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Private school chain faces Michael Gove inquiry on whistleblower claims

Private school chain faces Michael Gove inquiry on whistleblower claims

guardian.co.uk |by Daniel Boffey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Primary school children to be expected to learn and recite poetry

Primary school children to be expected to learn and recite poetry


  • Press Association
  • guardian.co.uk, Sunday 10 June 2012 04.49 EDT
Michael Gove

Michael Gove, the education secretary, wants to make English teaching at primary schools more rigorous. Photograph: Graeme Robertson

Children as young as five will be expected to learn and recitepoetry by heart in a major overhaul of the national curriculum for schools in England.

The education secretary, Michael Gove, will promise a new focus on the traditional virtues of spelling and grammar when he sets out his plans for the teaching of English in primary schoolslater this week.

At the same time, Gove will put forward proposals to make learning a foreign language compulsory for pupils from the age of seven.

Under his plans, primary schools could offer lessons in Mandarin, Latin and Greek, as well as French, German and Spanish from September 2014.

Gove is said to be determined to make the teaching of English at primary school “far more rigorous” than it is at present.

He also hopes to reverse the decline in pupils taking foreign languages at GCSE by making them mandatory for the first time at primary school level.

Ministers believe that equipping children with foreign language skills is essential if they are to be able to compete in a global economy and support economic growth in future.

Officials acknowledge the proposals are likely to be controversial with some people arguing that they are too demanding while others will feel they are not demanding enough.

Gove is said to be keen to promote a public debate on the plans before redrafting them for a formal consultation later in the year.

They follow a report on the future framework of the national curriculum in England drawn up by an expert panel chaired by Tim Oates, the director of research at the Cambridge Assessment exam board.

On the teaching of English, the aim is to ensure that pupils leave primary school with a strong command of both written and spoken English, with high standards of literacy.

It will call for a systematic approach to the teaching of phonics as a basis for teaching children to become fluent readers and good spellers.

It will also emphasise the importance of grammar in mastering the language, setting out exactly what children should be expected to be taught in each year of their primary schooling as well as lists of words they should be able to spell.

At the same time the study of poetry will become an important part of the subject at primary school level.

From Year 1, at the age of five, children will be read poems by their teacher as well as starting to learn simple poems by heart and practise recitals.

The programme of study for Year 2 will state that pupils should continue “to build up a repertoire of poems learnt by heart and recite some of these, with appropriate intonation to make the meaning clear”.

More generally the curriculum will place a much stronger emphasis on reading for pleasure with children from Year 1“becoming very familiar with key stories, fairy stories and traditional tales”.

A Department for Education spokesman said: “We will be making an announcement on this shortly.”

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.

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