end of last year, 424 schools were failing, and up for closure under Blunkett's ''fresh start'' policy, among stringent measures initiated to improve the quality of education.
   The ''fresh start'' policy to help revive underachieving schools aims at reopening the schools under a new name, new management and a staff that excludes teachers who could not successfully reapply for their jobs.
    But Chris Waterman, general secretary of the Society of Education Officers feels what is required is ''positive encouragement to improve schools. Naming and shaming will only discourage schools and demoralise teaching staff.''
     According to research conducted by the Department of Education, schools with the poorest GCSE results are found in leafy suburbs as well as in inner cities and not necessarily in deprived areas or majority immigrant areas.
    However, the Local Government Association (LGA) and Local Educational Authority (LEA) officers feel the government is underestimating the link between poverty and poor school performance.
     For the ruling New Labour government, private schools are a benchmark of best practice to be emulated by state schools. Prime Minister Tony Blair has been talking of how he wants the state schools to match the results of their private counterparts.
    With a view to giving students in government schools -- both comprehensive and grammar schools -- the advantages of private education, the government has given them the right to a minimum of three hours of extra work and activities, outside normal school hours, per week.
    But this has worried educationists, who have expressed concern about the ''overprescriptive nature of government policy'' and its selective improvement of some of the 4,250 grammar schools -- both charges denied by Blunkett.
    There are an estimated 550,000 children in private schools -- a mere 7 percent of schoolchildren in Britain. Yet one fifth of those who make it to university, and nearly 50 percent of those who go to Oxford and Cambridge, are from private schools.
     A 'Financial Times' newspaper survey of A level results last year revealed that all but 13 of the country's top 100 schools were privately-run. While 80 percent of its pupils secured five or more GCSEs at grades A to C, in the state schools only 43 percent reached the same standard.
     Some schools which have failed have all white children of second and third generation unemployed parents and not aspiring immigrants pushing their children to succeed.
     The quality of teaching suffers in some state schools largely because of the large number of pupils in each class.
     ''It is not because we use different techniques or rely on different theories. We, teachers in the state sector have been trained at the same colleges and with the same ideology as our private colleagues,'' opines a class teacher of Year 1 in Roxbourne school, northwest London.
     The Annual Report of Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Schools states the attainment of ethnic minority groups as a whole is improving, but some groups continue to underachieve.
     It points out that although Bangladeshi and Pakistani pupils make good progress once they become fluent in English, the average attainment at the end of Key Stage 2 (exam taken at the primary school level) remains below the national average.
   Black Caribbean pupils achieve in line with national averages but are generally under-represented in the higher levels of Key Stage 1 and 2 (both primary school level exams).
   The report adds: ''The performance of boys in English continues to give concern: although the gap between boys' reading and girls' reading has reduced ... The only area of the curriculum where boys do better is in mental arithmetic.''
   Chief Inspector of Schools, Chris Woodhead says: ''If standards are to rise further in primary schools, then primary teachers must have better access to high quality training designed to deepen their own subject knowledge''.
   ''We need better foundations literacy and numeracy at primary school, to improve the transition from primary to secondary, to raise the quality at Key Stage 3 and to pursue vocational and work based training options in Key Stage 4,'' Woodhead adds.
   To promote diversity in education, private business, churches and charities are being invited to join the government in creating a network of specialist city academies, a new type of urban secondary school outside the control of local authorities.
   The plan is closely modeled on the city technology colleges (CTCs), a Conservative party initiative launched in 1988 in an attempt to introduce business methods into areas of educational disadvantage and the ''charter school'' movement in the US.
   Coping with the inflow of Information technology and resources will be vital in creating a literate society.
  This article is free of copyright restrictions and can be reproduced provided that Inter Press Service is credited.
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