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.

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.”

Michael Gove attacks schools’ ‘low standards’ in Labour-led inner cities

Michael Gove attacks schools’ ‘low standards’ in Labour-led inner cities

The Guardian |by Patrick Wintour on October 23, 2012

Michael Gove

Michael Gove said MPs could either back academies and free schools or ‘stand with adults who are blocking school improvement’. Photograph: Gideon Mendel/Corbis
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Worrying news in the Guardian today that Michael Gove, the Coalition’s Education Secretary is writing to Members of Parliament (mainly Labour) in constituencies where schools are. in his opinion failing, asserting that the only way to see improvements in the schools they represent is to support his policies.  This is worrying for a number of reasons. Firstly, many educationalists would agree with our view that much of his thinking is based on political ideology rather than evidence based policy.  Indeed, some of his policies are  already shown to be failing in countries such as Sweden, once listed as one of his sources of inspiration and quietly dropped from his list in a speech at this year’s annual Conservative Party conference. Secondly, he appears to be trying to shift any blame for his policies’ failures onto opposition MPs who quite rightfully stand up for their constituents and reasonably speak out about issues with his department’s direction of travel. Finally, in a recent speech to a right-wing think-tank he basically admits that he is prepared to arbitrarily press ahead with his ideas regardless of anyone else’s opinions and any adverse consequences to rolling out untested education reforms. 

Michael Gove, the education secretary, is writing to all MPs in areas where schools are under-performing – mainly Labour-led inner-city schools – demanding they side with him to open up the education system “to the new providers who can raise standards”.

Gove has started his campaign against “the forces of conservatism” by writing to MPs in Leicester and Derby on Tuesday asking them whether they want to “keep the door closed to new solutions and stick rigidly to the status quo which is failing the children in their areas”.

He asserts in “both of these areas, standards are far too low, with too many primaries which are judged by Ofsted to be unsatisfactory, or which have performed below national expectations for many years … 2012 results for 11-year-old pupils in each region are lower than the national average, lower than the average for the east Midlands region, far lower than pupils and parents have a right to expect”.

The initiative follows the decision of David Cameron to position himself as the champion of an “aspiration nation” in which excellence in education is central to economic recovery.

The Conservatives are clearly also trying to expose divisions in Labour ranks on its approach to academies and free schools, as well as to pin responsibility on mainly Labour-run areas for delivering inadequate school standards.

In a speech to the rightwing thinktank Politeia, Gove said: “There are hundreds more underperforming primary schools, many concentrated in other disadvantaged communities, where we need to act.”

He said he was writing to MPs in areas of educational underperformance “outlining why we need to act and drawing attention to the failure, so far, of those in positions of power in local councils to move fast enough in improving our schools”.

He added: “In a number of communities the local forces of conservatism have worked against reform and have thrown every possible obstacle in the path of potential academy sponsors and free school founders trying to make a difference.”

He urged MPs to recognise “they have a simple choice: stand with those in the academies and free schools movement who want to put children first, or stand with the adults who are blocking school improvement”.

Gove tried to increase Labour discomfiture by lavishing praise on the role of Lord Adonis and Tony Blair in starting and championing the academies movement.

Adonis holds a frontbench role in the Lords and is overseeing the party’s industrial policy review.

Gove also vented his frustration at the forces blocking progress inside the civil service and parliament, saying: “Far too often the Whitehall machine is risk-averse. Media commentary rarely allows early errors to be seen in context as experiments which will generate improvements. And the National Audit Office and public accounts committee, the most influential watchdogs in the country, are some of our fiercest forces of conservatism.

“Time after time the NAO and PAC report in a way which treats any mistake in the implementation of any innovation as a scandalous waste of public money which prudent decision-making should have avoided. And yet at the same time it treats the faults of current provision as unalterable facts of nature – like the location of oceans and mountains – which should be accepted as the design of a benign providence.

“What we need, across the Westminster village, is a decisive shift in the culture in favour of risk and openness and away from small-c conservatism.”

He complains of the blockages put in the way of his education reforms, saying: “Whenever we press for faster action to help those children, there are always adults urging delay – time for consultations, audits, reviews, impact assessments, stakeholder management, securing professional buy-in, assuring ourselves of compliance with EU procurement rules, getting counsel’s opinion, assessing sector feedback, monitoring noise in the system, and so on.”

Gove also used the speech to mount an assault on Ed Miliband, saying it would be a category error to describe the Labour leader’s “one nation” speech as a shift to the centre.

He said: “Blue Labour thinking – Ed Miliband’s thinking – is not then a continuation or refashioning of Blairism, it is a critique and rejection of Blairism. It was an explicit disavowal of the centrism practised under Tony Blair and a celebration of an older, more solidaristic socialism of the kind which would have found favour with Tony Crosland or even Tony Benn.

“Where Tony Blair used his speeches to identify the forces of conservatism and declare war on them, Ed Miliband has used his speech to celebrate the forces of conservatism and declare he wants to become their leader.

“And the speech confirmed rather than changing Ed’s ideological trajectory. It was another step in his emphatic embrace of those who want keep society closed rather than open.”

The education secretary also ridiculed Miliband’s portrayal of his secondary school, saying he presented “Haverstock secondary – Hampstead’s principal educational establishment – as though it were some sort of school of hard knocks, a nursery of social solidarity and home of class-consciousness to rank with Durham’s mines or Clydeside’s shipyards.

“For some reason, as Ed talked of Haverstock, I was reminded of William Woodruff’s memoir of growing up in 30s Lancashire, the Road to Nab End – quoted, incidentally, in Jack Straw’s recent autobiography – where Woodruff talks of the ‘intellectual socialists’ he met at university: people who ‘collected working-class experiences as others might collect stamps or butterflies’.”

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.

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.”

England’s schools ‘letting down brightest pupils’

England’s schools ‘letting down brightest pupils’

BBC |July 5, 2012

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England is neglecting its brightest children, leaving them lagging far behind their peers overseas in top level maths scores, a report says.

The Sutton Trust study shows teenagers in England are half as likely as those in the average developed nation to reach higher levels in maths.

Brighter pupils are more likely to go to private or grammar schools rather than other state schools, it adds.

The government said it wanted to “restore academic rigour” to schools.

Researchers at the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Buckingham University examined the proportions of pupils achieving the highest levels in Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) tests.

‘Deeply troubling’

The PISA tests (Programme for International Student Assessment) compare the performance of pupils in different countries in subjects such as reading and maths. The latest results date back to 2009.

The report found that just 1.7% of England’s 15-year-olds reached the highest level, Level 6, in maths, compared with an OECD average of 3.1%.

In Switzerland and Korea, 7.8% of pupils reached this level.

Overall, England ranked 26th out of 34 OECD countries for the proportion of pupils reaching the top level in maths, behind other nations like Slovenia (3.9%), the Slovak Republic (3.6%) France (3.3%) and the Czech Republic (3.2%), which were among those scoring around the OECD average.

The report adds that the situation looks worse for England when a wider global comparison is used.

Singapore, which is not part of the OECD table analysed, saw 15.6% of its students score the top level, while in Hong Kong and Shanghai, which were also not part of the OECD table, 10.8% and 26.6% respectively got the top level.

Sutton Trust chairman Sir Peter Lampl said: “This is a deeply troubling picture for any us who care about our brightest pupils from non-privileged backgrounds.”

The study also suggests that comparing the maths results of 18-year-olds would be even more stark because 90% of English pupils drop the subject after GCSE.

Whereas in many other countries, maths is compulsory up to the age of 18.

The report argues that England is falling down international tables because of successive failures to help the most able pupils.

It calls for bright children to be identified at the end of primary school, with their achievements and progress tracked from then on.

‘Profound concerns’

It says there should also be tougher questions in exams to allow bright youngsters to stretch themselves and show their abilities.

Sir Peter said: “These are shocking findings that raise profound concerns about how well we support our most academically-able pupils, from non-privileged backgrounds.

“Excellence in maths is crucial in so many areas such as science, engineering, IT, economics and finance. These figures show that few bright non-privileged students reach their academic potential – which is unfair and a tragedy for them and the country as a whole.”

Report author Prof Alan Smithers said recent education policy for the brightest had been a mess.

“The government should signal to schools the importance of educating the brightest through how it holds the schools to account.

“At present the accountability measures are pitched at the weakest and middling performers,” he added.

Education Secretary Michael Gove added: “We already knew that under Labour we plummeted down the international league tables in maths.

“Now we see further evidence that they betrayed bright children from poor backgrounds and – worst of all – that their policies drove talented children from disadvantaged backgrounds away from the subjects that employers and universities value most.”

Shadow Education Secretary Stephen Twigg said: “Results for all pupils, including the brightest, improved under Labour.

“While there are always improvements that could be made, gifted and talented pupils were stretched through a National Academy, targeted scholarships and a new A* grade at A-level.

“While we want to see bright pupils stretched, this can’t be at the expense of leaving some behind. Michael Gove’s plans will create a two tier exam system, which will do nothing to help all pupils make the most of their potential.”

Nasuwt teaching union head Chris Keates said the tests used to draw the comparisons, and the way children prepare for them, differed between countries.

“Their conclusions raise more questions than they answer. They are not comparing like with like.

“The education systems are different. The pupils taking the tests are selected differently. Some countries do nothing but prepare for the tests for months. Some, like Shanghai may not enter a pupil sample generally reflective of the student population and use crammer sessions to prepare.”

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