Some academies ignoring healthy food guidelines, report says

Some academies ignoring healthy food guidelines, report says

guardian.co.uk

Denis Campbell

guardian.co.uk, Monday 14 May 2012 14.35 EDT

Dunraven school in south London has signed up to the nutritional standards for its school meals

Dunraven school in south London has voluntarily signed up to the national nutritional standards for its school meals. Photograph: Linda Nylind for the Guardian

When Michael Gove wrote to Jamie Oliver last August in response to the chef’s concerns about the coalition’s school food policies, he could not have been more soothing. He noted – but discounted – Oliver’s fear about academies not having to follow the nutritional standards that have applied in maintainedschools since 2008-09. “I would like to reassure you that we have no reason to believe that academies will not provide healthy, balanced meals that meet the current nutritional standards. As part of the broader freedoms available to academies, I trust the professionals to act in the best interests of their pupils,” the education secretary said. So he was clear – there was no problem.

Nine months later, though, Gove’s reassurance has been contradicted by the first hard evidence about whether the growing number of academies are applying the school food rules that Labour introduced after the row over Oliver’s 2005 TV series “Jamie’s School Dinners”, which exposed the poor quality of school food experienced by many pupils. They obliged maintained schools to offer only healthy, nutritious fare and banned snacks such as sweets, crisps and fizzy drinks from school tuckshops and vending machines.

New research by the School Food Trust (SFT) among 100 academies shows that while many of them follow the guidelines, many do not. They do not have to – Gove exempted academies from Labour’s insistence that all schools apply them – but the secretary of state has insisted until now that they all were doing so anyway. Despite having the freedom not to comply, almost none was using it, he suggested.

As recently as 24 April Gove, in evidence to the Education Select Committee at Westminster, pooh-poohed the idea that any academies might not be implementing a policy that has wide support, been proven to boost learning and helps to improve pupils’ health.“It has been claimed, but I have not seen, and I would be interested in, any evidence that any academy has introduced, as a result of those freedoms, lower-quality food. All the evidence seems to me to point in the other direction: that schools that have academy freedoms have improved the quality of food they offerchildren. There are bound to be cases that people have heard about where they fear that might not be the case, but I have not seen any cross my desk,” he told the MPs.

When Labour MP Alex Cunningham told Gove that “some of our children … are being let down”, by being at academies that do not apply the standards, Gove replied: “You assert that they are being let down; I fear that they may be. But I do not have any evidence that they have been. I am not denying that it is a possibility, but … until I know, I cannot see.”

Happily for evidence-hungry Gove, evidence now exists. Unfortunately it bears out the concerns of Oliver, doctors, teachers’ leaders, school caterers and children’s health campaigners that some academies are exploiting the freedom Gove gave them and not doing their best by their pupils’ health by ensuring that their school serves only healthy fare.

“The evidence shows that academies are, on average, doing less well in providing healthy food than other secondary schools in which standards are compulsory”, says Dr Michael Nelson, the School Food Trust’s director of research and nutrition. He is the expert who supervised the survey and also a reader in public health nutrition at King’s College London.

Out of 99 academies that told researchers what foods they served or sold, 89 were selling at least one type of unhealthy food that is banned in maintained schools. Confectionery and chocolate were being sold in 16, crisps and savoury snacks in 26, and cereal bars– which contain 20%-40% sugar – in 54. In addition, 82 sold fruit juice drinks and squash, including drinks such as Robinson’s Fruit Shoot, Drench and Capri-Sun. “They have as little as 7% or 10% of fruit juice in them, whereas the school food standards say that such drinks sold in maintained schools have to be at least 50% fruit juice”, says Nelson.

More reassuringly, though, just six sold fizzy drinks such as Coke and Sprite and only two let pupils buy energy drinks such as Lucozade and Red Bull, despite their popularity.

Academies’ attitudes to the standards proved revealing. Ten per cent said they were either unwilling or unable to follow them, or certainly not across the entire school day. One in three either said that the standards were too restrictive or needed to contain an element of flexibility. A third also saw the regulations as “a burden” while, worryingly, 18 agreed that school catering is“mainly a commercial service to provide food and drink at school”.

Those concerned at Gove’s failure to maintain Labour’s consistent policy are worried. “For the first time, we have solid evidence from the academies themselves that nutritional standards are in real danger,” says Jamie Oliver.

“These standards are there for a reason – to help prevent England from sliding further behind when it comes to essential action to fight child obesity and diet-related disease. Mr Gove is putting our children’s future health at risk.”

Alasdair Smith, national secretary of the Anti-Academy Alliance (AAA), sees the findings as proof that many academies are putting profit before pupils’ health. “This report illustrates an unintended consequence of deregulating and privatising our schools. The secretary of state boasts that academies are about giving freedom and autonomy to schools. It is hard to imagine any parents supporting the ‘freedom’ to feed their child junk food.”

Professor Terence Stephenson, who as president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health is the voice of the UK’s children’s doctors, says he is “concerned that academy schools are allowed to ignore nutrition-based government standards. Mr Gove said he didn’t know of any evidence suggesting that schools were rowing back on the nutritional standards. Now that he has it, let’s hope he acts on it and tells headteachers their academies shouldn’t be profiting from feeding their children unhealthy food.”

Like Oliver and the SFT, he wants Gove to force academies to apply the standards. “If we don’t act now, there will be thousands of children across the country eating unhealthy food at school, nutritional standards will plummet and we’ll be fuelling what is already an obesity crisis amongst our young,” he warns.

Why are some academies ignoring the standards? They cite money, pressure from pupils, parents or staff and a belief that the service would be “better” for not following the maintained schools model. The SFT found that about half the academies thought their catering services would break even, but about 25% expected a loss. Tellingly, 22 of the 76 converter academies they studied and three of the 24 sponsor-led ones – 25 schools in all –thought they would make a profit or surplus. Of these, 75% of the converters but only one of the three sponsor-led academies said the surplus would be reinvested in their catering service.

Gove also insists that some academies serve such good food that they exceed the standards. “Any good teacher or indeed parent would tell you that a child who is badly fed cannot concentrate and cannot learn”, says Dr Dan Moynihan, chief executive of the Harris Federation, which runs 13 academies. Those 13 “not only comply with the minimum standards, but also subsidise meals so that they go beyond this”.

Similarly, the 11 academies in London, Birmingham and Portsmouth run by ARK Schools generally follow the guidelines. “That’s our intention, though the odd flapjack has crept in and the odd packet of crisps has been found by our auditors,” says spokeswoman Lesley Smith. “I’m slightly at a loss to know why you wouldn’t use these guidelines, because if you want children to do well in school, you want to ensure they are properly nourished.”

E-ACT, however, could not confirm if its 19 academies apply the standards because its headteachers have discretion on that.

Student visa rules cost universities millions, MPs told

Student visa rules cost universities millions, MPs told

guardian.co.uk |by Jessica Shepherd

  • Jessica Shepherd, education correspondent
  • guardian.co.uk, Monday 14 May 2012 14.40 EDT
London School of Economics

The London School of Economics is spending at least £250,000 year trying to comply with the student visa rules. Photograph: James Barr for the Guardian

Universities and colleges are spending millions of pounds to navigate the government’s “Kafkaesque” new student visa rules, a committee of MPs has been told.

An institution such as the London School of Economics spends£250,000 a year trying to understand regulations governing the entry of non-European Union students, the public accounts committee heard.

Medium-sized colleges have had to recruit more than a dozen members of staff each to ensure they are correctly complying with the rules, which were introduced in 2009 and significantly changed by the coalition last year in an effort to crack down on bogus colleges.

MPs are investigating the issue of student visas after a report published in March by the National Audit Office found serious errors in the way the UK Borders Agency (UKBA) implemented the changes. Margaret Hodge, who chairs the committee, said the report was the most shocking account of poor management leading to abuse she had ever seen.

The Guardian has found that scores of genuine students are being left stranded and penniless as bona fide private colleges close down, unable to keep their businesses going with ever more stringent regulations.

Simeon Underwood, academic registrar at the LSE, told the MPs his institution was spending at least £250,000 year trying to comply with the rules. Five years ago it was spending £50,000 a year.

Non-EU students were a major part of the LSE’s student population and it could not afford to take risks when complying with the rules, he said. The consequences of not being able to recruit non-EU students would be enormous, Underwood said, and so the university felt pressured to spend money navigating the rules at a time when ministers wanted higher educationto spend less time on administration and more on the quality of the experience students received.

Under the rules, institutions must have what is known as highly trusted sponsor status to recruit non-EU students. Underwood said because of the rules LSE had seen applications from south Asia drop by 20%, and Chilean students now thought UK higher education was“no longer open for business”. He described the system as Kafkaesque.

Timothy Blake, principal of the London School of English, said his college had to have 16 staff who needed to understand the rules. “The rules have gone too far,” Blake told MPs. “Legitimate students are being seriously affected by rules designed to take out bogus students.”

The MPs also heard from Jeremy Oppenheim, temporary migration lead for the UKBA, who said the previous system of student visas had been “profoundly unregulated”. “We didn’t know where students were once they arrived,” he said.

A report by the Institute of Public Policy Research has claimed that the government’s refusal to exclude international students from its drive to reduce net migration is damaging British education and putting at risk £4bn to £6bn a year in benefits to the economy.

The academies policy is starting to develop large holes

The academies policy is starting to develop large holes

guardian.co.uk

  • Mike Baker
  • guardian.co.uk, Monday 14 May 2012 14.30 EDT
Michael Gove

Is Michael Gove’s drive to convert schools to academies about to face tough times as the financial gains diminish? Photograph: Sang Tan/AP

Michael Gove’s easy ride on academies is coming to an end. Until now, the financial advantages of academy status have encouraged a steady flow of conversions. This perhaps gave the impression of an ideologically popular policy, but the reality is that schools have just been pragmatic.

From here on in, it will be much tougher. With over half of secondary schools becoming academies, there is not much more low-hanging fruit. Realisation that some converters were over-paid, and that the financial gains are likely to diminish, will reduce the flow. After all, cash was behind the dash to convert.

A recent survey of academies, conducted by the Schools Network, found that 78% had converted in part because they believed they would be better off; 39% said this was their main reason. Other much-vaunted freedoms were relatively unimportant: the great majority had no plans to use the new freedoms to change the curriculum, pay and conditions, the school day/year, or admissions policies.

Last week, at an information event on academy status, two headteachers sought me out specifically to tell me why academy status did not interest them. They ran successful, over-subscribed schools in Cheshire: Wilmslow High and Poynton High. Ofsted had judged them “outstanding”, with “exceptional leadership” and well above average results.

They were annoyed by the government’s fixation with pushing academy status. As Gill Bremner, from Wilmslow High, told me: “Just having the word academy across the door means nothing.” She already procures services from outside the local authority and collaborates with others though a “soft federation”. Converting would give her nothing she doesn’t already have. Moreover, she believes some academies had “not understood that they are throwing away local flexibility for central control”.

Of course, no one is yet forcing Wilmslow or Poynton to convert. But, as Education Guardian reported last week, others are feeling coerced. Several Birmingham primary schools have been told they must become academies because they are below their Sats floor targets, even though some are confident their results are on the up. It is a sign of the government’s impatience with the slow progress of primary conversions – only 3% of primaries have taken the leap. Hence the shift from financial inducements to more menacing tactics.

The pressure is often encouraged by local authorities. I heard recently that applicants for a director of education job at a large council were asked at interview to state how long they would take to get all the authority’s primary schools to become academies.

Meanwhile, the government is rather desperately seeking chains to take on more primary academies. Indeed, chains are an increasingly significant feature of the school system.

According to research for the National College for School Leadership, by September 2012 there are likely to be 48 chains with at least three schools in them. Some are growing fast. There are nine chains with 10 or more academies, and between them they encompass 182 open or planned academies.

Some chains have kept their focus on a geographical locality, but others have the colonising zeal of 19th-century empires. Some plan to take on another 20, 30 or even 40 schools. This would be uncharted territory. What happens when one chain runs all the schools in a locality? What price competition and choice then?

And what happens when schools find themselves handing over significant proportions of their budget to cover the chain’s central services? One or two are already contributing 6% of their budget for “head office” services. It sounds a bit like local authorities reinvented.

If things do go sour, there is currently no mechanism for schools to leave a chain any more than there is a route for schools that want to revert from academies to local authority schools. Why not?

And things can go wrong. “Serious failings” in financial management were found recently at the Priory Federation chain in Lincoln, where the chief executive misused school funds for private use and employed family members. Had this been happening under the closer scrutiny of a nearby local authority, it might well have been spotted sooner.

So, the easy headlines of academy expansion are over. A more mixed picture will emerge, and maybe that will lead to a humbler government position that recognises that, while academy status may be good for some, it should not be a centrally imposed, universal solution.

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