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.”

Tweeting headteachers plan to reform education

Tweeting headteachers plan to reform education

The Guardian  |by Fiona Millar on October 22, 2012

John Tomsett (second left) said Labour should do something profoundly different

John Tomsett (second left) said Labour should do something different ‘rather than hang on the coat-tails of the Tories’. Photograph: Frank Baron for the Guardian
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An interesting piece displaying the power of social media.  A number of headmasters from a wide variety of schools divided by geography and socio-economic backgrounds united through Twitter and a growing concern over the current Government education reforms met at the Guardian’s offices recently  in order to put together some alternative policies guided by their experience as educationalists and a desire to achieve the best outcome for their students. 
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Teachers and headteachers could be forgiven for thinking that they get the worst of all worlds: obliged to implement the latest ministerial whims, without having any real influence themselves on policies that directly affect a job they feel passionately about. But could the explosion of social media be about to change all that?

The saga of this summer’s GCSE results provoked a torrent of online comment and communication among teachers and heads. Now one group – mostly secondary headteachers – has come together via the social networking site Twitter to form an embryonic pressure group.

In their sights they have the shadow education secretary, Stephen Twigg. Their schools may be poles apart in terms of geography and social context, but they are united in their view that an alternative to current education policy is needed fast, and that Labour is the best hope of achieving it.

Education writer and blogger Ian Gilbert came up with the idea of translating online activity into something more concrete after reflecting on Twitter’s potential for “social outrage” – but also its limits. “You can give vent in an informed way and find information,” he explains. “But you can also sit back in the evening with a glass of wine tweeting and think you have done your bit for society.

“I realised we needed to go further and get together people who have something to say. A strong theme coming through the social media was a frustration with current policy, but also frustration with no alternatives from Labour. We want to put forward the voices of people who know what they are doing. People who are in it for the kids, for the right reasons, to discuss what has and hasn’t been good and come up with some concrete alternatives.”

The group – which has no name yet – met at the Guardian’s offices to discuss their ideas. So what is good in the current landscape? The heads, from a mixture of maintained and academy schools, who were joined by Dr Phil Wood from Leicester University’s school of education, cite the focus on disadvantaged pupils and the release of data as being the most positive developments.

But the positives risk being undermined by too much political interference in curriculum and qualifications, an accountability system focused on an ever narrower range of exams, a continuing divide between vocational and academic qualifications – Labour’s Tech Bacc attracted as much derision from these school leaders as the education secretary’s English Baccalaureate Certificates – and moves towards a norm-referenced qualifications system in which only fixed numbers of students can achieve certain grades.

“We are moving back to a ‘sheep and goats system’ that will stratify society in terms of attainment and potential,” said Ros McMullen, principal of the David Young community academy in Leeds.

“We need to be able to measure improvement and this requires an objective measure where students’ attainment is judged against an unmoving standard, not one where only a certain percentage of students are allowed to hit certain grades. People should be talking about this.”

Several clear themes emerged about how an alternative policy might be shaped if Labour was “brave enough” to set out something profoundly different “rather than hang on the coat-tails of the Tories”, said John Tomsett, a prolific blogger and head of Huntington school in York.

At its heart should be a de-politicisation of curriculum and qualifications, an independent body made up of teaching professionals to drive policy in this area, and a radically different approach to assessment and accountability, the heads agreed.

Proposed changes to GCSEs were described as “an inadequate preparation for 21st-century life” that will only fuel what Vic Goddard, headteacher of Passmores academy in Essex, described as a growing tension between “doing what is right for our school and for our children”.

“What we have to do isn’t always the same as what we need to do. We want an acceptance that education is about more than five exams. It is about the full journey and everything else that comes with it.”

A new form of assessment would have to guarantee rigour and high standards, place no caps on aspiration, but also incorporate other non-exam-based measurements that offer the chance for “success at every level” – a particular concern to those in special needs education, who fear that their children will be “consigned to the scrap heap before they start”, according to Dave Whittaker, head of Springwell special school in Barnsley.

“We must be able to celebrate success at every level so that pupils with SEN aren’t left without motivation or aspiration. This would mean a holistic view of achievement that can genuinely show progress over time and in context. It is not fair that our pupils’ equivalent to the EBacc is a report that says “never mind, you failed, but please try again sometime”.

One suggestion is to move away from exams at 16 towards the International Baccalaureate learner profile. “The IB is an internationally highly rated qualification that includes skills and competencies,” argued Tomsett. “Our assessment system must move away from pure examinations and towards a blended range of assessments like personal projects, extended essays, oral skills, as well as formal exams. The fact that Labour can only come up with a Tech Bacc in response to the EBacc simply highlights the paucity of their thinking.”

Another theme was Ofsted and its focus on one-off judgments rather than supporting improvement. This, said the school leaders, should be addressed by transferring resources to local school improvement partnerships, and investment in professional development for teachers, allied to a national annual release of all performance data to schools and parents.

“I want to be held accountable locally,” said Goddard. “We are publicly funded with the most precious resource in the world – our children – but don’t just tell me where I am going wrong. I want the people who are holding me to account to be part of the journey of making me better.”

These individuals could be described as being part of what is now called the “magic middle” in social media. Not celebrities or the political commentariat, but trusted, persuasive experts with years of experience who blog and tweet and have the power to mobilise opinion. In other fields, businesses are trying to woo such people. When it comes to schools policy, are politicians behind the curve?

A spokesperson for Stephen Twigg said he would be willing to meet the group’s members and described their ideas as “interesting”. Some, including regional versions of Ofsted, reform of assessment and the 14-19 curriculum, were already being considered by Labour’s policy review, he said, adding “we agree there shouldn’t be an artificial cap on aspiration”.

Education Guardian will be following the group’s progress.

Five-point plan

• Schools should be assessed in a range of ways, not just judged by the numbers achieving five specific grades at 16;

• Ofsted should be replaced by local partnerships that would hold schools to account and help them to improve;

• The curriculum and assessment should be taken out of political control and given to an independent agency (under licence for 20 years);

• The government should encourage small families of local schools in preference to large national chains;

• “Norm referencing” in exam grading is not fair, ie capping the number of students who can achieve a certain grade. There shouldn’t be a cap on what individual pupils can achieve.

• Join the movement by tweeting @thatiangilbert or @johntomsett

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.”

Foreign languages to be taught at school from age seven

Foreign languages to be taught at school from age seven

guardian.co.uk |by Jeevan Vasagar on June 10, 2012

  • Jeevan Vasagar, education editor
  • guardian.co.uk, Sunday 10 June 2012 12.25 EDT
primary school pupils

Learning a foreign language could soon become compulsory for primary school pupils from the age of seven under government reforms Photograph: Don Mcphee for the Guardian

All children are to be taught a foreign language – which could include Mandarin, Latin or Greek – from the age of seven under reforms to the national curriculum being unveiled by the education secretary, Michael Gove.

In other reforms, children will be encouraged to learn science by studying nature, and schools will be expected to place less emphasis on teaching scientific method.

The introduction of compulsory language teaching in primary schoolsis intended to reverse the dramatic decline in takeup at GCSE. Pupils will need to be able to speak in sentences, with the appropriate pronunciation, and express simple ideas clearly in another language.

They will be expected to develop an understanding of the basic grammar of the language, and be acquainted with songs and poetry. Ministers say that teaching should focus on making “substantial progress” in one language.

The science curriculum is expected to emphasise using the natural habitat around schools – learning biology by studying the growth and development of trees, for example.

There will be less of a focus on doing experiments. Instead, children will be taught to observe their surroundings and learn how scientists have classified the natural world. One source with knowledge of the curriculum review said: “The idea of science being based around a careful observation of the world is a very important place to begin. The science curriculum in Japan has at its core the love of nature. In the past we put too much emphasis on how scientists found stuff out, not enough on what they have found out.”

The curriculum reforms will result in more demanding lessons, and represent a return to the basics of each subject. In maths, the teaching of statistics at primary school will be slimmed down to make way for more mental arithmetic.

Children will be expected to do multiplication and division with large numbers without the use of pen and paper. Pupils in the final year of primary school will be introduced to algebra.

The new programmes of study, which are being published for consultation this week, are to be introduced in schools in September 2014. They follow a report on the future framework of the national curriculum in England drawn up by an expert panel chaired by Tim Oates, director of research at Cambridge Assessment, an exam board. One of the most far-reaching proposals is a plan to scrap the levels that children are awarded in Sats tests at the end of primary school. The percentage of pupils reaching level 4 is used to determine whether a primary school is failing. It is not clear what will replace Sats levels. Scrapping them may pave the way for schools to provide more specific details of pupils’ progress in subjects.

In English, the curriculum will emphasise the importance of grammar. For the first time, the government will set a list of words that all children must learn how to spell. These will include bruise, destroy, ridiculous and tyrant.

Pupils will be expected to learn poems by heart and recite them in public. They will also be taught how to debate.

The new English curriculum will say that by the end of year 4, children should be listening to and discussing a wide range of fiction and nonfiction. There is also greater stress on learning to read through phonics.

Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: “There is no doubt these programmes are more demanding. It is appropriate to express high expectations in a statement of curriculum aims, but schools will need time and support to develop their teaching to reach those aims.”

The shadow education secretary, Stephen Twigg, said the government was “absolutely right” to make the learning of foreignlanguages compulsory from the age of seven.

On BBC1’s Sunday Politics programme, he urged ministers to go further. “Children will get a love of learning languages if they get the chance to learn them younger. The government’s talking about seven. I would encourage schools to start teaching languages younger than seven,” he said.

Twigg said he was opposed to the legislation that created free schools, but a future Labour government would not close down“excellent schools”. He said: “I have a different concern about free schools … At the moment there is a serious shortage of primary school places in many parts of the country and yet the government’s spending priority on schools’ capital is free schools.”

The number of primary schools teaching languages has been increasing in response to a target set by the previous government., though school inspectors say headteachers’ monitoring of language provision can be weak. This is often because primary heads feel they lack competence to judge language provision, Ofsted says. Languages have collapsed at GCSE since they were made optional at the age of 14. In 2010, just 43% of GCSE candidates were entered for a language, down from 75% in 2002.

Ofsted warns over early entry to maths GCSE

Ofsted warns over early entry to maths GCSE

BBC |May 21, 2012

By Hannah Richardson BBC News education reporter
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Too many schools are entering pupils for maths GCSE early, says Ofsted in a major report that is critical of the way the subject is taught and tested.

This is preventing too many able pupils from fulfilling their potential, says chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw.

And many who get off to a poor start never catch up, he warns.

The report also says maths exams have become less demanding and that teaching standards vary unacceptably.

In the report: Mathematics Made to Measure, Sir Michael warns that “the extensive use of early GCSE entry puts too much emphasis on attaining a grade C”.

This is the benchmark grade used for schools’ headline league table measures.

Early entries

But the quest for this grade “is at the expense of adequate understanding and mastery of mathematics needed to succeed at A level and beyond,” he says.

The report claims there has been a vast increase in the number of pupils sitting GCSE early. With early entries rising from 5% in 2007 to 25% of all GCSEs in 2010.

And it warns the full extent of early entry to GCSE examinations is under-represented by these figures. Ofsted pledged to challenge such practices where it uncovered them.

Schools might use early entry to get some bright pupils’ GCSE exams out of the way, or to give greater focus to pupils they may feel are at risk of drifting out of education or being switched off.

The report adds that some schools are even entering pupils into GCSEs by two different exam boards “exploiting the flexibility of exam arrangements” in the hope that they might get a C in one of them.

The report says thousands of pupils who had reached Level 5 by the end of primary school – the standard expected of a 13-year-old – still did not go on to gain any better than a grade C at GCSE.

‘Never catch up’

Sir Michael adds: “Our failure to stretch some of our most able pupils threatens the future supply of well-qualified mathematicians, scientists and engineers.”

But he is also concerned about how well the least able are taught.

“Too many pupils who have a poor start or fall behind early in their mathematics education never catch up,” he says.

“The 10% who do not reach the expected standard at age seven doubles to 20% by age 11, and nearly doubles again by 16.

“Schools must focus on equipping all pupils, particularly those who fall behind or who find mathematics difficult, with the essential knowledge and skills they need to succeed in the next stage of their mathematics education.”

Inspectors visited 160 primary and 160 secondary schools and observed more than 470 primary and 1,200 secondary mathematics lessons between January 2008 and July 2011.

‘Ambitious’

They judged that more than half the schools were outstanding or good in maths.

Schools Minister Nick Gibb said given the importance of maths for the economy and for the individual student, he would be asking schools to be even more ambitious when it comes to maths attainment at every stage of a child’s education.

“It is vital that we reverse the decline that has seen us fall from 8th to 27th in maths internationally. This is what drives our commitment to reform our curriculum and qualifications to world class standards.

“We are also attracting the brightest maths graduates into teaching with the highest ever bursaries.”

Last year, the Advisory Committee on Mathematics Education raised concerns about the number of schools using early and repeated entry to GCSE examinations.

“We are delighted that the Ofsted report has indicated that school inspections will challenge these practices,” it said in a statement.

But National Union of Teachers general secretary Christine Blower said: “The report stresses the fact that schools need time for long-term improvement in maths to occur, yet many schools feel under pressure to improve grades rapidly.

“What they do not go onto say is that this pressure comes directly from Ofsted.”

Shadow Education Secretary Stephen Twigg said the report highlighted the variation in maths teaching even within schools.

“There is clearly a need to look at training and ongoing professional development for maths teachers.”

England’s schools should learn from Japan, says Twigg

England’s schools should learn from Japan, says Twigg

BBC |May 14, 2012

By Hannah Richardson BBC News education reporter_
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England’s schools should take lessons from Japan and the Far East on how to improve performance, the shadow education secretary says.

Stephen Twigg says despite many school reforms, there has been little change to the style of classroom teaching since Victorian times.

Labour’s number one priority for education is raising the quality and status of teachers, he says.

And he plans to visit Japan to see how education has been reformed there.

This will form part of Labour’s review of its education policy.

Along with other Far Eastern countries, such as South Korea and Singapore, Japan constantly outperforms England in international studies on maths and science.

This is something that has been highlighted by Education Secretary Michael Gove.

Mr Twigg says that although Labour improved results in the core subjects during its time in office, it was clear that “more of the same isn’t the answer”.

‘Trial and error’He added: “We must learn from high-performing nations like Japan to radically transform education in England.

“Labour will bring reform into the classroom by learning from the Japanese system of lesson planning, known as jugyou kenkyuu.”

This involves teachers meeting regularly to collaborate on the design and implementation of lessons.

He continues: “Education in England has had years of reform to structures, exams and accountability measures. But the style of classroom teaching has changed little since Victorian times.

“In Japan, teaching practices have changed markedly in the last 50 years, through a process of gradual, incremental improvements over time. Japan gives teachers themselves primary responsibility for improving classroom practice.”

He highlights how participation in continual professional development, known as kounaikenshuu, is considered a core job requirement in Japan.

Mr Twigg also points out that in England, teachers lead students through a series of steps to help them learn how to solve problems.

In Japan the focus is on allowing students to develop their own methods for solving problems, through trial and error.

He adds: “If we want to change teaching, we can’t just change teachers – we must change the culture of teaching, its very fabric and DNA.”

350,000 children ‘will lose free school meals in welfare reform’

350,000 children ‘will lose free school meals in welfare reform’

The Guardian World News |by Randeep Ramesh

school meals

Free school lunches are the main meal of the day for many children, says the Children’s Society. Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian

More than 350,000 children will lose their free school meals under the government’s radical plans to reform welfare entitlement next year, an analysis by the Children’s Society has warned.

In a report entitled Fair and Square, the charity says the proposed universal credit system, which comes into force in October 2013, will stop paying for certain benefits if a household earns more than £7,500.

At present the welfare system compensates poor families with cash from the tax credit system.

The result is that 120,000 poorer families are likely lose free school meals, worth £367 a year, unless they dropped their earnings below the threshold of £7,500. This would mean parents having to cut the numbers of hours worked or take a pay cut to keep their benefits.

The charity says that although the universal credit, which is a single payment designed to replace a plethora of benefits, was supposed to simplify the current system it will end up replicating some of worst aspects of the old one.

“Because of how universal credit entitlement is structured– with high withdrawal rates of benefits when earning more or working longer hours – many of the families affected will have to earn far more before they recover the loss of free school meals.”

Parents would have to garner “unrealistic” pay rises before the loss of benefits could be recouped.

As an example, it says that a lone parent with three children earning just below £7,500 a year would need to get a pay rise of 60% or £4,500 to compensate for the loss of free school meals under the new benefit.

The report argues that the system does need reform as it estimates more than half of all schoolchildren living in poverty – 1.2 million – are missing out on free school meals. Another 700,000 are not entitled to free school meals at all.

However, it adds that universal credit, as currently envisaged, seems a step backward.

Free school meals provide vital financial support for low-income families, argues the charity. For almost a third of children, school lunch is their main meal of the day.

Elaine Hindal of the Children’s Society said: “If the government introduces a free school meals earnings threshold into the universal credit, then as many as 120,000 families could end up in the perverse situation where they are better off taking a pay cut, or working fewer hours. This could mean 350,000 children suffering as a result.

“It is exactly this kind of problem that universal credit set out to solve. The government can and must address this by extending free school meals to all families in receipt of universal credit.”

At the heart of the debate is a split in the coalition. Some ministers think universal credit would create a very complicated system that is very difficult to administer. To ensure that half of children in poverty get free school meals would cost an extra£1bn – galling at a time of fiscal restraint.

Stephen Twigg, Labour’s shadow education secretary, said “the government has shown a scant disregard for the welfare of some of the poorest children in England” and he would be considering how to tackle the issue as part of the party’s “policy review”.

The Department for Education said it would be consulting on the issue “later this year”.

Children’s minister Sarah Teather said: “We remain totally committed to continuing to provide free school meals to children from the poorest families.

“We are reforming welfare to get more people into jobs as that is the surest way of cutting poverty.

“The reforms mean we will have to think hard about the best way to decide who is eligible for FSM so they continue to be targeted at those who need them the most. No plans have yet been set and we will be consulting later this year about the best way forward.”

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”.

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