Charity tax row: Oxbridge joins revolt

Charity tax row: Oxbridge joins revolt

BBC |April 13, 2012

Oxford, Cambridge and other universities have joined the growing disquiet over government plans to curb tax breaks on charitable donations.

The Oxford and Cambridge vice-chancellors wrote privately to Chancellor George Osborne saying his plans risked undermining the culture of university philanthropy.

UK universities, which raised some £560m from charitable gifts last year, want him to rethink.

Ministers want to stop tax avoidance.

Mr Osborne says he is shocked by the scale of legal tax avoidance by multi-millionaires.

Under current rules, higher-rate taxpayers can donate unlimited amounts of money to charity and offset it against their tax bill to effectively bring the amount of tax they pay down, sometimes to zero.

But from 2013, uncapped tax reliefs – including those on charitable donations – are to be capped at £50,000 or 25% of a person’s income, whichever is higher.

Opposition to the plans has been gathering pace. On Thursday, Business Secretary Vince Cable openly voiced concerns after hearing from universities first hand about how the changes could affect them.

And Oxford vice-chancellor Andrew Hamilton wrote a private letter to Mr Osborne pointing out how reliant the university was on charitable donations.

The leading university raised more than £1.25bn over the past eight years, with many of the gifts topping what would be the yearly £50,000 limit.

‘Ill-considered’An Oxford University spokeswoman said that the government’s own policy emphasised the role of private and philanthropic investment, rather than the public purse.

“A step that penalises the government’s own approach seems ill-considered.

“Oxford’s fund-raising campaign recently passed its initial target over £1.25bn and we are continuing to seek support.

“The generosity of Oxford’s donors provides huge public benefit, contributing to teaching, research and student bursaries.

“We have done our best, along with other universities and charities, to foster a culture of giving in the UK, and this move risks undermining that culture.”

Cambridge vice-chancellor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz has also written privately to the chancellor reflecting similar concerns.

The two universities account for 44.2% of philanthropic funds secured by British universities last year.

Meanwhile Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of umbrella body Universities UK, said the considerable sums raised by universities made a major contribution to what they could offer.

The funds raised were used to offer students support through bursaries, scholarships, to improve facilities and fund research.

“Because universities are the preferred cause of major donors (gifts over £1m), we anticipate that they would be particularly hard-hit by the change in the budget.

“After a period in which universities have stepped up their game in fund-raising, this could undo some of the excellent progress they have made.”

But ministers have said they intend to stick to the plans.

Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander acknowledged they were proving controversial, but said: “We have put in place a cap on unlimited reliefs, we have done so for the very good reason that everyone should pay a decent proportion of their income in tax and that is a policy that we are going to stick to.”

But he did say the government would work with charities and philanthropists “to ensure the removal of the tax relief does not have a significant impact on charities which depend on large donations”.

Half of free schools still negotiating sites for autumn opening, minister says

Half of free schools still negotiating sites for autumn opening, minister says

The Guardian World News |by Jessica Shepherd

Batley Grammar School in West Yorkshire was one of the first batch of free schools to open

Batley Grammar School in West Yorkshire, formerly a fee-paying school, was one of the first batch of free schools to open. Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian

Half of the free schools opening this autumn are still negotiating over premises, an education minister has admitted. Despite many having made provisional offers of places for September, only about 35 of the 70 schools have written confirmation from the land or lease owner that they can use their proposed building, and a few have yet to find a site.

The information was divulged by Nick Gibb, the schools minister, in response to a parliamentary question by Stephen Twigg, the shadow education secretary. Gibb said “around half” of the free schools due to open this autumn or shortly afterwards had a “confirmed” site, while a “large majority” of the rest were still negotiating contracts for their buildings.

Some 70 free schools are expected to open in September or shortly afterwards – almost three times as many as opened last year. This time last year, fewer than half of those opening last September had confirmed their sites, Gibb said. Of the 24 free schools that opened last September, nine were initially in temporary premises.

However, Labour said the revelation would worry parents and was proof that one of the coalition’s key reforms was “in disarray”.

Free schools are state-funded primaries and secondaries started by parents, teachers, charities and private firms. The policy, inspired by similar initiatives in Sweden and the US, is one of the government’s main education reforms and is designed to raise standards and increase competition in the state sector.

Free schools are allowed greater freedom over the timings of the school day, teachers’ pay and the subjects they teach. They are accountable to central government rather than their local authority, in the same way as academy schools.

Twigg said parents would fear that the coalition’s “approach to new schools is too much of a gamble”.

The New Schools Network, a charity that works closely with the Department for Education to provide advice on setting up free schools, urged the government to rethink the way in which schools find appropriate buildings. Natalie Evans, the charity’s chief operating officer, said some free schools had to postpone their openings because they had been unable to find suitable premises.

“Securing a site does appear to be the single most challenging issue for free school groups once they have been approved,” she said. “We believe the government needs to think again about the whole process of finding a site and who actually carries out that role, as what was fit for purpose for a couple of dozen of free schools will not work for the hundreds that are now coming forward.”

Those involved in the Greenwich free school, a secondary school opening this September in south-east London, told the Guardian that finding a suitable building had been challenging. The school may require an interim site while renovation work is carried out on its premises – the former living quarters for nurses of the Royal Herbert hospital.

Louise Buckley, a governor of the Greenwich free school, said the group had also looked at a former rifle factory but found that the modifications required to the building would have been too expensive.

John Simes, founder of Collingwood Learning, an education consultancy which helped the Greenwich free school find its premises, said obtaining a building had been fraught and stressful.“The time frame is short … It can take up to two years to find a building which can sometimes bring you near to the point at which the school needs to open.”

Zenna Atkins, chief executive officer of consultancy Wey Education, anticipated that “quite a few” of the free schools expected to open in September would be in temporary premises at first.

The Tories’ star teacher, Katharine Birbalsingh, has had to delay the opening of her free school. Birbalsingh gave a blistering speech to the Conservative party conference in 2010 in which she attacked dumbed-down standards in exams and “chaos” in classrooms. She had planned to open a secondary school, the Michaela community school, in Tooting, south London, this September, but failed to secure her preferred location. The school may open next year instead.

A Department for Education spokeswoman said the government was working closely with free school groups to “help realise their vision of creating great new schools with high standards and strong discipline – in response to local demand”.

Teachers’ union criticises phonics tests

Teachers’ union criticises phonics tests

The Guardian World News |by Hélène Mulholland

Phonics lesson

Phonics teaching focuses on sounds rather than recognising whole words. Photograph: Murdo Macleod for the Guardian

A teachers’ union has called for a campaign against the government’s new reading tests, including a possible boycott, as it said some pupils would be labelled as failures.

Delegates at the NUT’s annual conference in Torquay passed a resolution warning that the mandatory testing of phonics – a system that focuses on sounds rather than recognising whole words– was “unnecessary and inappropriate”.

The government has championed phonics as the best way to boost reading standards. It announced plans for the test last year amid fears children with poor reading skills were slipping through the net.

The test, to be taken by children at the end of their first year of compulsory schooling, will require pupils to sound out or decode a series of words, some of which are made up, to test their reading skills.

The union said the government’s policy of promoting phonics would send a message to schools and parents that other aspects of reading were less important.

A poll for the union found that two-thirds of teachers (66%) thought the test was unnecessary, 67% believed it was a waste of money and 63% said the test was “inappropriate” for many children with special educational needs and those who have English as a second language.

The NUT leader, Christine Blower said: “Our members are saying five is too young to fail.”

Hazel Danson, a phonics teacher and chairman of the NUT’s education committee, said reading involved far more “than just decoding a text”.

“You might as well be giving them quite frankly a page of French and they can decode that but have absolutely no understanding or can ascribe meaning to it,” Danson said. “One headteacher has said he thought it was damaging to give children material they couldn’t read because they would see that as a failure. If you follow that logic, you would never be able to give children any books that had any conversational dialogue in it because the word ‘said’ is impossible to decode phonically.”

A pilot of the test carried out last year saw some bright children struggle as they were trying to make real words out of made-up ones, and failing as a result, said Danson.

“Most adults do not read phonically,” she said. “They read by visual memory or they use context queueing to predict what the sentence might be, so some children who have already got that skill quite early on who were taking the test were left confused.”

Blower highlighted a “very odd, perverse incentive” to drill children in learning non-words, “because if you know that you’re a better, or more advanced, or more able reader you might try to make a word out of a word that’s a non-word.

“Teachers will have a tendency to say ‘well, let’s practice lots of non-words, so when you see a non-word you don’t try to make them be words’. How stupid is that?”

Blower said that if, at some stage, the test results were used in league tables, “you would have people doing the exact opposite of what you want them to do. You would be teaching them [children] to not read, essentially.

“When reading is essential to being able to work with the rest of the curriculum, why would you want to do something that would potentially demotivate not only the children who might have a lot of difficulty with the test because maybe they haven’t reached that level, but also the kids who are actually beyond that who then fail it because they are trying to bring skills to bear which are not useful to being able to do the test?”

A Department for Education spokesman said: “We have been clear that the results for the reading check will not be published in league tables. Schools will be required to tell parents their own child’s results.

“Standards of reading need to rise. At the moment around one in six children leaves primary school unable to read to the level we expect, and one in 10 boys leaves able to read no better than a seven-year-old. These children go on to struggle at secondary school and beyond.

“The new check is based on synthetic phonics, a method internationally proven to get results. The evidence from the pilot carried out last year is clear – thousands of six-year-olds, who would otherwise slip through the net, will get the extra reading help they need to become good readers, to flourish at secondary school, and to enjoy a lifetime’s love of reading.”

While NUT members gathered for the third day of the conference in Torquay, the NASUWT union was staging its third day of debate in Birmingham. A poll showed two-thirds of teachers had experienced or witnessed workplace bullying in the past 12 months, with one in five victims quitting their job as a result. The survey revealed that 67% witnessed or were subject to bullying, harassment and abuse from colleagues.

The country’s two largest teaching unions put the government on notice on Saturday of their intention to continue industrial action, including strikes, in protest at pensions reforms. The motion backed by NASUWT delegates on Saturday also cited pay and workplace-related issues. On Monday the NUT will debate its strategy for opposing government plans to introduce local pay.

Half of England’s secondaries becoming academies

Half of England’s secondaries becoming academies

BBC |April 5, 2012

By Hannah Richardson BBC News education reporter
Academies will soon dominate England’s secondary education landscape, with more than half of schools having sought to convert, official figures show.Some 1,641 out of a total of 3,261 secondaries have applied to become the state-funded but independently run schools – 1,283 are already open.

This means that 50.3% of secondaries no longer have official ties with their local authority.

Schools minister Lord Hill said heads were seizing independence.

Academies are funded directly by the secretary of state rather than through their local authority and they have more freedoms to opt out of the national curriculum and change term and even day length.

Ministers say this gives head teachers the power to innovate and improve the standard of education on offer without undue interference.

More freedoms

But detractors argue academies are unaccountable and undemocratic as they have no link with locally-elected education authorities which provide support services to schools in their area and manage admissions.

Soon after the coalition government came to power in May 2010, Education Secretary Michael Gove invited all outstanding schools to convert to academy status. At that point there were 203 academies.

He then further extended the invitation to all types of schools. And many took the opportunity to discover how much more money would be added to their budgets as they become responsible for commissioning their own support services.

Announcing the tipping point, Lord Hill said: “A recent survey shows that hundreds of academies have already adapted the curriculum to raise standards, and a third are changing – or are considering changing – term times.

“With greater freedoms, these state-funded schools can truly meet the needs of local parents and pupils.”

The DfE also said that in two areas of the country, Darlington and Rutland, 100% of state-funded schools were academies.

And in six other local authorities all schools are either already academies or on the way to becoming academies. These include Bexley, Swindon, Kingston-Upon-Thames and Bromley.

Academies to become a majority among state secondary schools

Academies to become a majority among state secondary schools

The Guardian World News |by Jessica Shepherd

Michael Gove

Critics say Michael Gove wants to force schools to become academies against their will. Photograph: Lewis Whyld/PA

The majority of England’s state secondary schools are, or are about to become, academies, government data shows – a major milestone for one of the coalition’s most controversial reforms..

Figures published by the Department for Education (DfE) reveal 50.3% of the country’s 3,261 state secondaries are now academies – or have applied to be.

This means the majority of secondary schools will soon no longer be accountable to their local authority. Instead, they will report to central government. Academies are often funded by businesses or philanthropists as well as the state. They have greater freedom to change the timings of the school day, teachers’ pay and conditions, and the subjects they teach, although they must teach core elements of the national curriculum.

The DfE figures show primary schools are far more reluctant to adopt academy status. Just 5% of primaries are, or are about to become, academies.

Academies began as a Labour government initiative under Tony Blair. Under Labour, only under-performing schools could become academies. The government insisted that these schools had high-profile business backers and gave them multimillion-pound buildings. As most of these schools were in deprived parts of the country, the initiative was seen as a way of giving poorly performing schools in difficult circumstances a new start.

In contrast, the coalition has allowed the highest-performing schools, including those that select pupils academically, to become academies. Schools no longer need a sponsor to become an academy.

As a result, the number of academies that have opened since the coalition came to power has risen eightfold. In May 2010, there were 203 academies. Now, there are 1,776. Of these, 464 are primary schools.

In some parts of the country, such as Darlington in north-east England and Rutland in the east Midlands, all state secondary schools are already academies. In other areas, all state secondary schools are, or are in the process of becoming, academies. These include Bromley and Bexley, in south-east London, Kingston upon Thames, in south-west London, and Swindon in Wiltshire.

Ministers argue that the “freedoms” academies are given mean they are more innovative and can respond better to the needs of their pupils. One of the first academies to open under Labour, Djanogly City Academy in Nottingham, has made radical changes. It has introduced a five-term year and its 10 and 11-year-old pupils study themes, such as “international trade”, rather than subjects.

Matt Buxton, curriculum leader for 12 and 13-year-olds at the academy, said that as an academy, the school had been able to“choose what is best for our pupils”. “This is obviously the route schools are taking,” he said.

However, the academies project has attracted considerable criticism from teaching unions, parents and some local authorities who see it as a smokescreen for the privatisation of state education. They object to academies not having to abide by nationally set pay and conditions rules for teachers and are concerned by the schools’ lack of accountability to locally elected town halls.

Last month, government officials registered a spike in applications for academy status from schools, with more than 140 bids – the largest number since May last year. Critics say this coincides with a drive by Michael Gove, the education secretary, to force schools to become academies against their will.

One example of this is Downhills primary in Tottenham, north London, which was judged inadequate in its latest inspection by the watchdog Ofsted in February and will now become an academy.

The school has claimed Gove is illegally attempting to force academy status on it and that attainment records and an interim Ofsted report last September suggest standards were improving.

The DfE said the school, last placed in special measures in 2002, has struggled to obtain the required standards for years and that the independent inspection, ordered by Gove, was necessary. One parent of a pupil at the school has started a judicial review against the DfE in retaliation.

Fiona Millar, an education campaigner said the “vast majority”of England’s primary and secondary schools had chosen not to become academies and this was why the government was “having to force them” to take on academy status.

When a school becomes an academy, it receives money that equates to what its local authority would have spent on it for services such as transport and special needs. Most of those that had decided to become academies recently did so to receive extra funds, Millar said.

“Schools are no longer certain that this money will be available in the next few years,” she said. “In uncertain times, a lot of schools feel cautious about taking the leap to becoming an academy. They rely on their local authority for support. They turn to the authority for emergencies, such as if the roof falls in. If a school goes it alone, then it doesn’t have this support.”

The coalition’s academy programme ran into trouble last year when it emerged that some academies were mistakenly being given an extra £300 per pupil.

Teachers’ union considers legal challenge over free school assessments

Teachers’ union considers legal challenge over free school assessments

The Guardian World News |by Hélène Mulholland

Michael Gove

The union says it is not convinced that Michael Gove has applied the law correctly. Photograph: Chris Ison/PA

The largest teachers’ union is considering a legal challenge over Michael Gove’sfree schools policy amid concerns that it is damaging children’s education.

The National Union of Teachers (NUT) could appeal to the information commissioner over Gove’s refusal, following a freedom of information request by the union, to disclose the assessments of the impact on nearby schools that he is legally required to obtain when considering whether or not to approve the opening of a free school.

The union says it is not convinced Gove has applied the law correctly, citing a number of cases in which free schools are opening in areas where there are already surplus places or where they will create surplus places, leading to what the NUT said was unnecessary competition.

Separately, the NUT threatened to refuse to co-operate with Ofsted inspections, amid concerns that the school testing regime had a major impact on staff workload and was damaging to morale.

The motion also raised fears about changes that would see weaker schools inspected more frequently.

There are already teachers in Northern Ireland who are refusing to co-operate with their schools inspectorate, the conference heard.

Martin Powell Davies, a teacher from Lewisham in south London and a member of the NUT’s ruling executive, said: “I’m sure there are lots of us who have considered whether we could boycott Ofsted, whether we could have non-co-operation, and perhaps that’s going to be a lot to ask people to do.”

But he said that when the amendment had been discussed there had been excitement among members of “the thought that you might just be able to tell that inspector ‘class, stop what you’re doing we’ve got an unwelcome visitor and we need them to leave’”.

The motion calls for the union’s executive to “reinvigorate the campaign for the abolition of Ofsted”.

The move on free schools follows votes by both the NUT and NASUWT at their annual conferences over the weekend to step up opposition to the government on pay, pensions, working conditions and job losses. There could be strike action as early as this summer.

Kevin Courtney, deputy general secretary of the NUT, said it was in the public interest for the information to be in the public domain.

“What we are talking about is the impact free schools have on other schools, that we think are damaging to education for children in the system.”

The union said that in Bristol and Wandsworth, for example, free schools were adding to the surplus of secondary school places when there was a need for more primary places.

The NUT published research about the “negative impact” of free schools on their neighbours, citing a number of case studies. The Beccles free school in Suffolk, due to open this September, is expected to cost the neighbouring Sir John Leman high school£1m, or 15% of the budget.

Jeremy Rowe, the headteacher at Sir John Leman, which recently converted to an academy, was quoted as saying the proposed free school would be a disaster and a waste of money. Either his school would remain full and the new school empty, “or both are half empty”, he said.

The NUT also cited Becket Keys Church school, planned for Brentwood, in Essex, on the site of a former school, Sawyers Hall College. The union said Sawyers Hall was closing as a result of a local school reorganisation and falling school rolls.

Celia Dignan, of the NUT’s policy team, said: “At a time when huge amounts of schools are facing cuts it seems completely bizarre that they are looking at these applications and thought that they are serving some kind of additional need.”

The study was released to coincide with a debate at the NUT conference in Torquay on what the union branded the privatisation of education under the coalition.

A motion warned that the rapid development of free schools was“creating a market of competing schools that threaten to destabilise existing school provision”.

Teachers are concerned because academies and free schools are accountable to the education secretary, rather than their local authority, and have greater freedom to change the timings of the school day, teachers’ pay and the subjects they teach. To date, 24 free schools have been opened and 70 more are in the pipeline.

Courtney said: “The secretary of state is under an obligation to consider the impact on other schools, to consider the impact on maintained schools, academies, further education institutions, of setting up free schools in any particular area. He is under that obligation in law. But we say that free schools are being set up in areas where they are going to be damaging to existing good provision.

“It goes way beyond the idea that you need some surplus places to allow parental choice, and it is a massive expansion of surplus places in a way that will damage education. It is existing good schools that are being damaged. We have asked the secretary of state to share with us the impact assessments that he must have made about the effect of implementing these schools and he has refused to share that information with us… and so we are now at the stage where we are taking a complaint to the information commissioner because we are convinced that it is in the public interest for this information to be in the public domain.”

A Department for Education spokeswoman said: “Many of the first free schools were set up by talented heads and teachers with years of experience. These professionals listened to what parents had to say and responded with more local choice for children. As a result, the vast majority of free schools are oversubscribed. It is disappointing that the work of these teachers is being overlooked by the NUT.”

New scheme succeeds in keeping excluded children in mainstream school

New scheme succeeds in keeping excluded children in mainstream school

The Guardian World News |by Liz Lightfoot

Martin Bacon at Swavesey village college in Cambridgeshire

Martin Bacon at Swavesey village college in Cambridgeshire. The scheme is being adopted by eight other authorities. Photograph: Graham Turner for the Guardian

At the age of 10, Finley was excluded from primary school and spent the next three years at a unit for children with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties, still unable to control his temper, and heading for the dole queue.

Now 16, he is at one of the most sought-after secondary schools in Cambridgeshire, has four early-entry GCSEs including maths and English, is expected to get another four this summer and will start a college course in music technology in September.

His life has been transformed and he says it is due to the staff at Swavesey village college, an over-subscribed comprehensive that gave him a place three years ago.

“I’m so grateful to this school because if I’d stayed at the other place, I would probably have left with nothing. It used to be an outburst of rage, but now I can see it coming. When I feel edgy and am feeling that something is going to go wrong, all I have to do is tell someone and I can go to the inclusion centre to do my work or even take five, get out and have a breather,” he says.

Finley is one of hundreds of children permanently excluded from schools in Cambridgeshire who are being brought back into mainstream education by a groundbreaking initiative that gives funding for alternative education directly to headteachers, instead of via the local authority as it did in the past. Rather than excluding children and expecting the local authority to educate them, schools now retain responsibility for the progress and results of those they take out of mainstream classes.

Schools should take ownership of every student, not show them the door, says Martin Bacon, Swavesey’s principal. “I take a very strong view that some students are square pegs in round holes and what schools have traditionally done is keep hitting at them until they splinter. We need to be much more creative in what we provide for our most vulnerable students. Inclusion is about achievement, not containment,” he says.

The scheme has turned the system on its head: Normally when a school excludes a pupil, parents are required to supervise their child for up to six days, at which point the local authority assumes responsibility for their education – and picks up the bill. Many end up in expensive local-authority-run pupil referral units (PRU) – schools for children who are too disruptive to be educated alongside their peers – where places cost upwards of £16,000 a year, compared to around £4,500 for a school place at a mainstream school.

Cambridgeshire has put the £5.4m it was spending on excluded children into school budgets. Working with other local schools (known as inclusion partnerships), headteachers now decide what kind of alternative education the pupils need and go out and buy it. Most recognise that a PRU is not necessarily the best place for a disruptive child; across England only 1.4% of PRU pupils achieve five or more good GCSE grades including maths and English against a national average of 57%. So shopping around for education that suits the needs of each individual child not only saves money, it also gives pupils a fighting chance of success.

The results have been dramatic. Since the scheme began four years ago, five of the six local authority-run PRUs have been closed as demand for places dropped from 650 in 2007 to 120 this year. Swavesey, and seven other schools in its South Cambridgeshire partnership, have decided not to send any pupil to a PRU because they risk leaving education with no qualifications.

Tom Jefford, who is responsible for participation and young people’s services across Cambridgeshire, says giving funding directly to schools has been a real game changer. ”It is not yet perfect but it is keeping many more children in the mainstream. Schools now feel accountable for difficult children, whereas before they didn’t. There is a lot of discussion about children in alternative education, whereas before they were out through the door. Sometimes it hasn’t taken that much to keep them at school.”

Working in partnership with local schools means resources can be stretched further. Swavesey village college gets £134,000 of Cambridgeshire’s £5.4m inclusion budget, of which 10% is held back by the partnership for joint developments, such as the employment of extra mental health and family workers.

“The schools in the partnership take collective responsibility for all the children in the area,” says Bacon, citing the recent example of a pupil facing exclusion, who moved to another school in the partnership for a fresh start. The originating school now pays the other £8,000 a year to fund one-to-one support from a teaching assistant.

Investment in quality vocational education is also crucial. If pupils find something that interests them, they are far more likely to engage with core curriculum subjects such as English and maths, says Bacon. Swavesey has well equipped hairdressing and beauty studios managed by a qualified professional.  Old bike sheds have been transformed into a motor workshop with a car and bikes for students to work on and there is a centre for teaching electrical circuits, a painting and decorating studio and an area for bricklaying

Having access to additional funds has enabled the school to employ specialists such as Rebecca Crow, the inclusion centre manager, who has a small staff and a bank of qualified teachers who come in part-time to work one-to-one with pupils.

Clearly this is an approach that could work in other areas. Around 5,200 secondary-aged children are permanently excluded across England and most of them end up in pupil referral units. A recent report by Maggie Atkinson, the children’s commissioner, claims the numbers could be far higher because some pupils are being illegally and unofficially banned from classes.

What is happening in Cambridgeshire is being closely monitored by the Department for Education and when schools return from the Easter break next week, the model will be adopted by around 300 schools in eight other authorities across England as part of a national inclusion pilot organised by the department.

The government’s eagerness to be involved could be down to fears that the increase in self-governing academies and free schools, which are not accountable to local authorities, may lead to an increase in permanent exclusions.

In addition, in the past parents have had the right to appeal against a permanent exclusions to an independent panel (made up of headteachers, parents and other members of the local community) that had the power to force schools to take pupils back if they felt they had been unfairly excluded. But under new legislation, introduced as part of the 2011 Education Act, independent appeal panels no longer have this power.

Not everyone is convinced that giving funding for alternative education directly to schools is the answer. The teacher unions are keeping a close eye on the policy, anxious that the approach, which will inevitably result in having more challenging pupils in mainstream schools, could disrupt lessons and pose health and safety risks.

But pupils back the policy. “Miss Crow is a legend, she always listens to us. Without her we would have been kicked out long ago and it’s better to be in school than out of it,” says one 14-year-old pupil at Swavesey.

Finley agrees: “From first-hand experience, I know that excluding people doesn’t do any good. I know people who will leave with nothing. There may be a few who wouldn’t succeed in a mainstream environment, but most could be integrated, bit by bit, as they did with me.”

Overheated schools stop pupils learning, say teachers

Overheated schools stop pupils learning, say teachers

BBC |April 8, 2012

By Sean Coughlan BBC News education correspondent, in Birmingham
Many classrooms are so overheated that sweltering pupils are finding it impossible to study, a survey suggests.

The NASUWT teachers’ union said a survey shows that one in three teachers have had to give lessons in temperatures that are over 30 degrees.

It was suggested that modern building design, with much more use of glass, was making the problem worse.

The union’s general secretary, Chris Keates, said stifling conditions made pupils’ behaviour more difficult.

The survey from the NASUWT teachers’ union, published at the annual conference in Birmingham, shows that one in three teachers had to give lessons in temperatures of more than 30 degrees Celsius.

More than three-quarters had faced classroom conditions above 24 degrees Celsius, said the survey.

A large majority of teachers said that such temperatures had an adverse impact on pupils’ ability to learn.

Glass wallsThe reason that this was becoming a more urgent problem, said Ms Keates, was a combination of new school design and old buildings.

There were new buildings where much glass was used in the design – but she said these did not always have sufficient ways to reduce the heat, such as blinds that could be pulled down by teachers.

There were also problems with older buildings, said Ms Keates, including windows that could not be opened because of worries about security.

These classrooms faced a build up of heat that made it impossible to study.

Teachers in the survey talked about both staff and pupils becoming lethargic and light-headed because of the temperatures.

There were accounts of pupils needing to be let outside to get water and problems with pupils becoming restless or more irritable.

A teacher described working in an “unbearable” classroom filled with pupils and computers which had no means of opening any windows or ventilation.

Another complained of a classroom that “acts like a greenhouse”.

The teachers’ union says there should be a legal maximum temperature for the workplace.

It also claims that there are serious risks from reducing detailed advice on health and safety.

“NASUWT research has shown time and time again that teachers are facing serious health and safety risks in schools as a result of high levels of stress, school buildings which are outdated and not fit for purpose, the presence of asbestos and excessive classroom temperatures,” said Ms Keates.

England’s schools revolution: a progress report, two years on

England’s schools revolution: a progress report, two years on

The Guardian World News |by Jeevan Vasagar

South Norwood Harris academy

South Norwood Harris academy: teachers working at the school can get a 20% discount at Lord Harris’s Carpetright. Photograph: Frank Baron for the Guardian

Vincent Palumbo opens a jar of gel and smears some on his hair in front of the class. The science teacher is chattering like a classroom Jamie Oliver: “Get a bit of the old hair gel, slip it on your hair. I needed a bit – so that’s sorted.”

The lesson is on polymerisation, the process of linking molecules together to make complex chains. The abstract topic is made simpler and more relevant with an everyday polymer – the gel. “The problem is,” Palumbo says. “If I go to the seaside– if I go swimming – my hair just flattens. Why does that happen?” He demonstrates by squirting gel into a petri dish and tipping in some salt. “Imagine you’re near the sea …along comes the salt.” As he adds the salt to the gel, the polymer collapses. The sticky globules disintegrate into a translucent puddle. The children’s eyes gleam.

This is the kind of engaging lesson that happens at every good school. But for years, this wasn’t a good school.

The Harris academy in South Norwood, south London, opened in September 2007, on the site of the Stanley technical high school for boys. It was a new type of school, directly funded by central government and backed by a private sponsor rather than having its money channelled through the council. In this case, the benefactor is Lord Harris of Peckham, the self-made millionaire who founded Carpetright.

And this is not his only school – the Harris Federation has 13 academies in the area (12 secondary and one primary school), with five more set to open.

The landscape of education in England is changing fast, and the pace of change has accelerated since the coalition came to power nearly two years ago. From being a tool to turn around failing schools, the option of academy status has been extended to all schools. Last week, the Department for Education confirmed that more than half of England’s secondary schools are, or are about to become, academies.

Hundreds of primaries are facing conversion too (though so far only 5% of primary schools are, or are in the process of becoming, academies). The education secretary, Michael Gove, has also permitted parents, teachers and charities to set up “free schools”.

Academy sponsors appoint most of a school’s governors, and the schools have greater freedom over pay and conditions. At Harris schools, teachers typically get an extra ££1,500 on top of their standard pay. There are also fringe benefits, including a 20% staff discount at Carpetright. The academies also own their land and strike deals directly with external suppliers to buy in services such as truancy officers or speech therapists.

For years, only a fifth or so of pupils at the Stanley high school got five good passes at GCSE, including English and maths– the benchmark of success at school. This level of achievement was far below the local and national average.

Last summer, 74% of students at Harris South Norwood achieved five good passes in English and maths. The national average is about 58%. Ofsted now rates it as “outstanding”.

The transformation is evident in how the school’s catchment area has shrunk; from eight miles to 0.8 of a mile.

Back in the chemistry classroom, the children are being asked to think about how to frame a scientific inquiry. How can they design an experiment that is repeatable and fair? As the teacher dashes between the octagonal desks, the pupils are focused on their tasks, despite the potential for chaos when you mix a gaggle of 14-year-olds and half a dozen tubes of gel.

A much bigger experiment is going on in England. It involves every school and the man mixing the potion is Gove. When the education secretary speaks about academies, his claims soar. There is a prime example of this on a video the Department for Education uploaded to YouTube last summer.

Over images of a teacher in shirtsleeves helping enthusiastic children with their reading, Gove says: “When a school becomes an academy, there’s only one focus – the children. And the question that everyone asks is: how can we ensure, working with the additional freedoms and resources that we have, that we focus on raising attainment for the very poorest?

“And the great thing about the academies movement is that it relies not on central direction by politicians, or by bureaucrats second-guessing those in the classroom. The academies movement is all about liberating and emancipating teachers and teaching leaders to do the best for young people. I think it’s a fantastic principle that we should say that those who are most idealistic about education should be given control of education.”

It is an appeal to left and right. Anyone who cares about social mobility should back academies, Gove implies. But they should also be supported by anyone who believes in a small state.

The government’s critics say academies do not really generate the success that is claimed. Or if they do, it is because they inflate their results with vocational subjects or exclude far more of the most difficult children than schools that are still maintained by local authorities. The aim of the academies programme was to raise standards by giving schools a measure of independence. This, combined with pressure and outside expertise from the sponsors, would help drive up the attainment of pupils, it was thought.

Research by Stephen Machin and James Vernoit of the London School of Economics found that Labour’s academies – which were formerly failing schools –experienced a “significant increase” in GCSE performance due to the conversion. This held true even after controlling for the fact that they attracted pupils of higher ability after the change of status.

However, it is too early to say whether the coalition’s acceleration of the policy, and its extension to high-performing schools, is having a positive impact. Indeed, Machin wrote in the Guardian this week: “We have been somewhat surprised to see [our research] used extensively by supporters of the coalition’s policy on academies: for example, by the Department for Education in a recent debate with the Local Schools Network, and again by Jonathan Hill, the under-secretary of state for schools, last month. This seems rather hard to justify, given that the new academy programme is different in a number of ways [to Labour’s].”

The effect of the changes is to radically diminish the role of local authorities in education. Councils are going from a situation in which they employed teaching staff and held back cash from schools for central services to a more “hands-off” role in which they will act as a watchdog over admissions and exclusions –but without controlling the purse strings.

The coalition’s reforms open up the prospect of a market in education; the creation of new schools means there is increased competition for pupils, and the government funding that comes with them. Gove is encouraging the expansion of good schools in the hope that this will exert pressure on the rest.

Under the coalition, high-performing schools do not need to have a sponsor when they become academies. Most of the schools that have converted to academies under Gove have done so to gain greater control over their budgets. They have not been required to undertake the changes of leadership and governance that were crucial to the success of academies under Labour.

When the bell rings for break at the Harris academy South Norwood, the children walk quietly down the corridors, chatting and laughing. There is no shouting, shoving or running. The boys and girls in burgundy blazers are the best adverts for the school.

Jason Kyereme, 16 and now in his GCSE exam year, joined the school in its first term as an academy. He is clear about the reputation of the academy’s predecessor. “People [pupils] might be making noise on the roads – you could see that some of behaviour outside the academy wasn’t really good enough. People around here thought this school wasn’t really achieving and also the exam results were not that good. My mum wants me to have the best education; she felt that my coming here would make me have the best education.”

Kyereme is staying on for the sixth form, where he plans to take maths, biology and chemistry A-levels. He has his sights set on a Russell group university: Birmingham, or possibly Imperial College London.

At Harris schools, the sponsor has a hands-on role. Dan Moynihan, chief executive of the Harris Federation, said: “We observe a lot of lessons at the start to work out the strengths and weaknesses of teachers and then we design coaching programmes based on those strengths and weaknesses. And, you know, mostly teachers are very receptive to that. If a school’s been in difficulty most teachers say, ‘Come on, how can we get better?’ Where teachers are less receptive, by working with staff from other schools who have done it, that quickly disappears.”

Before Harris took over at South Norwood there were “lots of supply teachers”, he said, and a high staff turnover in the first year after conversion. “It was mainly because they had not been permanent staff before.”

Troubled schools also need a consistent behaviour policy, where teachers are backed by the school’s management. “It tends to be a feature of schools in difficulties, where teachers feel ‘the kids do this, the rules say it’s wrong, but we never get backup’,”Moynihan said.

If academies are frustrated with the quality of support provided by their local authority, they can choose a backer that fits. The shrinking of local government means a new role is being opened up, both for the private sector – Harris schools now get their truancy officers from a private firm – and the not-for-profit sponsoring organisations that back academies.

In Luton, a group of schools has in effect recreated the role of the council, forming a local cluster that includes two academies, a free school and a studio school, which specialises in vocational education. The Barnfield Federation – which hopes in future to run schools for profit – has the collective financial muscle to commission services that all its schools need. But within the cluster, there is diversity.

The Barnfield group of schools includes two that feel radically different. The studio school, open since September 2010, is the first of its kind in England: a small school for 14- to 18-year-olds that leans strongly towards vocational education. The other is a former prep school,Moorlands, which became a free school last September, and where the head describes the ethos as a “high standard of education with small classes”.

The atmospheres in the two schools are sharply contrasting. On a recent visit to the studio school, a group of teenagers were studying the barest bones of a Shakespeare play. The storyline of Romeo and Juliet had been cut up into single-line plot points, and the children were busy trying to assemble them into the right order. The school has a florist, gift shop, hair salon and restaurant attached, giving pupils work experience. It forges close links with local businesses including Monarch Airlines, preparing children for jobs in the retail, hospitality or service industries.

At Moorlands primary school, housed in a cream-coloured Victorian villa, seven- and eight-year-olds are learning French.“Qu’est-ce que c’est?” says the teacher, displaying a picture card. “Le fromage – French people like lots of cheese.”

At another picture, a girl shyly tries to pronounce“chocolat”. It doesn’t come out quite right and the teacher prompts her: “Just try, we’re going to try again.” The teacher enunciates: “Sho-ko-la … très bien.”

At Moorlands, acting head Chris Sillars said that although it is now state-funded, the “culture and ethos has remained the same– maintaining the ethos is key to what we’re doing”.

Mark Cronin, principal of the studio school, outlines three“pathways” that children in Luton’s schools might take. “Pathway A are your A* standard ones. They are your high flyers; the best choice for them is probably the English bacc [baccalaureate –good GCSEs in English, maths, history or geography, two sciences and a foreign language]. They have the choice of doing single sciences, languages, humanities.

“Pathway B children will have the opportunity of doing a language, humanity, and a vocational subject, but not the English bacc.

“Pathway C children are those who probably haven’t achieved quite at the national average. Everyone does their core subjects still at GCSE, but they might be steered towards vocational BTecs,”he says.

To critics of the coalition’s school reforms, this may spell the breakup of the comprehensive system, with children steered down separate paths according to ability at an early age. Some might also observe that removing lower-performing students from a school would be good for its GCSE results.

Academies have a higher rate of exclusions than local authority-maintained schools. Official figures show that 0.3% of pupils at academies were permanently excluded in 2009-10, the last year for which figures are available, while 0.14% of the population at local authority-run secondaries were permanently excluded in the same year.

Defenders of academies point to the fact that the new schools set up by Labour disproportionately serve deprived parts of the country. But when the Department for Education compared academies with local authority schools “in similar circumstances”, officials found the exclusion rate was still a little higher at the new schools, though the margin narrowed considerably.

Academies are not a panacea. Just like any other schools, they can fail. Last month Birkdale academy in Southport – which had been judged good with outstanding features in 2007 – was placed in special measures after a damning Ofsted report. Inspectors said the school was failing to “give its pupils an acceptable standard of education”. The report blamed a failure by the school’s leadership to improve the quality of teaching and tackle bad behaviour. The decline took place over a period of years, but there was no sign that academy conversion in August 2011 had prompted any improvement.

The head of Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw, has acknowledged this. In an interview with the Times in December, he called for local school commissioners to identify failing schools. He said: “I speak as someone who believes in autonomy and who believes in independence, and as a great supporter of the academy programme, but we know there will be some academies that won’t do well.

“It is no good just relying on Ofsted to give the judgment. By that time it is too late. We need some sort of intermediary bodies, which can detect when things aren’t going well, look at the data and have their ear very close to the ground to determine when there is a certain issue.”

The suggestion is backed by Labour. But the government is not convinced. At a recent select committee hearing, Gove told MPs: “It is important that, having stripped back bureaucracy at the centre and locally, we do not reimpose it.”

So what happens if the experiment fails? It seems there is no plan B.


2000 The education secretary, David Blunkett, announces the Academies Programme. Academies were intended to replace existing failing schools or create new schools in areas of educational under-achievement. They would be state-funded but run in partnership with sponsors such as churches or businesses. The sponsor was expected to provide financial backing for the school.

2002 The first academy opens. The Business Academy, Bexley, is followed by several others including Mossbourne, in 2004, on the former site of Hackney Downs –once called the “worst in Britain”. Mossbourne becomes the most high-profile success of the programme. Last summer, 82% of its students achieved the benchmark of five good GCSE passes including English and maths.

2010 Labour leaves office with about 200 academies open. The coalition’s Academies Act 2010 allows all schools to apply for conversion to academies. They do not need to have sponsors. The legislation also authorises the creation of free schools, which can be set up by parents, teachers or charities.

2011 The first 24 free schools open their doors, including one in west London where the journalist Toby Young is chairman of the governors; a Sikh school in Birmingham; and a Hindu school in Leicester.

2012 At the start of March, there were 1,635 academies in England. By April, more than half of all secondary schools are academies or due to convert.

National Union of Teachers leader attacks free school ‘vanity projects’

National Union of Teachers leader attacks free school ‘vanity projects’

The Guardian World News |by Hélène Mulholland

Christine Blower

Christine Blower renewed her call for a merger of teaching unions, on the closing day of the NUT annual conference. Photograph: Sean Smith for the Guardian

The National Union of Teachers has accused the government of wasting money on “vanity projects” after finding that £337m has been spent on the academies and free schools programme in less than two years.

The NUT is strongly opposed to reforms that it says are leading to the privatisation of state education and putting national pay and conditions under threat. It says there is no evidence that academies and free schools will drive up standards, and says some free schools are being set up in areas close to existing high performing schools.

The union’s figures show £337.2m has been spent in support of the government’s policy on academies and free schools since the general election in May 2010, with the Department for Education (DfE) spending £305.6m on the programme up to February 2012.

Last week the DfE revealed that the majority of England’s state secondary schools were, or were about to become, academies. Primary schools are far more reluctant: 5% are, or are about to become, academies. To date, 24 free schools have been set up and 70 more are in the pipeline.

A total of £2.6m was paid to 27 free school groups between November 2010 and February 2012 to support their opening. Five former private schools that converted to free schools received£4.26m between them, and 19 new free schools that opened last September shared a total of £5m for their 1,664 pupils, which the union claims is equivalent to the size of one average secondary school.

The figures were drawn from totting up payments released under the “open government” commitment, under which individual payments of £25,000 or more listed on monthly spreadsheets.

The NUT leader, Christine Blower, unveiled the figures in her address to delegates on the closing day of the union’s annual conference in Torquay, which on Monday heard calls for measures including industrial action over the changes.

Blower said: “As we know, because the government tells us all the time, we are in a time of constrained budgets and money is tight. So you might reasonably expect the DfE to be watching every penny. It might come as a surprise then to find that a whopping£305.6m was spent on the academies and free schools programme between April 2010 and February 2012.

“An increasing amount of staff resource is being used at the DfE on these vanity projects when the department, as a whole, is shrinking. Little wonder that Michael Gove is known as the secretary of state for free schools and academies.”

Blower renewed her call for a merger of teaching unions to bolster their strength in the face of what she feels is a multi-pronged attack on the profession and state education. Both the NUT and the NASUWT have resolved to take further industrial action in defence of pensions and pay if the government presses ahead with plans to move away from national pay scales.

“We will continue to work to achieve the maximum unity and unity in action with all organisations but never lose sight of the prize that is a single unified teachers’ union,” Blower said.

The union said at the weekend that it was considering lodging an appeal to the information commissioner over Gove’s refusal, following a freedom of information request, to disclose the assessments of the impact on nearby schools that he is legally required to obtain when considering whether to approve the opening of a free school.

Academies and free schools have greater freedom to change the timings of the school day, teachers’ pay and the subjects they teach, and are accountable to the education secretary rather than to their local authority.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 31 other followers

%d bloggers like this: