February 3: Leaders still failing schools

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IT was slightly ill-advised of David Cameron’s aides to trail the Prime Minister’s latest keynote speech on education policy as a “war on mediocrity” – it suggests the coalition has not been giving sufficient attention to the issue of school standards when this Government has, in fact, worked tirelessly to return academic rigour to the everyday curriculum following the “dumbing down” that took place under New Labour.

Yet, while it is a national scandal that so many students leave school with inadequate exam passes in core subjects, the Prime Minister’s proposals have still to pass the test of time. While the onset of academies has helped to raise standards in some parts of the country, the Education Select Committee reported last week that it is still too early to make definite conclusions.

The same also applies to Mr Cameron’s threat to sack headteachers at coasting schools to ensure every child gets the best start in life. He fails to pay sufficient heed to the fact that there is a shortage of inspirational leaders in the country’s schools, not least because of the relentless level of political interference, and that headteachers need more scope to replace under-performing teachers – they need the freedom that is denied to them by the unions.

However, the Tories are not the only major party with questions to answer on education – the same criticism is equally applicable to Labour after academics warned that the party’s proposal to lower tuition fees to £6,000 a year could inflict “colossal” damage and leave a £10bn black hole in university finances.

This critique suggests Labour is more concerned with winning back the student vote from the Lib Dems than devising a policy that recognises the financial realities of 2015 while protecting the interests of those young people from socially disadvantaged backgrounds looking to fulfil their potential.

In short, the rival approaches of both parties can be summed up by three oft-repeated words on school reports – “must do better”.

Prince of Dales

Charles supports dairy farmers

UNLIKE the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs which has been slow to respond to the scale of the new financial crisis afflicting Britain’s dairy farmers, the same cannot be said of the Prince of Wales who hosted a special summit of his own at Highgrove.

Like the Prince’s Trust which has done so much to help disadvantaged young people set up their own business ventures since its inception, Charles has long been regarded as Britain’s foremost champion of the countryside and yesterday’s event was typical of his desire to offer practical and pragmatic help to those most in need of a Royal pick-me-up.

Specifically the Prince’s Dairy Initiative is looking to provide tailor-made help for small and medium-sized farms at a time when some are receiving as little as 20 pence per litre of milk – a sum that does not even come close to covering the production costs.

If only Defra, the Whitehall ministry in charge of agriculture, was

so enlightened. When backbench MPs finally had the chance to question the Leeds-educated Environment Secretary Elizabeth Truss last Thursday, their contributions could not have been more perfunctory and seemed more driven by electoral considerations – like the future of the Bramley apple and exports of Scotch whisky – than the fate of an industry being forced out of existence by the pricing policies of the major supermarkets and the continuing complacency of Britain’s political elite.

Hello, my name is...

Compassion of a cancer doctor

THE best ideas, it is said, are often the most simple, a mantra which certainly applies to the “Hello, my name is...” crusade on compassion which has been launched by the terminally-ill Yorkshire doctor Kate Granger. Her point is profound one at the outset of a traumatic year in which she fears that she will succumb to cancer.

From her experience of the NHS, as both a consultant and more recently as a patient, she was surprised by the number of medical staff who were reluctant to introduce themselves with a degree

of empathy.

Yet the fact that 400,000 staff, and counting, have now signed up to this initiative signals their determination to build better relationships with patients, and this should be welcomed. The greater challenge, however, is improving communication between hospitals and other care providers so the frail are not left at the mercy of a dysfunctional system where care often comes down to chance and luck. It should not be like this.