Education in brief: rewriting history; more bullying allegations; spotlight on academy governors

Education in brief: rewriting history; more bullying allegations; spotlight on academy governors

The Guardian|by Warwick Mansell and Geraldine Hackett on March 11, 2013

There have been rumours that Michael Gove has written the new history curriculum

There have been rumours that the education secretary, Michael Gove, has written the new national history curriculum. Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
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Michael Gove finds himself mired in yet more controversy. This time over the history curriculum which he has been accused of writing himself whilst ignoring the advice of history education experts. In addition there have been further allegations of bullying made against his department. It really does beggar belief how such a controversial and seemingly incompetent minister has remained in post for so long.
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A case of rewriting the history curriculum?

Who wrote the much-discussed new national curriculum for history? It is an intriguing question, with the Historical Association having said its advice and evidence have been ignored, while one Conservative former adviser to Michael Gove said the current draft “bore no resemblance” to versions he had worked on as recently as January.

So what is the rumour going around the history community at the moment? It is that the seven-page draft curriculum, with its 134 bullet points, including the stipulation that key stage 1 pupils learn about Christina Rossetti and those in KS2 about the Heptarchy, was written by the education secretary himself.

Chairing a history conference last week, the shadow schools minister, Kevin Brennan, voiced this publicly. “There’s no truth to the rumour that the secretary of state wrote up [the draft history curriculum] over a weekend?” he asked of senior civil servant Marc Cavey. “It’s a nice story, but indeed not,” replied Cavey, perhaps a tad nervously. A source had earlier told Education Guardian that the seemingly unsubstantiated gossip had featured at a recent Historical Association meeting.

Speakers at the Westminster Education Forum event disagreed over the merits of the document’s detailed content. But most were of the view that the volume of material included made it questionable whether the new curriculum would ever actually be taught in full to pupils.

More bullying allegations surface at the DfE

With Gove due to reappear before the education select committee this week to answer questions about what he knew about bullying allegations within the Department for Education, news reaches us of an official complaint that has been made about “intimidation” by one of that department’s academy “brokers”.

The complaint came in a letter sent by Tim Crumpton, a Labour councillor in Dudley, West Midlands, to the office of Gove’s schools commissioner, Elizabeth Sidwell, last November. Crumpton, the council’s cabinet member for children’s services, asked the office to investigate “bullying” by the broker.

As reported in this column, these DfE brokers are seeking to push many schools towards academy status. Crumpton said he had accompanied the senior official on three visits to schools in Dudley. “On each occasion, [her] behaviour has been intimidating and bullying towards governors, headteachers and local authority staff,” he wrote.

The broker had provided no agenda or subsequent notes of the meetings at schools under pressure to become academies, while, said Crumpton’s letter, on each occasion she had said: “The minister will make you become an academy, and will intervene both in the school and in the local authority if they do not support this action.”

Crumpton told his local paper, the Stourbridge News, he had received an unhelpful response to the letter from the DfE.

The DfE said: “We carried out a thorough investigation and found no basis in the claims.”

Meanwhile, campaign groups associated with at least four schools that are under sustained DfE pressure to convert to sponsored academy status have joined together to set up an organisation called Parents Against Forced Academies. The group has aproposal on the 38degrees campaigning website which, with approaching 2,000 supporters, was top of a list of “hot” issues on the site as of last week.

Parents at Roke primary school in Kenley, Surrey, have now said they intend to launch a legal challenge against the DfE’s move to enforce academy sponsorship under the Harris chain.

Kingsdale results under the spotlight

Intriguing goings-on continue at Kingsdale school, the academy in Southwark, south London, which has been at the centre of an unresolved GCSE and BTec cheating inquiry by exam boards for more than 18 months now.

Sources say the school refused to give out its 2012 GCSE results to parents last autumn citing the controversy over GCSE English, meaning that grades were provisional at this stage. But in January, official league table results on Kingsdale – described as “brilliant” by David Cameron in 2011 – seemingly showed a dramatic fall in grades in summer 2012. The previous year, 60% of pupils gained five good GCSEsincluding English and maths. By 2012, it had fallen to 36%, which is below the government’s current 40% “floor target” minimum.

The government data does not include the effect of any GCSE English resits or appeals, and the school has now published unofficial statistics, taking them into account, which put the figure at 49%.

However, new data published by Ofsted makes it clear that Kingsdale’s results drop was not confined to English, with science A*-Cs also falling sharply, from 63 to 26%, and maths also down.

Ofsted visited the school in December and gave it a “good” rating. But some parental and whistleblower sources are puzzled as to why the latest GCSE results were not given more prominence in the inspection report, which says mysteriously that unspecified “circumstances”, leading to a reduction in revision support, helped to explain the 2012 drop.

Steve Morrison, Kingsdale’s headteacher, said the decision to hold back some of its 2012 exam data last term, because of the GCSE English review, was a practice “in line with hundreds of schools” across England. Kingsdale results were also generally good, with early-entry GCSE grades for pupils now in years 10 and 11 at a “record high”, he said.

The crème de la crème of academy governors?

The state of Swindon academy, one of seven academies that have had warning letters from Ofsted, suggests that having experts on the governing body is not always a guarantee of success. Sir Michael Wilshaw, the chief inspector, has been complaining that some governors are not up to scratch, but Swindon has a line-up other schools might envy.

Mary Curnock Cook, the chief executive of Ucas, the university admissions service, has been a governor there for five years. The chair is Sir Anthony Greener, a former chair of the now abolished Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.

Fellow governors include Colin Fraser, recently retired deputy head of Marlborough College (£31,000 a year for boarders) and Marlborough’s director of science, Nic Allott. From industry, there is Mike Godfrey, who until a couple of months ago was chief engineer at Swindon’s Honda plant. He had worked for Honda for 27 years.

The blame-hunters might direct their attention at United Learning, the academy’s sponsor, which runs its schools from the centre. United Learning is now run by Jon Coles, a former senior civil servant at the DfE.

Primary school parents in row over takeover by academy chain

Primary school parents in row over takeover by academy chain

The Guardian  |by Peter Walker on March 10, 2013

Education secretary Michael Gove

Education secretary Michael Gove, who favours academies taking control of schools from local authorities, faces a row over a ‘farcical’ consultation over Roke primary school in Croydon. Photograph: Ray Tang/Rex Features
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More concerns are being raised about the academising of primary schools against their will. It appears that not only are schools being forced into becoming academies there is also a complete lack of transparency over the selection of the provider. 

Parents at a popular primary school threatened with takeover by an academy chain have labelled a promised consultation a farce after the main questionnaire failed to even ask them if they wanted the school to change status.

A group of parents battling plans to remove Roke primary in Croydon, south London from local authority control have also released a transcript of a meeting in which a Department for Education “broker” told them she believed the school was failing based largely on a half-hour tour during which she thought the children looked “bored”.

The row over the DfE’s apparent desire to push the primary into the control of the Harris Federation, against the wishes of governors, staff and seemingly the majority of parents, appears to run counter to Michael Gove’s belief that academies are more responsive to local needs.

The DfE has faced parental anger elsewhere, notably over Downhills primary schoolsin Haringey, north London, which Gove made part of Harris last year despite 94% of parents telling a consultation they opposed it.

The significance with Roke is that it has no long history of under-performance, supposedly the only reason for forced conversion. Roke was targeted after Ofsted assessed it as “inadequate” in May. Governors and parents, however, said this was a one-off blip caused largely by computer problems which meant inspectors could not view data. Subsequent inspections found the problems had been largely rectified.

The DfE promised a consultation, albeit one run directly by Harris, set up by the Carpetright millionaire Lord Harris. This turned out to involve a questionnaire which only asked whether, when it became an academy, Roke should be sponsored by Harris, not if parents wanted an academy at all.

At a public meeting last week attended by Harris and some of his senior staff, parents were told the DfE had instructed the chain to redraft the questionnaire. But parents remain suspicious.

“To not even ask us initially if we wanted the school to be an academy, it’s just indicative of a whole attitude,” said Nigel Geary-Andrews, a parent and 39-year-old civil servant. “It really doesn’t seem that they want our views at all. It’s as if the decision has already been made – which we think it has. It’s a bit of a farce.”

At the same meeting some parents were angered when the “broker”, a freelance contractor hired by the DfE to work with converter academies, described how she decided Roke needed help. Val McGregor said she had spent “about 20 minutes, half an hour” touring the school before meeting senior staff and governors, concluding pupils were bored and “not doing as well as we had hoped”.

Asked by a parent how she could reach such a verdict so quickly, McGregor replied: “We could spend longer but I don’t think that is appropriate.”

The meeting was also addressed by Dan Moynihan, chief executive of the Harris Federation, who was knighted last year. At another consultation meeting last week, parents said, Moynihan spent half the hour-long event making a phone call. One parent challenged Moynihan afterwards for this perceived rudeness.

Geary-Andrews said: “Again, this seems to show an attitude that Harris aren’t really interested in listening to parents and our views.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said Harris was seen as the best sponsor due to a record of improving under-performing schools. She said: “The children at Roke deserve the best possible education, but any suggestion that there is a ‘done deal’ on a sponsor is wrong. Ministers will carefully consider all responses to the ongoing consultation and any other relevant factors before taking a final decision.”

A Harris Federation spokeswoman said the final decision on Roke would be made by Michael Gove, not them.

She said: “Our report will not be making a recommendation, but will simply report what parents have said. We only had two responses before the meetings and we will extend the period for getting replies back to make sure everyone has plenty of time to consider the extra question. We have enjoyed hearing from parents and others, answering their questions and providing reassurance.”

Free school head without any teaching qualifications plans to ignore curriculum

Free school head without any teaching qualifications plans to ignore curriculum

The Guardian |by Daniel Boffey, policy editor on March 9, 2013

Pimlico school

Pimlico Academy free school in Westminster, London, is due to open its primary school in September. Photograph: Linda Nylind for the Guardian
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Worrying news that a significant number of unqualified staff are being employed as teachers in free schools. In addition, at least one free school is employing a headteacher who is not a qualified teacher and plans to ignore the national curriculum. This is directly at odds with the requirements for Qualified Teacher Status being made more stringent which suggests that greater qualifications are required to teach effectively. The government’s education policies are, yet again, shown to be, confused and flawed. 

One in ten teachers working in free schools are not formally qualified to do so, according to official figures, including a 27-year-old who has been appointed as headteacher of a primary due to open this year. There were 21 teachers with no teaching qualifications in the 17 free schools that responded to a government census. Almost half (47%) of the schools had at least one unqualified teacher.

Pimlico Primary free school in Westminster, which is due to open in September, has appointed a headteacher who is only now receiving teacher training. Annaliese Briggs, a former thinktank director who advised the coalition government on its national primary curriculum, is the designated head for the new school, which is sponsored by Future, a charity founded by John Nash, the Tory donor and former venture capitalist appointed schools minister in January.

It is understood that Briggs, an English literature graduate from Queen Mary, University of London, and a former deputy director of the right-wing thinktank Civitas, is being trained in Wandsworth in preparation for the beginning of the next school year. She has already said that she will ignore the national curriculum and teach lessons “inspired by the tried and tested methods of ED Hirsch Jr”, the controversial American academic behind what he calls “content-rich” learning.

One local teacher, who did not want to be named, said he was astonished that such an inexperienced candidate had been selected. . “It seems extraordinary that having experience and teaching qualifications are no longer prerequisites to running a school,” he said. Even a young headteacher is normally expected to have six years of teaching experience before they are entrusted with the task of leading a school.

The education secretary, Michael Gove, announced in 2010 that free schools – which are outside the control of local authorities but funded by the state – would be allowed greater leeway over appointments. Last summer he extended such freedoms to the country’s 1,500 academies, claiming that removal of the requirement for staff to have qualified teacher status (QTS) would replicate the “dynamism” that he believes is found in private schools.

The shadow education secretary, Stephen Twigg, responding to the school census figures – which were collected in November 2011 – said he would reverse the policy if Labour was in power. “Parents will be shocked to learn that this government changed the rules and we now have unqualified teachers in state schools. This wouldn’t happen under Labour – we would ensure teachers are qualified,” said Twigg.

“We need to strengthen, not undermine, the quality and professionalism of teaching. Ministers should reverse this decision so that all young people get the qualified teachers they deserve.”

Leaders of the teaching unions believe the policy is part of a “deskilling” of the profession. Chris Keates, general secretary of NASUWT, the largest teachers’ union, said the latest figures were an insult to teachers. “This information is just a manifestation of the fundamentally flawed policies of a coalition government that believes it is acceptable that schools should be able to employ leaders and teachers who do not have qualified teacher status,” she said.

“Parents and the public should be deeply concerned that they can no longer have confidence that when children and young people go to school they are being taught by a qualified teacher.

“If anyone suggested that doctors could be unqualified and allowed to treat patients, everyone would be rightly horrified. Why is the same concern not extended to the education of our children and young people?”

The row comes as the first Ofsted reports into standards in free schools are published. Batley grammar school in West Yorkshire and Sandbach school in Cheshire were both found to “require improvement”. They were said to be letting their pupils down across a range of subjects, particularly English. Staff at Sandbach school were told they had an “inflated view” of their performance.

Jo Saxton, director of education for Pimlico Primary’s sponsor Future, said: “All our staff are carefully selected to ensure the ideal balance between excellent subject knowledge, effective teaching and the ability to engage all pupils.”

A Department for Education spokesman said: “We have given free schools and academies the same freedoms the best independent schools enjoy to hire great linguists, computer scientists, engineers and other specialists so they can inspire their pupils.

“Pimlico Academy’s governors and teachers [Pimlico Academy secondary school is also run by Future and will share its site with Pimlico Primary] took a failing secondary and increased its Ofsted rating to ‘outstanding’ in record time. Headteachers and governors at places like Pimlico know their schools best and we trust them to recruit the right staff.”

Dear Mr Gove: Michael Rosen’s letter from a curious parent

Dear Mr Gove: Michael Rosen’s letter from a curious parent

The Guardian  |by Michael Rosen on March 4, 2013

Four-year-old children working with numbers

Should four-year-olds have numeracy targets? Photograph: Alamy
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Michael Rosen’s latest letter to Michael Gove: Once again he asks the questions we all want to raise and says what many in the education system are already thinking. Well worth a read. 

I see that the education select committee has asked you and your permanent secretary to reappear before them. I was surprised by your response: you seem to think that this is a waste of time. You wrote to the committee saying you were free to answer their questions: “Then, perhaps, the Department for Education team can get on with improving children’s lives and you can consider where your own energies might be directed.”

I had no idea that it was your job to tell the select committee what they should be doing. Isn’t the idea of you telling others about how their “own energies might be directed” laughable?

I’ve been in several parts of the country that are reeling from the chaos of your top-down transformation of the structure of education. As was predicted, an academy can fail an Ofsted inspection. The problem is that you seem to think that turning a school into an academy is a cure and, following from that, you don’t seem to have imagined a scenario in which the cure could fail or that the cure itself might ever need curing.

So what happens when an academy fails? Presumably, as your “energies” are “directed” towards this by the red light flashing on the map in your office, you as sole commander of Academy England issue instructions: “Switch sponsors! Chuck out AET, bring in Harris! Hang on, I sent Harris to that other place. How about a superhead? Any superheads around? No? Why not? No one wants to apply for the job? Tell the head in the next-door school, she’s got to do the job or she’s out on her ear. Federate!

“Now you’re telling me that if she becomes superhead the deputy head doesn’t want to be a stand-in head? OK, this is the plan: who’s the local authority? Right, this might be tricky, but I want you to sidle up to them, tell them that I’ve never been against local authorities and see if they can … er … provide some assistance to this academy …”

Meanwhile, out there beyond the walls of your office, I can tell you that people are seriously confused about the fact that there isn’t just one kind of academy – there appear to be several different kinds. I only have nine years of tertiary education to my name, so I’m not able to understand the structures that you’ve put in place with your well-directed “energies”. I haven’t got any further than thinking that there are: old academies, opted-in academies and Govean you-must-be-academies-because-I-say-so academies. To which must be added the still-academies-even-though-they-failed-Ofsted academies. Perhaps at some point you’ll stand before us and let us know how this “improves children’s lives”.

Looking even closer, we can now see what happens when one of your favoured academy sponsors, on your instruction, takes over a local authority school. Let’s home in on a school whose parents, staff, local council and local MP all wanted it to remain under local authority control; a school where the Ofsted inspection showed it performed better than average for its least-able pupils. In came the Govean sponsors who have sent out letters to the parents saying: “Unfortunately, your child has still not met their initial target of being able to recognise their numerals 1-10.”

Fair enough, people might say. Children must be able to recognise numbers, eh? One problem: this letter went to parents of four-year-olds. Does telling these parents a) that their children have failed b) that four-year-olds should have numeracy targets c) that this is their target as opposed to the academy sponsor’s target, “improve children’s lives”?

This is a point of arrival. You alone decide that a school will become an academy. This joins it to a system that cannot cater for all children.

Through the league tables it enforces competition between schools, which results in teaching to the test. Teachers, parents and children are controlled by targets, with the ultimate result that large numbers of children are marked as failures.

But where do these targets come from? Where is the theory and evidence to show that every four-year-old should have targets; should recognise numerals; or that demanding this “improves children’s lives”?

No, I’ll rephrase that: where is the discussion about how four-year-olds learn that you and your department could start, as opposed to this kind of Gove-enforced, sponsor-directed instruction?

Academies and Lies

An enlightening film that exposes the issues behind the DfE’s desperate drive to academise the English schools network.

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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.”

Free schools campaigners celebrate freedom of information victory

Free schools campaigners celebrate freedom of information victory

guardian.co.uk |by Hélène Mulholland on July 6, 2012

schoolchildren sitting exams

Free schools victory – Disclosure could lead to speculation about why a proposal was unsuccessful, the education department has warned. Photograph: Bubbles/Alamy

The Department for Education has been ordered to release details of all proposals to establish free schools, after a complaint by the British Humanist Association over an unsuccessful freedom of information (FOI) request lodged in June last year.

The BHA asked for the release of the information amid concerns that the additional freedoms afforded to free schools could lead to a rise in religious discrimination within the state-funded sector, and see a growth in what it considers “evangelical and pseudoscientific schools”.

It argued that since applications were only known once successful, the public had been denied a chance to scrutinise the bids, and requested a list of all free school proposals – including unsuccessful ones – in the first and second wave since the policy was introduced in 2010.

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) ruled there were “very strong” public interest grounds to publish.

Education secretary Michael Gove’s department argued against disclosure under a section of the FOI Act, initially on the grounds that such a move would be “prejudice of effective conduct of public affairs”. The DfE subsequently argued for exemption on the grounds that the information related to the formulation or development of government policy.

The department argued that unsuccessful proposals could be improved and successfully resubmitted and that the release of earlier failed proposals could attract negative publicity and deter proposers, thereby reducing choice for parents and pupils.

Disclosure could also lead to speculation about why a proposal was unsuccessful, such as whether the proposed area or religious character of the school was a factor, and this could increase local tensions and deter other proposals, said the DfE.

But the ICO said the public interest factors in favour of disclosure were “very strong”.

“The withheld information relates to the practical application of a new national education policy and the expenditure of public money,” the decision notice stated. “There is a very strong public interest in providing the public with information about free school applications, both on a national and local level. The disclosure of this information would help to increase the transparency of the programme, help public understanding and enable participation.”

While acknowledging there were valid public interest arguments for maintaining the exemption, it concluded these were outweighed.

BHA faith schools campaigner Richy Thompson welcomed the ruling. “The BHA campaigns against state-funded faith schools, and an important part of being able to do this effectively is being able to identify who is applying to set them up,” he said. “This year we have been trying to identify all free school applications, but have only been able to identify about two-fifths of the groups that applied – the majority of groups are simply unknown to the public at large.

“It is hard to know how the public is able to scrutinise these proposals if we don’t even know about them in the first place. By the time free schools are ‘pre-approved’ to open by the DfE and publicly listed, it is often too late to stop them.”

The DfE has 35 days to comply or appeal. A spokesperson said: “We are currently considering the ICO’s decision, and will respond in due course.”

The decision follows a separate ruling in May instructing the DfE to publish a list of proposed university technical colleges and 16-19 free schools.

‘Buried’ report praised Labour’s school building programme

‘Buried’ report praised Labour’s school building programme

guardian.co.uk |by Jeevan Vasagar on July 5, 2012

Schoolchildren at the Bridge Learning Campus in Bristol

Schoolchildren at the Bridge Learning Campus in Bristol at work in a classroom constructed under the Building Schools for the Future programme and opened in January 2009. The programme was given a glowing report. Photograph: Matt Cardy/Getty

Ministers are being accused of suppressing a glowing report about Labour’s school renovation programme, Building Schools for the Future, which was controversially scrapped by the education secretary Michael Gove.

The report, which has now been disclosed under Freedom of Information legislation, says that schools rebuilt under BSF showed “significant” improvements in exam results and declining truancy.

The report was drawn up by Partnerships for Schools, the quango which oversaw the mammoth school building programme, in September 2010.

Gove scrapped BSF in July 2010, two months after the general election, telling the Commons the scheme had been characterised by “massive overspends, tragic delays, botched construction projects and needless bureaucracy”.

At the time, the minister said there was “no firm evidence” of improved results as a result of school renovation. But the evaluation of BSF found that at 62% of the schools sampled, GCSE results were improving at a rate that was above the national average. Attendance improved in 73% of the schools.

The report said: “There are clear patterns of improvement that compare favourably with both local and national data. The patterns are significant and need further investigation to provide explanations about the impact of the BSF process.”

Rebuilding was one of a “number of interventions” in the schools concerned, the study said. The report, drawn up by the now-defunct Partnerships for Schools, was not published and the Department for Education did not carry out any further research. The quango has been scrapped by Gove.

The evalution has been disclosed following an FOI request by Building magazine.

Shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg said: “[David] Cameron promised this government would herald a new era of transparency, but Michael Gove seems to have missed the memo. He should explain why this report seems to have been buried by the Department for Education.If we are to raise school standards, policy should be driven by evidence not the personal prejudice of ministers.” Twigg said that while the quality of teaching was “by far the most important factor” for school success, the research suggested a link between the quality of school buildings and the quality of education.

The government has come under criticism for pursuing policies despite a lack of evidence that they work. The Department for Work and Pensions expanded a scheme requiring unemployed people to do unpaid work, despite its own study concluding that the programme had “no impact on the likelihood of being employed”.

Nusrat Faizullah, chief executive of the British Council for School Environments, an education charity, said it was vital to evaluate the success of building projects to make future decisions about renovating schools.

“We can see no good reasons for suppressing evaluation data about school buildings.

“Our worry is that the decision to deny access to this information is driven by politics. Is this government anxious about giving credit to new or refurbished schools funded by the last government? This should be about what works for our communities, not about political point scoring.”

More than 700 school building projects were cancelled when BSF was scrapped. In May, the DfE announced that 261 schools had made successful bids under the coalition’s privately financed Priority School Building Programme. This is fewer than half of the number that applied for rebuilds.

The government has commissioned a survey of the school estate which will detail the condition of every school in England by next autumn.

There is widespread concern among headteachers that the country’s classrooms are not fit for purpose, with complaints of overcrowding, leaking ceilings and poor ventilation.

A Department for Education spokeswoman said: “Our priority is to deliver robust standards and high quality teaching to all pupils. As well as launching the Priority Schools Building Programme we are providing extra capital investment to support the provision of new school places and meet essential maintenance needs.”

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City scheme challenges academies

City scheme challenges academies

BBC |July 5, 2012

By Judith  BurnsEducation reporter BBC News
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The government has been urged to reconsider whether sponsored academies are the best way to boost weak schools.

Figures suggest results in England’s sponsored academies rose more slowly than in some other poor performing schools, a study claims.

Researchers at London Metropolitan University said results rose fastest in schools in the City Challenge programme which ran in some areas until 2011.

The government said: “We are building on the best of what we had before.”

City Challenge ran in London, Manchester and the Black Country from 2008 to 2011. In the capital, a  similar programme, The London Challenge began in 2003.

‘Poorest performing’

The researchers, from the Institute of Policy Studies in Education at London Metropolitan University, drew on government data to compare GCSE improvement rates for the poorest-performing fifth of schools between 2008 and 2011.

These were schools where in 2008 fewer than 32% of pupils achieved five A* to C GCSEs including English and maths.

The research team says its analysis suggests that pupil attainment in the underperforming schools supported by City Challenge improved significantly more than it did in other weak schools, including sponsored academies.

By 2011, the secondary schools that had been in City Challenge programmes improved their exam results by 4% more than schools, including sponsored academies, that had not, says the study.

Some of the secondary schools supported by City Challenge programmes subsequently became sponsored academies, but they did not improve significantly more than other schools supported by the scheme, the researchers found.

Lead author Professor Merryn Hutchings told BBC News: “What we are showing is that there is an effective way to improve schools through support and expert advice as happened with City Challenge.

“The current government’s policy is to turn weak schools into sponsored academies. Our data suggests that this has been effective only in those schools that had previously been supported through City Challenge.”

The report, Evaluation of the City Challenge Programme, was commissioned by the Department for Education.

City Challenge was designed to “crack the associated cycle of disadvantage and underachievement” by reducing the number of underperforming schools, increasing the number of good and outstanding schools and improve educational outcomes for disadvantaged children, says the report.

The report defines the programme’s strategy as providing external experts to work alongside existing head teachers to assess each school’s individual needs and to set up bespoke support programmes which included mentoring by head teachers from better performing schools.

A spokesman for the Department for Education said: “For too long children from the poorest backgrounds have been left with the worst schools.

“We are building on the best of what we had before. We have introduced the Pupil Premium to ensure every school is equipped to support pupils from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. The Pupil Premium has increased to £600 and been extended to many more children.

“We are also transforming the worst-performing schools with new leadership as academies and free schools.

“This gives parents and teachers the power to make decisions that are right for local children. The most recent data available shows that the attainment rate for pupils on free school meals in academies improved by 8.3 percentage points between 2009 and 2010.”

The report says that programme was particularly successful in London where it ran for eight years, first as the London Challenge and later as City Challenge.

According to the researchers, London schools now perform well above the national average while pupils on free school meals do better than in any other region.

Private school chain faces Michael Gove inquiry on whistleblower claims

Private school chain faces Michael Gove inquiry on whistleblower claims

guardian.co.uk |by Daniel Boffey

  • Daniel Boffey
  • The Observer, Saturday 9 June 2012
Sir Chris Woodhead

Sir Chris Woodhead said Cognita would‘robustly’ defend itself against the claims. Photograph: Adrian Sherratt/Rex Features

The private school chain run by Sir Chris Woodhead, a former chief inspector of schools, is under investigation by the Department for Education over claims that it has defrauded the generous state-run pension scheme for teachers.

Officials are acting on information from a former senior executive at Cognita, which has a multimillion-pound turnover and manages more than 50 fee-paying schools across the country.

It is claimed that, in order to lure high-achieving staff, Cognita filed paperwork to ensure that headteachers at schools not eligible to benefit from the Teachers Pensions Scheme (TPS) were registered as working in schools that are covered.

Documents seen by the Observer show that at least one headteacher, John Price, working at Chilton Cantelo, in Dorset, a school where staff are ineligible to membership of TPS, did enjoy the benefits, although the company says the arrangement is legitimate.

The matter has been internally investigated by the company’s lawyers and its chief executive, Rees Withers, wrote to the whistleblower denying there was any issue, adding that there were no grounds to accuse Cognita of dishonesty. He wrote: “Given the complexities of pension legislation it would be perfectly feasible for illegitimate arrangements to be put in place through a misunderstanding of the rules.”

However the allegation is now, according to a letter from the education secretary Michael Gove to the whistleblower’s MP, “being investigated by my officials”.

The inquiry comes at a sensitive juncture for Woodhead, whose company is said to be seeking new financial backing to fund its expansion in Asia.

It also follows revelations by the Observer last year that parents at its £7,400-a-term Southbank International school in London believed the company had been “milking profits” at the expense of children’s education.

In other allegations made to both the DfE and theObserver, the whistleblower, a former senior education officer at the firm who was sacked last summer after making the claims internally, says he was asked to take part in commercial espionage, said to be referred to as “secret shopping” within the firm.

He claims he was asked to pretend to be a prospective parent along with a female colleague in order to pick up commercially valuable information from a rival school.

He says the company’s UK marketing director, Nicole Louis, even handed him a script to use during a planned visit to St Michael’s school in Llanelli last year, which competes with Cognita’s Ffynone House school in Swansea. Ffynone House has since been transferred back to its previous charitable owners amid questions over the school’s financial viability.

Two months before he was fired, the whistleblower received a letter from Withers, saying: “I appreciate that you felt it wrong of Nicole Louis to ask you to adopt a false name and pretend to be a prospective parent and that you believe that, as a general rule, it is inappropriate for a senior employee of Cognita to adopt such an approach to assess the facilities of a rival.

“However the issue that you raised in your original letter of complaint was that such conduct constituted ‘fraudulent conduct’.

“I am satisfied that such conduct is not ‘fraudulent’ in the sense of some criminal law offence having been committed.

“I note your opinion on what the head of the school could have done. However, the point is that he did not call the police and, having already said in previous correspondence that the practice has been discontinued until the matter can be debated at board level to determine whether such an approach is ethically and commercially right for the business, I fail to see what further you expect of me.”

The whistleblower further claims there was a brutal culture at the firm. Minutes of a meeting between Woodhead, who is the firm’s chairman, and Cognita heads on 12 May 2011 records Woodhead saying:“Certain members of staff at head office should stop behaving in a brutal and cavalier fashion.”

An email, seen by the Observer, from David Baldwin, then a senior education officer at the firm, to the whistleblower in October 2010, also admits: “We cannot lose people like yourself in this often faceless, sometimes brutish company.”

Woodhead said Cognita would “robustly” defend itself but would offer no further comment. The DfE said it was aware of the allegation but could not comment further.

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