Class war in the classroom

The free schools say they are all-inclusive. But by making Latin compulsory or stressing church atte

Teacher: What do you think les dents are?
Boy: Doughnuts.
Teacher: La gorge! What is a gorge?
Boy: Something you like.
Teacher: Derrière?
Girl: Isn't derrière a cheese?
Boy: That's Dairylea.

Welcome to a modern foreign languages class for 12-year-olds. We are doing "parts of the body", with all the pitfalls that holds. "What's the French for pussycat, miss?" asks one boy - let us call him Michael - all wide-eyed innocence. "Un chat," replies the teacher, equally sweetly.“How do you make 'pussy' out of that?" Michael whispers loudly to his mate.

Michael is not stupid but he is male, working class and dyslexic. None of these factors, it seems, bodes well for foreign language learning. I don't suppose that when the journalist Toby Young, progenitor of the most high-profile "free school" announced by the government on 6 September, declared that all students at his new school would have to learn Latin between the ages of 11 and 14, he imagined having many Michaels in his west London classroom.

In the class I attended, at a genuine mixed-ability community school, the boys were bored, the girls mostly concentrating on labelling the pictures in front of them in French. "What one's that? Her boob?" "No, there's no boob on it," the teacher replied patiently.

Language barrier

Numerous studies have shown that languages are a class and gender thing. Children from lower socio-economic backgrounds are less likely to be encouraged to learn them by their parents, less likely to see the point of them and less likely to have parents at home who can help with their homework. It is a particular problem for boys, whose parents are more likely to encourage them in science than in languages.

Foreign exchange trips are expensive, as are the holidays abroad that might open a child's mind to the use of languages. So when Young launches a school with compulsory Latin and Michael Gove invents a special certificate for those who pass a foreign-language GCSE as well as maths, English, a humanity subject and a science, these aren't classless acts. What Gove's new "English baccalaureate" will do is give another prize to those who win them all already at GCSE and A-level. When Young says that all children will have to learn Latin at Key Stage 3 (and either Latin or a modern language after that), he excludes the kids of parents for whom Latin is a frightening prospect. So much for comprehensive entry.

The free schools experiment sounds so positive: this school is going to open late to allow parents to work; that one is being started by the son of a Bradford bus driver; that one by a concerned group of parents. All of them insist that entry will be fully inclusive - yet five of the 16 given the go-ahead on 6 September will be faith schools, which are known to be selective, and another two have a religious element.

Back at the community school, where all the children have to learn a modern language (as that is the school's specialism), we are trying to remember how to order a meal in Spanish. Shane, 14, doesn't want to learn any Spanish; his ambition is to go to jail, he tells me with great bravado. Jimmy has kicked over a chair. Ryan is shouting out random words in a made-up language. Ryan's profound dyslexia makes foreign languages torture for him and his teacher thinks that being forced to learn Spanish is undermining his confidence. Do you think Ryan and Shane will be at that Latin-specialist school in west London? Somehow I doubt it. Many of these free schools are going to operate selection systems, even if these are disguised as church attendance requirements or a keenness for one's child to learn Latin.

And yet, I have to admit, if I had a child who was faced with a choice between sitting in class with Ryan or joining Young's children learning Latin, my child would be in the Latin class. I know, because I have been reading Danny Dorling's book Injustice (it's very good), that this makes me a nasty elitist and possible eugenicist who, in the past, would have made black people sit at the back of the bus. There's no middle position, it seems, for a middle-class conscience.

Empty symbols

So I turned to the candidates for the Labour leadership to tell me what to think. Nothing. They have no new school policies (it was pretty hard to find any policies, full stop). Andy Burnham proposes wider ballots on grammar schools; David Miliband wants to end tax breaks for private schools. This is just symbolic stuff. What about the comprehensives? What about that community school? What would they do for Ryan and Shane?

I don't see how more of the same can possibly be defended by any Labour candidate. The annual education report of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has just been published, showing that after years of Labour's "education, education, education", the proportion of private-to-public expenditure on post-primary, pre-tertiary education rose between 2000 and 2007 from 11.3 to 21.9 per cent. That is a higher proportion spent privately on children's education than in any OECD country except Chile and South Korea. (In the US, surprisingly, it is just 8.6 per cent.)

In 2008, the UK had below the EU and OECD average of adults with at least upper-secondary education and it's not looking any better for the future: enrolment rates for teenagers aged between 15 to 19 are lower than in any OECD country except Israel, Mexico and Turkey. Think about that. How can the current system be defended?

Yet how are compulsory Latin classes or an English baccalaureate going to get those missing teenagers back into school?

This article first appeared in the 13 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, France turns right