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.”

Gove turns down group’s bid for extra education funding

Gove turns down group’s bid for extra education funding

BBC |July 13, 2012

By Hannah Richardson BBC News education reporter

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

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

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

Turning them down, Mr Gove blamed the economic situation.

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

‘Economic situation’

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

“I agree the current system for funding schools is out of date and complex, and that is why I have committed to introducing a new National Funding Formula.”

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

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

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

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

‘Fairer funding’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Third of new free schools are religious

Third of new free schools are religious

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Riverside Co-operative

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

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

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

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

Longsight school

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.”

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.

Education in brief: teachers are leaving some academies in droves

Education in brief: teachers are leaving some academies in droves

guardian.co.uk |by Warwick Mansell on July 2, 2012

Prime Minister David Cameron Visits Kingsdale Foundation School

David Cameron talks with students at Kingsdale foundation school last year. The school will have seen the departure of at least 40 teachers over this academic year. Photograph: Getty Images

Waving goodbye

Some well-known academies are facing an exodus of teachers this summer, Speed Read has learned. Sheffield Springs academy, run by the United Learning Trust charity, is poised to lose at least 25 teaching staff, insiders tell us, while the troubled school is on its third principal of the academic year. This comes after a new permanent head was recently appointed, only to then turn the post down, the ULT citing “family circumstances”. In February, Ofsted inspectors criticised the “significant instability in leadership and management” since the academy was established in 2006, as it was then on its fifth principal in that time. Now it’s on its sixth.

Meanwhile, Kingsdale foundation school, an academy in south London, praised as “brilliant” by David Cameron last year but which has been in the news over an investigation into alleged cheating in GCSEs, will have seen the departure of at least 40 teachers over this academic year, including 15 from science alone. The school started the year with 125 teaching staff. Finally, we have been told of another high-profile academy where 25 staff are reportedly leaving this term. We hope to keep you posted on that one.

Fewer free lunches

Amid news reports of only 37 pupil places having been filled so far at Beccles free school in Suffolk, which is due to open in September, statistics on the socio-economic backgrounds of families using free schools as a whole may have been missed.

Data released last month by the Department for Education shows that while 19% of pupils educated in state primary schools and 16% of those in state secondaries are eligible for free school meals, the figures for free schools – institutions set up by parents, teachers or private groups – are much lower. FSM rates in the 24 free schools that opened last year were half those for the state-funded sector, at 9% for primaries and 8% for secondaries.

No need to ask

Parents at Downhills school, the primary in north London that has become a cause celebre among opponents of government moves to force academy status on institutions even where the local community is against this, are fighting on.

Last month, the school was told Michael Gove is to issue an academy order, handing its governance to the Harris academy chain. Parent campaigners have written to Gove renewing a threat of legal action. One of their arguments is that the law says parents must be consulted on any move to academy status. Official consultation on the academy move, which preceded Gove’s decision, found 3% of the 234 responding parents in favour, and 94% against.

The campaigners say the consultation was not meaningful and are alleging a waste of public money: they were told in writing that the consultation cost at least £45,000 – enough to employ a teacher.

Stephen Twigg warns against ‘quick buck’ school profit

Stephen Twigg warns against ‘quick buck’ school profit

BBC |May 31, 2012

By Sean Coughlan BBC News education correspondent
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Introducing profit-making into state schools in England risks attracting firms looking for a “quick buck”, says Labour’s Stephen Twigg.

The shadow education secretary says he was shocked that Education Secretary Michael Gove appeared to be considering free schools being run for profit.

Mr Gove had told the Leveson Inquiry on Tuesday that he had an“open mind” on such profit making in the future.

But Mr Twigg says such a change “risks the abuse of public resources”.

Labour’s education spokesman is to warn against profit-making in state schools in a speech to head teachers in London, later on Thursday.

‘Risk of abuse’

“There are real risks attached to the profit-making experiment,”he is set to tell a conference about education standards in London.

“It risks attracting people to our education system simply who wish to make a quick buck.

“It risks the abuse of public resources at a time when it is even more important that we ensure that every penny of taxpayers’money is spent wisely.”

Mr Twigg says he has just returned from Sweden, one of the inspirations for free schools – state-funded schools set up by charities or community groups.

But unlike in England, free schools in Sweden can be run for profit – and Mr Twigg will tell head teachers that this is raising concerns.

“One of the biggest is that it allows companies to run a free school for a period of time and then sell it on at a profit,” says Mr Twigg.

“I don’t believe that the profit-making motive is what will improve educational outcomes in schools in our country.

“If there is an operating surplus, that should be invested back into educating our children rather than paying a dividend to shareholders.”

Profit ‘not necessary’

Mr Twigg will tell head teachers that Michael Gove had given his “strongest hint that he could allow companies to make a profit from running schools”.

This followed an exchange at the Leveson Inquiry, when Mr Gove was asked about the prospect of free schools being run for profit.

Mr Gove had said that “the free-school movement can thrive without profit”.

When he was further pressed whether it would be desirable to generate a profit, Mr Gove said: “There are some of my colleagues in the coalition who are very sceptical of the benefits of profit. I have an open mind.”

The education secretary was then asked about the “aspiration”that a second-term Conservative-led government would allow free schools to be run for profit.

Mr Gove replied: “It’s my belief that we could move to that situation,” adding: “But I think at the moment it’s important to recognise that the free-schools movement is succeeding without that element, and I think we should cross that bridge when we come to it.”

At present, free schools cannot be run for profit – but the trusts that run them can buy management services from profit-making firms.

There have been criticisms from teachers’ unions about the blurring of this boundary.

The NASUWT criticised the £21m contract awarded to a profit-making Swedish company for managing a free school in Suffolk.

A Department for Education spokeswoman said: “This government has no plans to allow free schools or academies to make profit.

“Any income earned by the charitable trust must be reinvested to improve and advance education for pupils.”

Rachel Wolf, the director of the New Schools Network (which helps groups prepare free school bids), says the idea of profit in schools should be looked at.

“There is serious momentum already in the free schools movement, but if free schools are to go to scale then profit has to be considered,” she said.

“Every child has the right to a high quality – and free -education, regardless of who provides it.”

Rupert Murdoch reveals meetings with Michael Gove over free schools

Rupert Murdoch reveals meetings with Michael Gove over free schools

The Guardian World News |by Jeevan Vasagar

Michael Gove

Rupert Murdoch revealed at the Leveson inquiry that Michael Gove met with News Corporation and News International executives over establishing a free school. Photograph: Rex Features

News International expressed an interest in applying to set up a free school, after plans to establish an academy in east London fell through, according to Rupert Murdoch’s witness statement to the Leveson inquiry.

The statement, published online on Wednesday, also reveals details of several meetings Murdoch and other News International and News Corporation executives had with Michael Gove, the education secretary and former Times journalist, to discuss this project and other education issues.

Murdoch disclosed that in May last year. a representative of News International exchanged emails with two members of staff at the Department for Education, asking about whether the Sun and Times publisher might apply to set up a free school and what the deadline would be. Previously, the company had expressed an interest in helping to finance an academy school.

Free schoolswere a key part of the 2010 Conservative election manifesto, allowing parents, teachers and charities to set up their own “big society” schools. The first 24 opened last September.

According to the statement, Murdoch said: “I understand that the [free school] idea was not progressed any further. I believe that we had planned to discuss Nl’s interest in supporting a school with Mr Gove at a breakfast meeting in May 2011 but do not recall if we reached that topic.”

James Murdoch, Rebekah Brooks, then News International chairman and chief executive, respectively, and James Harding, editor of The Times, were also at this breakfast meeting last May. The statement says the meeting was “devoted to education reform”.

The relevant email exchanges between the department and NI have not been published.

In the statement, Murdoch praises Gove’s “distinguished record”as a senior Times journalist and said that their recent interactions had focused on education reform.

He reveals that Gove and former Labour schools minister Lord Adonis attended his home for dinner last January with Joel Klein, the lawyer who ran New York’s public schools system before joining News Corp.

Gove also had dinner at Murdoch’s house in June last year, along with Klein, where there were discussions “on multiple subjects, including education,” the statement says. A list of all the contacts between Murdoch and Gove has been published by the government.

Giving more detail of NI’s interest in a school in England, Murdoch said that the company “showed an interest in supporting the running costs” of a new academy in Newham, east London.

The statement said that NI representatives attended various meetings with the London Development Agency, with local authorities, and with the DfE, in July, October and November 2010. A visit to the potential site of the academy, attended by Boris Johnson and Gove, took place on 30 November 2010.

Murdoch’s statement says: “Nl’s objective was to create a lasting legacy in east London, through an academy school with a focus on media and technology. The project also required government funding; lack of government funding was the reason the project fell through in January 2011.”

The statement says that the topic may have been raised when Murdoch had dinner with Gove in January 2011.

In his statement, Murdoch reiterated his view that today’s classroom is “the last holdout from the digital revolution”.

He said: “The future belongs to those nations that best develop their human capital. I fear that the United States and the United Kingdom are lagging behind in this effort.”

Klein, a former White House counsel to president Bill Clinton, was hired to lead an education division that would “help to spark technological change”, according to the statement. The new division’s first action was to acquire Wireless Generation, an educational technology firm. Klein addressed a conference on free schools during his visit to the UK in January 2011.

The focus of the classroom technology business has been exclusively in the US, the statement says. “Accordingly, to date there has been no exploration or development of such interests in the UK.”

The DfE said that three contacts between NI and Gove in 2010 were “arranged by the department and related to the official business of the department”. These were a dinner with Murdoch, Brooks and Gove on 17 June 2010, a discussion between Klein, Gove and others in September the same year and the academy site visit in November.

In response to a request under the Freedom of Information Act, the department said: “Due to the nature of these meetings (two meals and one site visit), we did not produce a formal record of the meetings, and following a search of the department’s paper and email records, I can confirm that the department does not hold records of any notes produced during or after the meetings.”

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

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

The Guardian World News |by Jessica Shepherd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teachers’ union considers legal challenge over free school assessments

Teachers’ union considers legal challenge over free school assessments

The Guardian World News |by Hélène Mulholland

Michael Gove

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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