Gordon Brown given UN education role

Gordon Brown given UN education role

BBC |July 13, 2012

By Sean Coughlan| BBC News education correspondent

Former prime minister Gordon Brown is to become a global education envoy for UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

Mr Brown’s aim is to see 61 million more children enrolled into education across the world by 2015.

Since leaving office in 2010, the former UK prime minister has produced a series of reports on education in developing countries.

Earlier this year he launched a campaign for an international fund to bring education to all children.

Mr Brown said his new role would be a “great privilege”.

“Ensuring that every child in the world has the opportunity to go to school and to learn is a longstanding passion of mine,” said Mr Brown.

“Education breaks the cycle of poverty and unlocks better health and better job prospects.”

Global goals

The announcement, made in New York, means Mr Brown becomes a UN envoy – supporting UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon.

This unpaid position is the first big job for the former prime minister since he left Downing Street two years ago.

But it does not mean that he will be leaving domestic politics.

His office told the BBC that Mr Brown definitely remained the MP for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath.

That could lead to further criticism from those who have attacked him for attending few debates and voting in Parliament on only a handful of occasions.

He joins the likes of the former US President, Bill Clinton, and former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.

Mr Brown has been campaigning in support of the millennium development goal that by 2015 all children should have access to at least a primary school education.

While it seems increasingly likely that some of the millennium goals will be missed, Mr Brown has called on the international community to try to keep its pledge on primary education.

Mr Brown earlier this year published a report warning of the “silent emergency” of millions of children not receiving any education – and called for an urgent investment to change this.

He reported that in South Sudan, girls were more likely to die in childbirth than complete a primary school education.

Mr Brown says he wants to support the UN secretary-general’s initiative, Education First, which aims to prioritise education within development projects.

“Enrolling an additional 61 million children and ensuring a quality education for all by the end of 2015 will not be easy – but it is a goal which, working together, we can achieve,” says Mr Brown.

Mr Brown has worked with his wife Sarah on a number of international education projects, including promoting the cause of children in conflict zones who miss out on education.

In a report on South Sudan published in April, he said that more than 40% of the world’s children missing out on education lived in “fragile states” or those affected by violence.

He warned that at present, only 2% of humanitarian aid goes into education.

Mr Brown has said he will continue to serve as MP for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath.

Ministers ‘rush to approve private degree courses’

Ministers ‘rush to approve private degree courses’

BBC |July 12, 2012

By Hannah Richardson|BBC News education reporter

Ministers are being accused of “falling over themselves” to approve degree and diploma-level courses at private colleges in England.

New figures show 400 courses have been approved since 2010 when ministers pledged to open up the higher education market.

Private colleges are not subject to the same quality checks as public universities.

The government said it planned to strengthen checks on private providers.

Currently it is the Student Loans Company which checks course descriptions against information on courses in the public domain. It then passes this information on to government officials.

However, the universities minister David Willetts said in a parliamentary written answer earlier this year that such checks did not cover the quality of education provided.

Instead many private providers form partnerships with specific universities which take on a validation role for certain courses.

‘Unregulated’

The figures were published by the Student Loans Company in response to a Freedom of Information request from the Times Higher Education magazine.

They showed the number of courses approved in 2011-12 rose by 77% from 228 in 2010-11 to a total of 403 in 2011-12.

The acceleration of the approval rate is also illustrated by the fact that one college had 98 courses approved by officials in just a single day.

Another college had 22 courses approved just weeks before it was closed by the UK Border Agency.

Head of the UCU academics’ union Sally Hunt said the data showed how little oversight the government has given to courses run by private providers.

She added: “At a time when public universities are being starved of funds, ministers seem to be falling over themselves to sign off ever- increasing amounts of taxpayers’ money to more or less any company which applies for designated course status.”

The government should act to to halt the “unregulated process and introduce stringent regulation for private providers”, she said.

Students on such “designated” courses qualify for government-backed tuition fee loans from the SLC.

‘Quality checks’

The firm said that some £55m in loans and grants was allocated to courses with private providers in 2010-11.

This figure is expected to rise considerably as such providers are able to increase their course charges from about £3,000 to £6,000 from this September.

But unlike universities, most private providers are not subject to stringent quality checks by the Quality Assurance Agency.

Universities UK said the UK’s public universities were some of the most highly-regulated in the world.

It said the QAA, which bases its checks of public universities on a “set of UK-wide nationally-agreed reference points”, has a key role in monitoring standards and auditing institutions.

Universities UK added that such private institutions were not subject to student numbers control or any of the accountability requirements from the funding body, Hefce.

‘Due diligence’

A UUK spokesman said: “We are very supportive of finding a way to bring them under the same student number controls and onto a level playing field, ensuring that they engage with the QAA, Hefce etc in the same way that our institutions have to.

“This is important to ensure that these organisations (QAA, Hefce) are seen to be meeting their obligations to safeguard the student experience and ensure public funding is spent effectively.”

A Department for Business, Innovation and Skills spokesman said all courses designated for student support must be validated by a recognised UK awarding body – such as a university – to help ensure quality.

“In the last 12 months, we have also introduced due diligence checks on organisations applying for designation for the first time. These look at a range of factors including financial sustainability and consideration of any parent company.

“But we recognise the case for going further and have recently said we are now looking at introducing more robust and transparent requirements on quality assurance, financial sustainability and governance,” he added.

The Student Loans Company said it checks colleges by asking them to provide information about the courses they offer including timetables, intensity and amount of days of study required.

It then checks this against information in the public domain and passes it on to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

Gove turns down group’s bid for extra education funding

Gove turns down group’s bid for extra education funding

BBC |July 13, 2012

By Hannah Richardson BBC News education reporter

A group of England’s lowest-funded local education authorities has had its bid for extra funding turned down by the Education Secretary Michael Gove.

Schools run by members of the group, known as f40, get up to £600 less in basic grant per pupil than the local council average.

They had asked for £99m to share between them until a new national funding formula is introduced in 2015.

Turning them down, Mr Gove blamed the economic situation.

The group heard the decision just days before Mr Gove announced approval for about 100 new free schools.

‘Economic situation’

In a letter to the group’s chairman, Councillor Ivan Ould, Mr Gove said: “I am very sympathetic to the case you and your colleagues put forward.

“I agree the current system for funding schools is out of date and complex, and that is why I have committed to introducing a new National Funding Formula.”

He continued: “It is important that we move to a new formula gradually and at a pace which schools can manage.”

He said it was important to consider any changes carefully and get the new formula right.

He added that because of the “reality of the current economic situation” any extra funds would have had to have come from elsewhere in the funding system.

The government has indicated the new funding formula will not be introduced during the current parliament.

‘Fairer funding’

But group secretary Doug Allen said what made the news particularly difficult was coverage of grants to free schools.

“I read recently that Mr Gove is giving £2m to a school in Beccles for a small number of pupils.

“You have to question where is the sense in that, where is all that extra money coming from?”

He added that the campaign for fairer funding had been going on for 20 years under governments of all descriptions.

But this was the first time that the group felt they had won the argument, he said.

The group was asked specifically by Mr Gove in March to produce some financial modelling to show how the issue could be addressed.

He highlighted the disparities in funding using the example of schools close to each other in Leicester City and Leicestershire.

“You could be living in one street and go to a school in Leicestershire that gets £800 per pupil less than the one someone else in that street goes to because it is a Leicester city school.”

He said similar discrepancies existed between the East Riding of Yorkshire and Hull, and Nottingham and Nottinghamshire.

Third of new free schools are religious

Third of new free schools are religious

The Guardian |by Jeevan Vasagar, education editor on July 13, 2012

Education secretary, Michael Gove, at the Woodpecker Hall Primary Academy free school in London

Education secretary Michael Gove, seen at the Woodpecker Hall Primary Academy, says free schools are driving up standards. Photograph: Eddie Mulholland/Rex Features

A third of the free schools approved by the government to open from September 2013 onwards characterise themselves as faith schools, compared with a quarter of the first wave.

More than 100 new free schools were announced on Friday, including 33 that describe themselves as religious, 20 of which are designated faith schools and will be able to select some pupils on this basis.

Faith organisations have an advantage over parent groups in setting up free schools as they often have access to property, such as a church hall, and can swiftly mobilise community resources.

Of the first wave of 24 free schools that opened last September, six were faith schools, including two Jewish schools in London, a Hindu school in Leicester and a Sikh school in Birmingham.

A total of 102 free-school applications have been approved to open from next year. These include one backed by Manchester City football club and five private schools converting to the state sector. In all, 59 schools are being set up by teachers, existing schools and educational organisations, including the five private ones.

During a school visit later on Friday, David Cameron said: “The free schools revolution was built on a simple idea: open up our schools to new providers. And use the competition that results to drive up standards across the system. Get behind parents, charities and committed teachers who are trying to make things better. And give them the freedoms they need to transform our education system.”

The number of free schools opened so far has been modest; a further 50 are expected to open in September.

The schools that have won approval in the latest round include the Connell sixth form college, a co-educational school being set up by Altrincham Grammar School for Girls and backed by Manchester City. The club will provide access to its football pitches.

The Collective Spirit school in Oldham will be a “faith sensitive” school that does not select on the basis of religion but aims to build community cohesion. The East London science college, which will be based in Tower Hamlets or Newham, is being set up by a teacher group led by David Perks, founder of the Physics Factory charity, which campaigns to encourage the study of physics.

The Big Life group, which is responsible for the Big Issue in the north of England, is behind a plan to open a primary school in Longsight, Manchester.

The new schools include 85 mainstream institutions. Of these, 40 are primary, 28 are secondary and 10 are “all-through”. The rest are for different age ranges, including sixth formers.

There are five schools for children with special needs and 12 “alternative provision” schools, for children who cannot attend mainstream schools. The Harris Federation, an academy sponsor, will open one of these in Croydon or Bromley. will cater for 90 pupils, including excluded children and teenage parents.

There will be two schools backed by universities, the Marine academy primary in Plymouth and the University of Birmingham school and sixth form in Birmingham.

The education secretary, Michael Gove, said: “Free schools are driving up standards across the country. Now more and more groups are taking advantage of the freedoms we’ve offered to create wonderful new schools.”

Rachel Wolf, director of the New Schools Network, the charity that advises groups wanting to set up new schools, said the announcement meant the free-schools programme was on its way to delivering a “great new school for every community”.

Gove made a similar promise ahead of the general election, but has since declined to give a target.

Wolf said: “We are excited that such a large proportion of the schools are coming from within the education sector. With over half of the groups approved today being school-led, the profession is voting with its feet. Teachers across the country are recognising that free schools give them the opportunity to set up and run schools as they see fit, without being encumbered by unnecessary process and bureaucratic controls.”

Christine Blower, general secretary of the teachers’ union NUT, said free schools were “neither wanted nor needed”.

It emerged last month that the Beccles free school in Suffolk had just 37 applications for children to start this September, despite originally planning to open with places for more than 300.

Riverside Co-operative

The Riverside Co-operative will be one of the biggest free schools when it opens in the east London development of Barking Riverside, catering for around 1,800 children when at full capacity.

The school will be split into three “mini schools” for children of different abilities. There will be a “grammar school” stream for the most academically able, who will study for the English baccalaureate and be expected to take A-levels and go on to university. A second “mini school” will offer a mix of academic and applied learning, combining GCSEs with vocational education. A third, for children who arrive at school below the expected level for their age, will focus on literacy, numeracy and social skills.

Children will be able to transfer between the three streams at the end of each year, and the most academic “mini school” is expected to be the largest, catering for half of pupils.

Roger Leighton, executive head of the school, said: “Our aim is to have flexibility between the three mini schools, rather than the old [grammar school] system of total separation and a clear break at the age of 11.”

Longsight school

One of the free schools approved on Friday is backed by the Big Life group, the social enterprise behind the Big Issue in the north of England.

The group is working with parents to set up an 189-place primary school in Longsight, a deprived area of Manchester where there is a shortage of school places.

The Big Life group, which already manages a children’s centre in the area, said it had supported more than 20 families with appeals for school places, and more than 40 families had asked for support finding a place. Manchester city council has already had to set up three temporary classes in the area as a population boom has squeezed schools.

Fay Selvan, chief executive of the Big Life group, said: “It’s an area which has a lot of new migrants, a community which finds it hard to access school places.

“More traditional communities have got more established links to schools, such as through siblings. They are the people most affected by not having enough primary school places.”

Alongside education, the school will provide volunteering opportunities to parents, and training which leads to teaching and childcare qualifications.

The school will encourage parental involvement through morning reading sessions and its curriculum will focus on language development. It will also offer maths, science, ICT and PE as discrete subjects.

In its first year the school will offer 27 reception places,  15 year-one places and 10 year-two places, growing to a total of 189 places for children from reception age to year 6 by 2019.

Education and skills have long-term effect on cities’ economic well being

Education and skills have long-term effect on cities’ economic well being

guardian.co.uk |by Robert Booth on July 12, 2012

closed coal mine, barnsley

People living in former coalfield communities of Barnsley are facing a battle against poverty today. In 1901, the town was in the bottom 20 for skills levels. Photograph: John Giles/PA

The long-term economic health of towns and cities rests on investment in citizens’ skills and professional qualifications, according to a study published on Thursday examining the effects of 111 years of change in urban life in England and Wales.

Cities with the highest numbers of well-trained and educated residents in 1901 are found to be among the best performing places today, while those with the lowest skills base in Edwardian times tend to be the most vulnerable economies today, according to the research by the Centre for Cities thinktank.

The report’s authors claimed the research has significant implications for policymakers and “illustrates that short-term cuts in expenditure on the policies that support cities to boost skills, from education to transport infrastructure, are likely to result in a big bill for government in the medium to longer term”.

Seven out of eight of the best performing cities today had above average skills levels in 1901, including Oxford, Brighton, Crawley and London, the study found. Meanwhile 80% of cities with struggling economies today fell into the bottom 20 cities for skills levels in 1901, including Grimsby, Middlesbrough, Barnsley, Stoke and Burnley. Figures for 1901 were collated using census data and the figures for today are based on national statistics and government data.

“History tells us that failure to invest in city economies has long-term effects for the UK economy,” said Alexandra Jones, chief executive of Centre for Cities. “The government needs to preference the policies that support cities to grow – the research shows that skills and transport in particular can shape the economic health of a city. Ensuring the education system prepares children for the world of work when they leave school is vital for those children and for the future health of the UK economy.”

The thinktank is urging the government to combine investment in core literacy, numeracy and IT skills with investment in technical courses such as engineering, a skill it warns is likely to be in shortage over the next decade.

The health of economies was assessed in 2010 using a range of factors including economic output, growth in private sector jobs, unemployment and wages. Skills levels in 1901 were based on numbers in professional occupations such as banking, insurance, accountancy, as well as merchants, and commercial and business clerks.

The study found that cities like Preston, Warrington and Swindon have progressed much more quickly than others. For example, the skills of Warrington’s population are more highly developed now than in 1901, when it was in the bottom 5% of cities. Now it falls within the top 20% of cities for skills and according to the thinktank’s index of economic indicators. The report’s authors attribute the trend to state investment in transport networks, both road and rail.

The balance of power between cities was dramatically different at the turn of the century, according to the analysis. The coastal towns and cities of Southend, Blackpool, Bournemouth, Hastings and Brighton had the highest number of people in higher wage occupations, while Bournemouth, London and Blackpool had the highest property values per member of the population. The city with the most joint stock companies per head of population, a measure of enterprise, was not London, but Cardiff, followed by Bradford and then London. Liverpool, which was described by Benjamin Disraeli as the “second city of the Empire”, was ranked as one of the most economically buoyant in 1901 but by 2011 it tanked among the 20% worst performing in the UK.

Venture capitalist gives £75m for Oxford’s poorest students

Venture capitalist gives £75m for Oxford’s poorest students

guardian.co.uk |by Jeevan Vasagar on July 11, 2012

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Oxford University

42.3% of Oxford’s UK undergraduate intake in 2011 was from private schools. Photograph: Alamy

It is common for altruistic billionaires to make their mark in brick, steel and glass on a university campus or to sponsor one of the more fashionable branches of research, but Michael Moritz will leave a legacy in flesh and blood.

The venture capitalist, born in Wales and living in California, announced the biggest philanthropic gift for undergraduate financial support in European history on Wednesday. A £75m gift from the multimillionaire investor and his wife, the novelist Harriet Heyman, will fund £11,000 scholarships for the poorest 10% of Oxford students.

Moritz, who attended state school in Cardiff and graduated from Christ Church, Oxford with a degree in history, said he was moved to help others by his father’s escape from nazism.

Moritz, who has invested in a string of internet successes including Google, PayPal and YouTube, said he owed his existence to “the generosity of strangers”.

Speaking at a press conference in London, he said: “My father was plucked as a teenager from Nazi Germany. He was able to attend a very good school here in London entirely on a scholarship. He went on to study at Oxford and had a PhD financed entirely from a scholarship.”

The Moritz-Heyman scholarships will be available to students whose family income is less than £16,000, who are selected for Oxford. The first 100 will be awarded this autumn.

Moritz-Heyman scholars will receive financial support to cover living costs, while the university will waive most of the £9,000 tuition fee. They will have to find £3,500 for tuition, which can be borrowed as a government-backed loan.

In addition, they will receive financial support during the holidays and will participate in a tailor-made internship programme to help them on to the career ladder. In the first wave, priority will be given to students of science subjects and those who are disadvantaged, such as coming from a school that performs below the national average at A-level or being in care.

Charlotte Anderson, an Oxford undergraduate who was sitting alongside Moritz at the press conference, said: “Having been offered a place it was a serious consideration by my parents, who had never been to university, whether I was able to take my place, simply because of whether they would be able to afford it. That seems absurd now, but all they saw was the idea of a huge debt and the stress that is attached.”

The latest figures, for 2011 entry, show 42.3% of Oxford’s UK undergraduate intake were from private schools. Less than a quarter of the intake were from comprehensives. Nationally, a third of all those achieving three A grades at A-level are privately educated.

The scholarship gift will be made in three tranches of £25m, which will be matched by £25m from the university’s endowment. Oxford aims to raise a further £50m from donations. The next slice of Moritz-Heyman funding will be given when £100m has been raised for student support.

At present just under 1,000 Oxford undergraduates – about one in 10 – are in the lowest family income bracket.

Within three years, it is expected more than half of these students will receive a Moritz-Heyman scholarship, and Oxford envisages this scheme or an equivalent scholarship will be extended to all the poorest students.

The scholars will be asked to return to their schools and encourage pupils to apply to Oxford.

Oxford’s vice-chancellor, Professor Andrew Hamilton, said: “Oxford is already offering the most generous undergraduate support package in the country. But this remarkable and hugely generous gift and initiative from Michael and Harriet allows us to go an important stage further towards our goal of ensuring that all barriers – real or perceived – are removed from students’ choices.

“It provides extraordinary support – financial and personal – for outstanding students.”

Moritz described the initiative as a “fresh approach” to student funding in Britain which was “fuelled by philanthropy, catering to the dreams and aspirations of individuals determined to excel, while also safeguarding the academic excellence on which Oxford’s global reputation stands”.

David Cameron welcomed the gift, saying it meant students from disadvantaged backgrounds would get help to study at a world-leading university.

Moritz stepped back from the day-to-day running of his firm Sequoia Capital in May after announcing he had a manageable but incurable disease. He remains chairman.

Before joining Sequoia, Moritz was San Francisco bureau chief for Time magazine.

In 2008, he and his wife donated more than £25m to Christ Church, the biggest single gift in the college’s recent history.

Oxford said the new pledge was believed to be the biggest gift for undergraduate support in European history. It is believed to be one of top five philanthropic gifts ever made in the UK for any single cause.

How the gift compares

Cambridge

The Gates Cambridge scholarships were established in 2000 with a $210m donation from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. This was the biggest single donation Cambridge has received. The scholarships enable applicants from outside the UK to pursue a full-time postgraduate degree in any subject at Cambridge.

Harvard

In 2008, David M Rockefeller gave $100m to Harvard, his alma mater, to support international study for undergraduates and expand arts education. Harvard’s biggest ever gift was $125m from the Swiss philanthropist Hansjörg Wyss to fund a bioengineering institute. Harvard has the largest endowment fund of any university in the world, with assets of around $31bn, according to Forbes.

Stanford

In 2001, the Hewlett Foundation gave $400m to help build Stanford’s endowment for the humanities and sciences and for undergraduate education. William Hewlett, who set up the foundation, qualified as an electrical engineer at Stanford before founding the Hewlett-Packard company, better known as HP, in 1939.

Headteachers signed up by ministry to praise Gove’s free school policies

Headteachers signed up by ministry to praise Gove’s free school policies

guardian.co.uk |by Jeevan Vasagar on July 11, 2012

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Michael Gove

Education secretary Michael Gove is due to announce the next wave of free schools soon. Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Civil servants at the Department for Education were asked by Michael Gove’s advisers to enlist sympathetic headteachers who could act as defenders of controversial government policies, including the creation of free schools.

The PR operation involved creating a database of sympathisers who could advocate policy instead of ministers. Quotes from headteachers on the database were added to official announcements. It was shut down amid concern that it risked politicising the civil service.

The education secretary, who is due to announce the next wave of free schools imminently, has faced mounting criticism in recent weeks.

The Stakeholder and Advocacy team was established within the DfE last April as the government prepared for the opening of the first free schools.

One source with knowledge of the operation said: “It was just a pretty simple database: anyone supportive of free schools or academies or back-to-basics 1950s schooling was just dumped on the database, you could roll them out with an announcement – to back it. It was all driven by spads [special advisers].”

The new drive marked a shift from the traditional civil service method of using data to back government announcements, the source said. “DfE [in the past] would just put out loads of data; Tory spads were from a softer PR background and wanted to use case studies.”

The aim was to have headteachers advancing policy rather than ministers, the source said.

Headteachers on the list included Patricia Sowter, head of an academy school, who spoke before Gove at the Conservative party conference in 2010.

Press releases from the DfE in the past year have frequently included supportive quotes from headteachers. An announcement about the new school admissions code had a quote from Rob McDonough, headteacher at West Bridgford school in Nottingham, which read: “I very much welcome the direction of change. Through greater school autonomy, and the academies programme, which will positively impact upon standards, I do believe this will increase the supply of good school places for parents.”

McDonough told the Guardian: “In that particular instance, I had as a headteacher been invited to work on the working party looking at the new admissions code. The fact that as a practising headteacher I’d been offered the opportunity to look at all the new admissions proposals, I was very appreciative of that. If they’re putting my name to that on a press release, it’s justified.”

External endorsement has been an important source of support at a time when Gove faces intense criticism. The education secretary’s proposed reforms have been attacked by senior figures including Lord Adonis, the former schools minister, and the director of the Institute of Education, Chris Husbands.

Gove is due to announce which free schools are approved to open in September 2013 before parliament rises on 17 July.

While the Labour government also sought out supportive headteachers, Gove’s team wanted to put this PR operation on a formal footing, another source said. The operation was closed down amid concern about how the people on the database were selected, and that civil servants were being asked to do work that was the province of special advisers. The civil service is required to be politically impartial while special advisers assist ministers in areas where the work of the government and governing party overlap.

“If you were being uncharitable you could say it was using civil servants to wheel out Tory supporters,” a source said.

Civil servants would be encouraged to add names to the list by ministerial aides who said: “This guy’s good, we know him from Tory circles.”

In response to questions in parliament from the Labour MP Lisa Nandy, the government confirmed the team was intended to “improve relationships and build understanding of the department’s policies with key stakeholders”.

Nandy said: “I asked these questions because I was increasingly concerned about the politicisation of the civil service. It has been incredibly difficult to get answers to parliamentary questions and FOI requests out of the DfE, and particularly in relation to this group on why it was disbanded so suddenly.

“If you set that within the wider context of the last two years – public money awarded without a proper tendering process to an organisation run by a former [Gove] adviser, Tory donors brought on to the board of the Department for Education, an outside body linked to the Tory party directing civil servants, and private emails used to discuss official business – it seems there is a blurring of boundaries between the Conservative party and the civil service, which is a significant cause for concern, and deserves answers.”

The PR drive was established after the media strategist James Frayne was appointed Gove’s director of communications. Frayne, a former campaigns director at the Taxpayers’ Alliance,  has written about the importance of “mobilising third parties”.

Frayne is leaving the DfE post at the end of August to work for the Republicans in this year’s US presidential elections.

A DfE spokesman said: “The Stakeholder and Advocacy Team was created in the spring of 2011 and existed for just over six months. In that time it helped stage events on the curriculum and on maths and science policy. It also generated lists of interested parties that were invited to events and kept informed about departmental policy. It was closed as part of a restructure which halved the size of the communications team.

“All civil servants operate under the civil service code. Any substantive allegations of breaches of the code would be investigated in the usual way.”

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

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