Tom Richmond: Gove’s primary error over how best to ensure pupils succeed

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MANY will sympathise with Michael Gove’s desire to compel children to attend school until they reach national GCSE benchmarks in English and maths. These disciplines underpin a young person’s future.

However the Education Secretary has some questions of his own to answer. First, there is the issue of class sizes – will secondary schools be able to accommodate extra pupils or will they be asked to go to college?

Next, the question of enforcement – what happens if a teenager chooses to ignore this diktat?

And then there is the small matter of pupils who suffer from dyslexia or other conditions – how will they be accommodated at a time when the number of special needs staff and classroom assistants is being scaled back?

This issue is profound – Yorkshire’s literacy and numeracy pass-rates continue to be amongst the worst in the country – but Mr Gove, like so many of his predecessors, is attempting to address this matter from the wrong stating point.

If more time and effort was spent ensuring that youngsters had a sound grasp of the three Rs when they left primary school to begin their secondary education, they would not be struggling at GCSE level.

In short, the Education Secretary’s laudable aim will only work if he puts a far greater onus on primary schools to raise their standards. Regrettably, he still appears unable – or unwilling – to grasp this lesson.

Yet, until he does so, there is even less chance of children being able to grasp a foreign language, which will become a compulsory subject for seven to 11-year-olds from next year.

Like so many well-intended education policies, the issue is one of implementation – even more so in the week when research revealed how children being subjected to “boring” language lessons in which they are repeatedly how to count to 10 in French or say “bonjour”.

It gets worse. Of the primary-age pupils surveyed, around half did not know what language they would be studying when they went to secondary school, and around a third (35 per cent) said they would be studying a different language to the one they had already been learning. Just 14 per cent said they would continue studying the same language.

As such, two clear conclusions can be drawn from these two policies – Gove’s desire to drive up standards must begin and end with primary schools.

First, he must address the shortage of places identified this week, a consequence of Labour’s open door policy on immigration.

Second, far more attention now needs to be afforded to the quality of teaching and the involvement of parents.

The latter is even more pertinent after the Centre for Social Justice think-tank set up by Iain Duncan Smith revealed that some of England’s poorest children are starting school still in nappies, unable to speak or to recognise their own name.

In these instances, it would be wrong to blame the politicians – or the teachers – but it does highlight the need for early intervention to ensure all children have the best chance of academic success.

I’M grateful to former Wakefield MP David Hinchliffe for pointing out that the use of premium-rate phone lines by GP surgeries, the theme of last week’s column, contradicts one of the founding principles of the National Health Service.

A very respected former chairman of Parliament’s health select committee, he says that call charges incurred by patients making appointments means that care is not free at the point of need.

He has now asked Stephen Dorrell, the current health select committee chairman, to investigate after the National Audit Office ordered a review into the use of premium-rate lines by the Department of Work and Pensions which cost welfare claimants £56m last year. Momentum for change is certainly growing, and at long last, after consumer group Which? said companies should be banned from forcing customers to call high-rate phone numbers to make a complaint.

I agree. Joe Public should not be penalised for poor service and the complacency of service providers.

Back to health and Dorrell’s committee will certainly be busy after one in eight GP surgeries admitted that they allow receptionists to decide which patients require urgent treatment, evidence of what many have suspected for some time.

Meanwhile Mike Dennis, another regular reader, is exasperated that my call on July 27 for the NHS to introduce new care rotas to ensure adequate cover at night-time, and at weekends, has still not prompted a response from his MP Julian Smith who represents Skipton.

I’ll keep you posted. They are issues that must be tackled in this age of consumer awareness.

AFTER a flurry of reports criticised the cost of the Government’s proposed HS2 high-speed rail revolution, Ministers are now preparing to release their own studies to highlight the scheme’s benefits.

One will claim that commuter trains out of London Euston could see as many standing passengers as seated if HS2 is not built. That may be so, but I still believe the Department for transport is missing a trick.

Rather than solely concentrating on the benefits of HS2 for London, what about highlighting the economic and infrastructure dividend for the North – and how city-regions like Leeds and Sheffield can benefit?

And what about business and transport leaders across Yorkshire coming together to start making a far more persuasive case for HS2 rather than allowing the timetable to be dictated by think-tanks and politicians, who believe that transport spending should begin and end with London?

FINALLY, Britain has lost three great broadcasters in Sir David Frost, Cliff Morgan and David Jacobs in the past 10 days. Contrast their illustrious careers with the self-importance of today’s self-important, egotistical broadcasters who think they’re more important than the TV viewer or radio listener.

They’re not.

tom.richmond@ypn.co.uk