Education: every child has a talent at something

For how long will we say that our educational system is our country’s greatest failing?

It won’t surprise you when I say for as long as our inadequate career politicians are in charge:

In the last few weeks, we have had Education Secretary Michael Gove in an embarrassing climbdown in abandoning his flagship plan to scrap GCSEs and replace them with a new English Baccalaureate.

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg has suggested that he and his wife may send their oldest son to a private school, yet in the past he has said: “Right now there is a great rift in our education system between our best schools, most of which are private, and the schools ordinary families rely on. That is corrosive for our society and damaging to our economy.”

And this week, helpfully, John Prescott weighed in with: “Public schools are classed as charities and are therefore entitled to tax relief so every every single taxpayer pays about £3.30 a year to effectively sponsor a public school boy… let’s scrap this Posh Boy Tax!”

Incompetent, hypocritical, chippy. That just about sums up the British career politician.

Our Prime Ministers aren’t much better. Here’s David Cameron last year: ‘I went to a great school and I want every child to have a great education. I’m not here to defend privilege, I’m here to spread it.”

And Tony Blair, on 23 May 2001: “Our top priority was, is and always will be education, education, education. To overcome decades of neglect and make Britain a learning society, developing the talents and raising the ambitions of all our young people. At a good school children gain the basic tools for life and work. But they ought also to learn the joy of life: the exhilaration of music, the excitement of sport, the beauty of art, the magic of science.”

All these people recognise the divisiveness of the British educational system.

What have they done to change it?

We know that, as career politicians, their job is to get their party into power and themselves up the greasy pole. It is depressing that none of them have vision. They don’t dream.

Well, I have a dream.

I agree with Tony Blair that children ‘ought also to learn the joy of life: the exhilaration of music, the excitement of sport, the beauty of art, the magic of science.’

And I would like to provide an insight which I believe could point to a new way forward.

What are my credentials for doing this?

As I have admitted in previous posts, I went to one of Britain’s top public schools.

Yet, through my own children, I have witnessed the ‘great rift’ that Nick Clegg identified.

My children went to a local primary school in London. I was able to pay for them to graduate to private secondary schools where many of their contemporaries, their friends no less, were forced into a more uncertain, dangerous future.

When one of my children left the local state primary school, my family suffered at the hands of some local children who were not as privileged as mine. Wet paper bombs were thrown at our house. Drinks were poured over my children as they walked down the road. My car was scratched by a coin.

Aged twelve, the perpetrators had been condemned to the wrong side of the rift. My children went to one school. They went to another. Is their behaviour a surprise?

At the last General Election, I stood for Parliament to help force the main parties to agree to the conversion of a disused local hospital into a school rather than ‘executive flats’. The Bolingbroke Academy opened in September and, last week, one of the mothers told my wife how happy her child is to be there. Sadly, her older child, at another local school, is reported to have ‘gone off the rails’.

How can we heal this great rift in our society for once and for all?

Well, here follows one belief and one insight for you that, I believe, should underpin every aspect of our educational system.


Every child has a talent at something.


Children know the individual talent of every child at school better than parents or teachers do.

How does the educational system fail to recognise this?

The answer is because, at school, our children are ranked (‘streamed’) and judged solely by academic ability – especially since the brainless introduction of academic league tables.

But it is ridiculous to rank human beings, of any age, on an academic basis. We all know academic achievement is no guarantee of ‘success’. A ex-headmaster of my school reckoned that, in his experience, the bottom 25% would provide employment for the top 25%.

Remember the mantra – every child has a talent at something.

How do the sports facilities in state schools compare with those of private schools?

The answer is that they don’t. If you want your child to play sport at school, you have to pay. This has been recognised by Ofsted in a report published today. Chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw said: ‘Our report found that only a minority of schools play competitive sport to a very high level.’

This is unfair.

But what, as a society, are we doing about it?

Surely we could do more?

I fully appreciate that there is no way every state school will ever match the 400 acres of land my old school enjoys, but is the answer to get all chippy and close it down? Of course not.

You can’t throw away your dreams just because they are difficult to fulfil.

Did you know that, at the Great British Olympics last year, if the UK Independent Schools were a country, they would have come 12th in the Medal table? Hard to believe, but true.

Surely the answer is for state schools to compete with independent schools, not deny success?

As with so much of our state system, a more innovative solution is required.

It does not need money, tax or investment. It just needs vision, creativity and attitude.

How about this?

Within the Education Department, a Minister of Sport in School should be appointed.

Every borough in the country should have a Sport in School Department whose task will be, on behalf of every school, to pinpoint and reach out to every football, rugby, cricket, boxing, squash club and gym in every borough and force a relationship between schools and sports clubs.

Right now, do the people who run our schools engage with the owners of these facilities?

Do they know why they are there, when they are used, who uses them?

Do they engage with these people, many of whom might be unemployed or disabled?

Do they, as a matter of policy, inspire the schoolchildren in the borough to use these facilities – and to so with the same enthusiasm, commitment and fun these facilities can provide?

The hell they do.

Remember the mantra – every child has a talent at something.

What about the Arts?

Are local schools connected with local theatre groups and enthusiastic, often struggling, artists and musicians and dancers?

The hell they are.

I call for a Minister of the Arts in School to be appointed to match the brief of the Minister of Sport in School. And for each local council to have an Arts in School Department to reach out to local enthusiasts (by Arts in the plural, I include all the Arts, including Drama and Music).

These Ministers will be set targets for engagement of the local community with local schools.

Why is our society so compartmentalised?

Here’s more:

There are some kids who are not good at any of the above. They are academically average, clumsy at sport and disinterested in the Arts.

And do you know what they do?

They observe the other kids and they become comedians and the funniest people on earth – and they should be nurtured and embraced.

Or, like the Pistols, they should be encouraged to start a band and make a noise even though none of the can pluck a chord.

Or, best of all, they may be motivated, rewarded and respected by becoming part of the community and learning to help others.

This happened to a friend of mine’s son after his father died.

Do you know what he did?

He started a club for other children who had lost a parent. He found a place where they could go and share their bereavement and help each other through the unfairness of their fate. For this he was universally admired throughout his school, not least by all the other kids.

How brilliant is that?

As well as Ministers for Sport in School and Art in School, we need a Minster for Schools in the Community too.

Remember the belief:

Every child has a talent at something.

Remember the insight:

Children know the individual talent of every child at school better than parents or teachers do.

It is our duty, as a society, to free our children to discover what they are good at, of all the rich options available to them, and fulfil their potential to the extent that they can all admire and respect each other for – and be brought together by – the rich diversity of their talents.

And do you know what?

If we had a Minister for Sport in School, a Minister for Art in School and a Minister for Schools in the Community, they might just become the most important people in our country.

And, if they were career politicians, I might just forgive them.

That would be my dream.

About Hugh Salmon

Business leader. Adman. Writer.
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