The expensive free schools no one needs

The expensive free schools no one needs

guardian.co.uk |by Dorothy Lepkowska on July 9, 2012

  • Dorothy Lepkowska
Jeremy Rowe, headteacher of Sir John Leman high school in Beccles, Suffolk

Jeremy Rowe: ‘The government is giving £2m to a school for 37 pupils. It makes me angry to think what I could do with this money’. Photograph:  /Si Barber

There are around 10,600 empty school places in Suffolk. Or, to put it another way, if 10 average-sized secondary schools were closed down, there would still be a place for every child living in the county who needs one. Which made it somewhat surprising, therefore, when the Department for Education approved four free schools in the county, with a further two in the offing.

“The Suffolk free school scandal”, as local campaigners are calling it, has turned this rural county into an ideological battleground for the education secretary Michael Gove’s flagship policy. Millions of pounds are to be spent on setting up and kitting out new schools that are simply not needed, and in most cases not wanted, by local communities.

Campaigners in the county say they do not object to free schools per se, but they don’t understand how or why approvals were granted here. They are not likely to find out. Freedom of Information requests, seen by Education Guardian for access to business plans, minutes of meetings and consultation reports have been refused on the grounds either that they are not in the public interest or because to disclose the information would be “inappropriate”. In some cases, the documents were released, but only after approval had been granted, for example the consultation report for a free school in Beccles, carried out by Cambridge Education, which revealed an unequivocal lack of support for such a school.

Requests by parents and community leaders to meet DfE officials to discuss the proposals were also refused. The DfE, it seems, will meet only bidders.

“There is a staggering lack of transparency,” says Emma Bishton, a parent and member of the Compass (Community and Parents Actively Supporting Our Schools) group, which has opposed the creation of a free school in Stoke by Nayland. “Free schools are supposed to be about community engagement, but we are not getting any opportunity to engage,” Bishton says. “At every turn we have been refused information.”

This included details of a meeting between county council and DfE officials held to discuss the progress of free schools in the county. The response to the FOI request states that as no minutes were written or actions taken, there was no information to disclose.

“We have people from a broad political church within our group, but one thing we are all clear about it that this is not the way to plan the future of education in this county,” says Bishton.

Most of the free school bids in Suffolk are driven by the Seckford Foundation, which runs a fee-paying school and residential care homes in the county. It is being aided, in no small part, by an ongoing county reorganisation that will see a three-tier system of first, middle and upper schools replaced with a two-tier structure. This has left some empty school buildings that could be used for free schools.

Jeremy Rowe, head of Sir John Leman high school, in Beccles, where the most controversial free school to date is scheduled to open in two months’ time, put up a tough fight on the grounds that the school would undermine his own. His school’s most recent Ofsted report described it as  “good with outstanding features”, offering a broad curriculum and good pastoral care – not a school that seems to cry out for  a bit of competition.

Rowe says recent months have been difficult as the school has had to plan time-tables and staffing without knowing how many pupils would opt for the free school instead of Sir John Leman. To attract more pupils away from their chosen schools,  the Seckford Foundation has offered free uniforms, free school meals and an iPod Touch for each child. Even so,  only about 37 students are due to start at the free school in September.

“The government is giving the foundation a cash hand-out of about £2m to open a school for just 37 pupils, which was opposed by more than 3,000 local residents,” says Rowe. “It makes me very angry when I consider what I could do with this amount of money in my own school.” He has called on Seckford to withdraw its “farcical free school project” from Beccles.

But Rowe is claiming victory. On Twitter, he wrote: “McFree school: whatever happens, we won.” And he says: “I am delighted that even after all this, 97% of parents are showing confidence in their local school. By anyone’s standards, that is an extraordinary approval rate and vote of confidence.”

In other communities, the lack of suitable buildings has created opposition by planners as well as residents. In Frome, Somerset, the proposed Steiner free school is embroiled in a row with some sections of the community about school places, traffic and planning permission. Planning permission has also been refused by councillors for the proposed Bedford free school, in Bedfordshire. Gove is reported to have told a recent free schools conference that he would try to overrule refusals to grant planning permission to free schools, smoothing the path for them to open.

The manner in which free schools are being approved around the country is raising eyebrows elsewhere. A report last week from the Royal Society of Arts said: “There does not appear to be any rhyme or reason as to where free schools are being encouraged or permitted” and described them as an “unguided missile rather than a targeted weapon in the school programme”.

The DfE says the aim of the policy is to increase parental choice and not to reduce it by undermining existing schools. “Every stage of the process of approving, or otherwise, a free school is entirely open and transparent, and the process is clearly set out,” a spokesman said.

“As with all free schools, we work hard to ensure good value for money for the taxpayer. Parents should have choice over which school their child attends.” On the  issue of Beccles free school enticing students away from the local secondary, he added: “As long as there are sufficient places available, they can send their children to whichever school they think best suits their child’s needs.”

Graham Watson, director of the Seckford Foundation, says: “The foundation remains confident that numbers will continue to rise for places at the Beccles free school in the coming weeks as more and more people take up the freedom of choice in their child’s future education.”

The National Union of Teachers has complained to the Information Commissioner about the education secretary’s refusal to release assessments of the likely impact on local schools. “It is vital that these are made public and the veil of secrecy lifted,” said its general secretary, Christine Blower.

Meanwhile, the Local Schools Network is watching developments with growing concern. Fiona Millar, one of its founders, says: “It is impossible to find out what criteria are being applied to these schools or how these decisions are being made. The DfE is now creating a situation where it is survival of the fittest and it is doing so deliberately, believing competition will improve provision and up everyone’s game. At the same time, it wants to increase the number of free schools as the policy is stalling in many areas and starting to look like a failure.”

For Rowe, the Beccles free school decision has been an “utter catastrophe” for the public image of the policy. “The government has exposed itself as being prepared, in a time of so-called austerity, to throw money at pet projects to make them succeed, despite the strength of opposition locally. It is complete hypocrisy to suggest that this is being done for any other reason than political ideology.

“Michael Gove has seriously under-estimated the confidence and sense of loyalty that people have towards the schools in their communities.”

Education in brief: are GCSEs the new O-levels?

Education in brief: are GCSEs the new O-levels?

guardian.co.uk |July 9, 2012

  • Warwick Mansell
Pupils sit GCSE exams in a school hall

Exams: should they be GCSEs or O-levels? Photograph: Jim Wileman/Alamy

GCSEs: the new O-levels?

Michael Gove’s leaked plans to reintroduce O-levels to schools, seemingly inspired by the success of an “international” version of the exam operated by one of England’s big three exam boards and taken by teenagers in Singapore, rightly made headlines last month.

But less noticed has been a move by another of the boards, Edexcel, quietly to scrap its own version of the exam three years ago.

Edexcel, owned by Pearson, replaced its International O-levels with its existing International GCSE brand. Intriguingly, a 2009 document for teachers explaining the move described the IGCSE as “the most up-to-date qualification from the UK” and “the same [as O-level] but with modern references”.

How very off-message. Speed Read wonders what Mr Gove thinks. A Pearson spokeswoman says: “The demand internationally is for qualifications which reflect the UK curriculum. With the introduction of the GCSE, the demand shifted to IGCSE, rather than international versions of an old qualification.”

Cheats’ charter

Confirmation came last week, in Peter Wilby’s interview in these pages with Ofqual’s chief executive, Glenys Stacey, that exam board seminars in which senior examiners give teachers advice on how to boost their pupils’ grades are being banned. These advice sessions were, of course, the backdrop to a series of undercover scoops in the Daily Telegraph last December. But is this the end of the matter?

In 2009, BBC Radio Five Live reported on controversial advice being given to teachers at a seminar run not by a board, but privately, by a former languages examiner who guided his attendees on how to “script” pupils’ answers in the oral section of French GCSE.

Would such seminars be banned? Ofqual’s powers are limited, it seems; it says it only has powers to regulate the work of “awarding organisations”, or the boards themselves. So while “face-to-face seminars that relate directly to specific, named qualifications” and are run by the boards themselves will cease from next year, there is no such stipulation on those hosted by private organisations. A loophole, perhaps?

A positive outlook

A fascinating insight into the darker arts of education public relations is provided on the website of the firm Communitas. The company, based in Battersea, south London, sets out how it has secured positive news coverage for its clients, many of them academies.

West London academy, which opened in 2003, had “significant reputation and messaging challenges to overcome in the local community”, Communitas tells readers, not least after Ofsted expressed serious concerns about management and pupil behaviour there two years later.

The company therefore launched a strategy to “limit the damage from the worst critical comments in the report”, and proceeded to “work the media”.

At Eastbourne academy in Darlington, where it created a new “brand identity” for the school, Communitas says “early challenges were around staff management issues that needed delicate and skilled management to avoid unwelcome press coverage”, while the section on Shirebrook academy in Derbyshire says Communitas’s emphasis was to make the consultation process as “easy as possible”, as “creating this ease is particularly vital for communications with any vocal minority who may be unsure about the … founding of an academy”.

Is this a good use of public money? Maybe Speed Read needs a good “working” before we are convinced.

Education – ICT

Education

guardian.co.uk |July 9, 2012

A teenage girl taking part in a computer science or ICT lesson at school.

Experts believe the UK’s lack of science graduates is a result of uninspiring ICT lessons in schools. Photograph: Alamy

Last August, Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google, ignited debate among educators, industrialists and policy-makers when he revealed that he was “flabbergasted to learn that, today, computer science isn’t even taught as standard in UK schools”. He went on: “Your IT curriculum focuses on teaching how to use software, but gives no insight into how it’s made. That is just throwing away your great computing heritage.”

The reaction to his speech suggested that Schmidt was saying what many were already thinking. In February, the Next Gen report, written by technology industry heavyweights Ian Livingstone and Alex Hope, had argued that the British video gaming and visual effects industry was losing its edge, in part because the ICT curriculum in schools was focused on office skills rather than programming skills. The Royal Society’s report, Shut Down or Restart?, published in January this year, described the teaching of computing in schools as “highly unsatisfactory”.

In January, spurred on by Schmidt’s speech, the Guardian launched the digital literacy campaign in partnership with Google to improve the teaching of ICT. The education secretary, Michael Gove, meanwhile, announced that the current ICT curriculum, which he described as “demotivating and dull”, would be replaced by a “flexible curriculum in computer science and programming”, the content of which is to be announced in September.

Some of the key issues in improving the teaching of ICT in schools were discussed at a recent debate on digital literacy hosted by the Guardian in association with Google. The debate was held under the Chatham House rule, which allows comments to be reported without attribution, to encourage an open discussion.

ICT curriculum

The roundtable heard that the current ICT curriculum in schools, based on teaching office-based software, was not equipping children with the skills they, or industry, need. “Children know how to consume technology but not how to create it,” one contributor said. As a consequence  children have lost interest in studying computing: the number of computer science graduates has been falling for several years, and the country now has a shortage of technological innovators. “Against all odds, we’ve managed to put them off technology for life,” said one participant, suggesting that a focus on teaching pupils using basic software over a period of years had “squeezed the creative juices out of them”.

Yet participants agreed that children were enthusiastic about the idea of learning more in-depth ICT skills. They should be given the opportunity to find out whether they would be suited to a career in coding. “Every child should be given the chance to discover that they have the aptitude,” said one contributor. Israel was cited as one example where the teaching of computer programming had been introduced in schools over the past 12 years and was now a world leader in technical innovation.

Digital literacy covers a spectrum of skills, from the ability to use simple applications at one end to the ability to write computer programs at the other. Other mid-level skills, such as using HTML to create websites, fall in between. The roundtable agreed that all children should have the opportunity to learn to use digital technology. “Digital literacy must take its place alongside reading, writing and numeracy as a really valuable component of general economic success,” said one contributor. Coding needed to be taught in schools, not just because the technology industry needed excellent coders, but because it was useful in a whole range of jobs. “It’s going to help everybody, even people who don’t become computer scientists,” said one contributor.

However, it was felt that many children were still unaware of the job opportunities available in ICT or the fact that people who worked in technology-only occupations earned a third more than those working in non-technology occupations. Businesses should be encouraged to provide better routes into ICT careers by providing apprenticeships, said one industry participant.

There was also a lack of awareness of opportunities in ICT, which was exacerbated by a snobbishness pervading the education system, participants were told. Subjects such as maths and physics were more highly valued than computer science and engineering, a contributor said, and middle-class parents wanted their children to become lawyers and accountants, not computer programmers.

The country needed to address the problem of the digital divide, participants agreed. Despite an initiative by the last government to equip low-income homes with broadband and PCs, it was noted that many children from poorer families still didn’t have access to computers at home, hampering their ability to become competent users.

Participants agreed that if schools wanted to embrace digital literacy, they needed to take a less cautious attitude towards ICT. Many children were enthusiastic and confident smartphone users, it was said, and schools that ban mobile phones missed out on the opportunity to use them as learning tools in the classroom. Some teachers found it hard to cope with students being more at ease with technology than they were. “We have to make teachers feel comfortable with the fact that some of their pupils will know more about these technologies than they do. It doesn’t mean they know more learning about using these technologies,” said one contributor. An industry participant expressed concern that the pressure of league tables made schools reluctant to experiment and innovate.

Contributors argued that some schools were doing an excellent job of making ICT exciting within the constraints of the curriculum. In others, however, the lack of qualified teachers could prove a management challenge when it comes to implementing the new curriculum. The point was made that in secondary schools many of the existing cohort of ICT teachers started out teaching business studies – they had little or no coding expertise and may be reluctant to teach the new curriculum.

The question of digital safety was also raised and acknowledged to be a major issue for schools, especially primaries, and particularly around the need for rigorous controls to protect children on the internet. Technological controls, such as firewalls which restrict access to certain sites, need to be complemented with educating children about the dangers from a very young age. “The internet is like any city – it has its sewers, but we teach our kids not to lift the manholes up and dive into the sewers,” said one industry contributor.

Participants praised the work of the Computing at School (CAS) working group, a grass roots organisation that is supporting teachers by providing them with good quality curriculum materials, training and the opportunity to meet like-minded colleagues. One example from the wealth of free internet resources available for teachers, the roundtable heard, was Scratch, a visual programming language that teachers can learn in a matter of hours and can be used to teach children how to create animations and games.

Using the relatively simple tools of HTML and CSS, primary school teachers can inspire pupils to create websites, said one contributor. “I’d like to see the language of the web as the bedrock of programming in primary schools,” they said. Another participant enthused about the workshop run by Decoded, which teaches people essential coding skills that enable them to create a web-based application in a day.

However, concern was expressed about a lack of physical resources. One contributor said that their school had invested in laptops for every child six years ago, and that although the laptops were well used, there was no money to replace them. It was also felt that money spent on ICT had not always been targeted effectively. The last government spent large sums on equipping schools with ICT hardware because of a prevailing belief that ICT was “transformational”, but not all schools had been able to make good use of it, one participant said.

It was suggested that schools would have to look elsewhere for support. Parents were an excellent untapped resource, and one participant said that their school had benefited from joining the Microsoft IT Academy programme  which, for an annual fee, provided schools with teaching resources and professional development for staff.

Some industry participants felt that businesses could do much more to support schools – for example, by encouraging their own staff to help out in the classroom or run after-school computer clubs. Google had already announced plans, the roundtable heard, to support the Teach First charity by funding the training of 100 science and computer science teachers over the next three years who would work with children in poor areas.

The roundtable agreed that by making digital literacy a fundamental part of the education system, not only will schools be equipping children with vital tools for the modern workplace, they will be laying the ground for the next generation of computer scientists and innovators. “We don’t all need to be computer scientists,” said one participant, “but we need to give everybody the opportunity, and the good ones will follow through.”

At the table

• Phillip Inman (chair), economics correspondent, The Guardian

• Rosemary Luckin, professor of learner-centred design, The London Knowledge Lab

• Peter Barron, director of external relations, Europe, Middle East, Africa, Google

• Dr Peter Dickman, engineering manager, Google

• Matthew Harrison, director, education, Royal Academy of Engineering

• Dr Jane Overbury, principal, Christ the King sixth-form college

• Ian Livingstone, co-founder, Games Workshop, Fighting Fantasy, White Dwarf, Eidos Interactive

• Dr Albin Wallace, executive director of research and development, the Education Fellowship

• Neil McArthur, innovation director, TalkTalk

• Alasdair Blackwell, director, Decoded

• Lucy Heller, managing director, Ark Schools

• Sam White, headteacher, William Ellis School

• Alan Mycroft, professor of computing, University of Cambridge; trustee, Raspberry Pi Foundation

• Chris Mairs, chief scientist, Metaswitch Networks

• Vanessa Ogden, headteacher, Mulberry school for girls

• Alan Mills, director, Schools Funding Network

• David Sands, headteacher, Norbury Manor high school for girls

Thousands of overseas students to face compulsory interviews

Thousands of overseas students to face compulsory interviews

guardian.co.uk |by Alan Travis on July 8, 2012

UK Border Agency office

The interviews form part of a new UK Border Agency drive to filter out abuse. Photograph: Frank Baron for the Guardian

More than 10,000 overseas students who apply for visas to study in Britain are to face compulsory interview tests as part of a new UK Border Agency drive to filter out abuse.

UKBA staff are to be given a new power to refuse entry to any overseas students whose credibility remains in doubt after being interviewed. Those who fail to turn up for the interview will also be refused entry to Britain if they fail to give a reasonable explanation.

The decision to tighten the regime for overseas students comes as David Cameron is reportedly considering changing tack and removing foreign students from the official net migration count, after mounting fears that the government’s approach is damaging the £8bn-a-year industry.

The latest figures from the Office of National Statistics show that net migration to Britain remains at a record high of more than 250,000 a year. Ministers have pledged to reduce that figure to below 100,000 by the time of the next election.

Coming to study is the most common reason given by those who migrate to Britain, and overseas student migration forms the largest component in the annual net migration figure.

The immigration minister, Damian Green, has rejected the universities’ argument that students are not migrants and should be excluded as “fiddling the figures”, but according to the Sunday Times report, Cameron now accepts that there is a risk that overseas students are turning their backs on Britain.

“The prime minister understands these arguments and is definitely considering a change of policy,” it reports.

The targeted overseas student interview programme, which is due to start on 30 July , will result in 10,000 to 14,000 applicants for student visas interviewed each year – about 5% of those who apply to come to Britain from outside Europe.

The programme follows a pilot scheme run last year under which more than 2,300  students visa applicants from 47 countries were interviewed at 13 overseas posts by consular officials.

UKBA officials turned down 17% of the applications on existing grounds, such as not having basic conversational English. But they said they could have potentially refused a further 32% of those interviewed on the grounds that their credibility as genuine students was in doubt, if they had had the power.

The Home Office says the highest levels of would-be refusals on credibility grounds were found among applicants from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Burma, Nigeria and the Philippines. It is expected that the interview programme will be targeted on those who apply for student visas from those countries.

Green said: “With more interviews and greater powers to refuse bogus students we will weed out abuse and protect the UK from those looking to play the system.

“Under the current system UK Border Agency officers are unable to refuse some applications even if they have serious concerns over the credibility of the student. We are toughening up the system to keep out the fraudulent and unqualified while ensuring genuine students benefit from our country’s excellent education sector.”

The immigration minister said while Britain would remain open to the “brightest and best” the message was clear: “If you lie on your application form or try to hide your true motivation for coming to the UK then you will be found out and refused a visa.”

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