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Michael Gove’s latest odd idea is a plan to fight truancy

Michael Gove’s latest odd idea is a plan to fight truancy

The Guardian World News

Empty school desks

Children can be tempted to play truant at any stage of their school career. Photograph: Martin Godwin for the Guardian

I don’t like to keep on about Gove, but he does pop up with odd ideas. Now it’s fines for truancy to be taken from child benefit, as advised by his behaviour tzar, Charlie Taylor. Ordinary fines are hopeless, suggests Govey, because “they’re often reduced to account for an adult’s expenditure on satellite TV, alcohol and cigarettes”.

Here he goes again, heaping crap on the poor, because who else fritters their money on such things? And if you toss in the word“benefits” it’s pretty clear who’s to blame for all this truanting, in the Gove eyes. All right, it’s child benefit, which most people will still be getting next year, once 500,000 workers have completed their extra self-assessment forms, and then had their benefits paid, then clawed back, and we all know whether we’ll have any benefit left to have the fines subtracted from, but hey, it’s only £120 – same as two parking fines, and won’t really bother anyone much, except the really hard-up, which is fair enough, because we can tell from the beer and cigarettes that they’re the ones not bothering to get their children to school.

It’s important to clamp down on truanting in primary schools, say the Gove gang, because little truanters grow up into hardened truanters, who are even more difficult to cure. But Fielding and I both had daughters who blossomed into skilled truanters at secondary school, without a single day’s primary practice. Mr and Mrs Fielding attended one parents’ evening and were shown a register full of noughts. Shocking. They hadn’t had a clue, and they don’t even have satellite TV or smoke. And where had my daughter been? I escorted her to the school gate repeatedly, but there’s always a back entrance, and why sit in class when there’s a sunny park round the corner? Chums, parent-free houses, daytime films v bullies, exams, slipping behind? No contest.

Stop your child truanting? Easier said than done, and we were the lucky ones.


School music under threat

School music under threat

The Guardian World News

Primary school children making music in Tower Hamlets.

Primary school children making music in Tower Hamlets where the music service aims to give all children, regardless of their family income, the opportunity to learn an instrument. Photograph: Graham Turner for the Guardian

It’s a weekday morning in Tower Hamlets and the Brady Arts and Community Centre is ringing with the sounds of the Doctor Who theme tune, performed by an orchestra of primary school musicians, some as young as six.

Nearly all primary-aged children in the area are entitled to a year’s free instrumental lessons, funded by Tower Hamlets Arts and Music Education Service (Thames). Those who show promise, like the members of this orchestra, get a second year’s free lessons. “The idea is to give all children, regardless of their background or family income, the opportunity to learn an instrument,” says Karen Brock, who heads the service.

Thames is one of 165 music services in England and Wales that provide instrumental tuition and classroom music support in schools, as well as running out-of-hours activities such as orchestras, bands and music clubs.

But over the next three years, it will see its funding slashed, as the government pares back its budget for music services from £82.5m a year to just £60m.

And cuts are not the only threat to the future of the service. Following last year’s Henley review of music education, which recommended that local authority-run music services be replaced by“hubs” – partnerships made up of schools, arts organisations, charities and other education providers – music services have had to bid for the right to continue their work. And as the bidding was open to all, including charities and private companies, there is no guarantee they will be successful.

It is a tense time for music services, and the 10,000 staff they employ, as they wait to hear, early next month, which bids have been successful. The uncertainty, compounded by local authority budget cuts across the board, has prompted some to make big staffing changes.

In Bedford Borough music service all teachers have been put on risk of redundancy, and some have taken a voluntary pay cut to preserve the music service and their jobs. In Gloucestershire, dozens of music teachers face unemployment after the county council asked all 200 music service staff to reapply for their jobs or for voluntary redundancy, as part of a restructuring exercise. Meanwhile, music service teachers in Salford, Leicestershire, Nottingham, Brighton and several London boroughs are also reporting threats to their employment.

One-to-one teaching cut

Anthony Anderson is head of music at Beauchamp college in Leicestershire, where funding cuts have meant the music service can no longer offer one-to-one instrumental teaching. “It’s a very difficult situation for secondary music teachers because we’ve still got to provide instrumental lessons – we need that for GCSE and A-level,” he says. Music service teachers in Leicestershire now face the prospect of becoming self-employed or having to apply for one of a much smaller number of posts delivering whole-class instrumental teaching in primary schools.

A music service teacher in a different area, who did not wish to be named, told Education Guardian that a music club she runs for the most promising young players has also been a casualty of the cuts. “Now we will have groups of all abilities in one room. It’s very hard to get kids to improve that way, or to give them a quality experience.” She adds that she has also been tasked with issuing redundancy notices to other teachers in anticipation of the cuts.

According to Diane Widdison, national organiser for teaching at the Musicians’ Union, morale among teachers in music services is at an all-time low. The MU has urged local authorities not to embark on restructuring until they know the outcome of the hub bids, but the damage could already have been done. “Who is going to be attracted to work for music services now?” she says. “It’s going to be even more part-time, even more self-employed, with even fewer training opportunities.”

Deborah Annetts, chief executive of the Incorporated Society of Musicians, is worried that the uncertainty is causing good music teachers to jump ship and find employment elsewhere.

The government’s decision to replace music services is, at least in part, a cost-saving exercise. Having different organisations working in partnership as a “hub”, sharing resources and staff should, theoretically, reduce overheads, such as rents and running costs for offices and practice spaces.

But not everyone is convinced that the new arrangements will be more cost-effective. “We have a very small office operation and we do a lot with the small number of people on the team,” says Brock.“Even if we teamed up with others, we’d still need that number of people to do the work – they’re quite stretched.”

And, she points out, this is not the only challenge facing music educators. While most welcome the government’s National Plan for Music Education in England, published last November, which includes the ambitious aspiration to give all children the chance to learn an instrument, many fear it is simply an attempt to get teachers to deliver more on less cash.

“Our concern is that it’s a very visionary piece of work, but to make it happen we must have the workforce and resources,” says Annetts. “The plan does have quite a significant cut in terms of resources.”

But perhaps the most persistent criticism has been that by opening it up to charities and private providers, the government is, essentially, privatising music services. Comparisons have been drawn with its free schools and academies programme, which has allowed private providers to take responsibility for running schools, previously managed by – and accountable to –local authorities.

Some fear that, as a result, the quality of music provision– described as “patchy” in last year’s Henley review –could actually get worse. “The vast majority of hubs will have to employ freelance teachers – so how will we build in teacher training?” says Jonathan Savage, a reader in education at Manchester Metropolitan University.

He was recently involved in putting together a hub bid for the Cheshire East area, an experience that, he says, has shown him the potential pitfalls of working with private providers – some of which seemed more interested in “protecting and expanding their business” than providing good-quality music provision for children, he says.

There is also doubt in the sector about the ability of Arts Council England – the government funding body for the arts– to manage the bidding process and award funding to the new music hubs.

Richard Morris, a governor of Kent Music school and a former chief executive of ABRSM, an exam board for instrumental and vocal exams, says: “My major concern is that the Arts Council lacks educational expertise. While they’ve got great expertise at assessing bids to do with cultural events, that is very different from being able to evaluate long-term, sustained educational programmes. I remain unconvinced that the Arts Council has that expertise or is taking sufficient advice.”

Annetts has similar concerns. “When I have queried the Arts Council’s role in this, I’ve been told, “Well who else could do it?” which is a fair point, but it doesn’t answer the question.”

But the Arts Council says it is up to the job. “This work is very much aligned to our vision of the arts,’ says Laura Gander-Howe, director of learning and skills strategy. “The Department for Education has acknowledged that the Arts Council is an experienced and impartial funding body with excellent knowledge of the arts and education sectors, as well as strong links to music education. That’s why it chose us to select and monitor the music hubs, and we are confident that we are fully equipped to do so.”

And the DfE maintains that its plans for music education are sound. A spokesperson said: “Last year, Darren Henley conducted a review of music education and found that provision was patchy across the country. He recommended the establishment of music education hubs to ensure better consistency and that best practice is shared. The hubs will be clearly accountable to parents, schools and the government so we can ensure that every child has the chance to experience a high-quality music education.”

A-level reforms: a good idea, badly presented

A-level reforms: a good idea, badly presented

The Guardian World News

Pass rates at A-level have been boosted by modules and re-takes

Pass rates at A-level have been boosted by modules and re-takes. Photograph: Eye Ubiquitous/Alamy

Michael Gove’s demand that exam boards involve universities in designing A-levels is broadly welcome – not least if it reduces politicians’influence over the curriculum – but the way it was done leaves a bad taste and raises concerns about its effectiveness.

There is a long tradition of politicians trashing something before reforming it, but was it really necessary to be so negative about a qualification students are in the middle of studying? Gove’s comment that A-levels “fall short of commanding the level of confidence” required was unnecessarily sweeping, especially as it is not borne out by evidence.

But then, the way Gove’s letter to Ofqual on the subject was leaked to selected parts of the media meant the decision was made public before anyone had a chance to view the evidence. The leak forced Ofqual to rush out research it had commissioned on what universities, teachers and employers really think. This found that“overall, A-levels were viewed positively” by all three groups and“most higher education sector interviewees were generally content with the knowledge content of A-levels across subjects” – but in the midst of a media panic about A-levels, this research was hardly noticed.

However, let’s not quibble. There is a case for change. The Ofqual study did list a number of skills universities find lacking in some school-leavers: “researching, finding sources, essay-writing and referencing, and the wider skills of problem-solving, analysis and critical thinking”.

But not all A-level students are aiming for university, and do we really want each stage of education to be defined and shaped by the next stage? If this is the case, secondary schools would be shaping the primary school curriculum. Do the views of those teaching a particular age group not count?

While greater involvement of universities is desirable, Gove has made it sound more like a takeover, wanting leading universities to“take ownership” of A-levels. But the current proposals give university staff little incentive for involvement, never mind ownership.

In the current climate, academics’ promotion prospects –and the financial health of their departments – depend primarily on the amount and quality of their published research. Teaching undergraduates comes second. That leaves involvement in A-level design trailing a distant third.

Time, money and reputation are all potential incentives for academics to get involved in shaping A-levels. But will vice-chancellors, now keenly aware of their fee-paying undergraduates as “consumers”, offer time off, financial rewards and career enhancement to encourage staff to neglect research and teaching in order to serve a more nebulous wider public interest? As a spokeswoman for the Russell Group of universities cautioned:“We don’t actually have much time and resource spare to spend a lot of time in reforming A-levels.”

Or is the government expecting exam boards to pay academics for this work? That would mean costs being passed on to schools in the form of higher exam fees. That wasn’t mentioned. Or will the government pay? If so, has Mr Gove cleared this with the Chancellor?

But my biggest concern is more fundamental. The reason universities find some students lacking in key skills such as independent research is that the league table culture has encouraged some schools to focus on just getting students through exams instead of a broader preparation for higher levels of study.

I don’t believe the content of A-levels is significantly easier than in the past. It is the use of bite-sized modules, repeat re-takes and a relentless focus only on what will be in the exam that has boosted pass-rates.

And the introduction of AS-levels has also meant that the first year of sixth-form studies has become more exam-orientated instead of allowing a year for students to breathe, in which they could develop broader and more advanced study skills.

All these reforms have had the unintended effect of narrowing A-level learning. So, yes, involve universities in A-level design, but the really significant reform must involve taking the high-stakes element out of league tables and returning sixth-form studies to a broad learning experience and not a narrow race for grades.

Pupils being bullied on sports fields, survey says

Pupils being bullied on sports fields, survey says

BBC |April 16, 2012

Two-thirds of parents say they have witnessed bullying and intimidation on the school sports field, a survey suggests.


A poll of 1,250 eight to 16-year-old pupils and 1,010 parents for cricket charity Chance to Shine suggests some pupils are put off sport as a result.

More than half of the pupils surveyed say they have been subjected to teasing, taunts and physical threats.

Nearly 55% say they have witnessed physical violence.

The research suggests such “psychological warfare” is sapping children’s love of sport.

Some 42% of parents say their child has lost confidence after being bullied on the playing field.

‘Alarming trend’A fifth say their child is reluctant to take part in sport as a result, and one in 10 says their child has given up at least one sport entirely.

Previous surveys for the charity have suggested many pupils are bad sports, willing to elbow, headbutt and argue their way to victory. They have also suggested some youngsters are unable to lose or win gracefully.

The Chance to Shine cricket education charity works with 4,000 UK state schools to encourage fair play and good sportsmanship through cricket.

Its chief executive Wasim Khan said: “It is worrying to hear that this kind of psychological warfare is being waged on our school playing fields.

“We are teaching children from a young age to play competitively, but to respect the opposition as well as their team-mates. We need to stamp out this bullying in school sport.”

And John Stephenson, head of cricket at Marylebone Cricket Club, which jointly commissioned the survey, said: “The results from the survey highlight an alarming trend in school sport, which needs to be proactively addressed.”

He added that pupils needed to learn how to play hard but fair.

‘Thousands of children’ to lose legal aid in shake-up

‘Thousands of children’ to lose legal aid in shake-up

BBC |April 17, 2012

By Hannah Richardson BBC News education and family reporter

Thousands of children will lose access to legal aid under government plans to shake up the system, campaigners say.

Child rights group JustRights analysed government data obtained from a series of Freedom of Information (FOI) requests.

It claims 6,000 children, or 13% of those who receive help with legal-aid costs, will lose it in the reforms.

The government has said repeatedly that legal aid will remain for nearly all children’s cases.

The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill returns to the Commons later after a string of defeats in the Lords.

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “Our reforms target legal aid where it is most needed. This means that the bill protects spending for the great majority of cases where a child is a party, maintaining around 96% of our current spend.

“Of the remaining cases, many would potentially be eligible for exceptional funding.”

‘Vulnerable children’

The bill removes whole areas of law from the legal-aid system as part of plans to reduce the Ministry of Justice’s budget by£350m and speed up the system.

Some of the most controversial areas covered include women victims of domestic violence, disabled people’s benefits cases and children.

The areas where child applicants will be affected are primarily immigration, benefits cases, housing and other social-welfare cases.

JustRights co-chairman James Kenrick says the government claim that 96% of the budget for children’s cases will be unaffected by the change is misleading.

‘Eleven defeats’

“When you look at the number of cases they will be cutting, it’s 13% of cases,” he says.

“We are talking about the most vulnerable children. A lot of them will be 15 and 16, who may be care leavers or in a lot of instances will be living away from their parents.

“In theory if they want to bring a case they will have to represent themselves in court.”

There have been a record 11 defeats on the bill for the government in the House of Lords in recent months.

These include an amendment led by Paralympian Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson, and supported by several Liberal Democrat and Conservative peers, which called for legal aid for all children under the age of 18 to be protected.

The campaign group says the MoJ’s new figures include an estimate that the amendment would cost the government £5m to£6m per year.

Mr Kenrick adds: “This is equivalent to the cost of just a handful of the high-cost cases that the government will continue funding for criminals and could be funded through using rich criminals’ frozen assets to cover their legal-aid costs.”

Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke has signalled the government’s intention to overturn all 11 amendments when the bill returns to the Commons.

But he is coming under increasingly intense pressure from a broad coalition of children’s charities, women’s groups, lawyers and peers from his own party to retain protection for children.

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