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Headteachers signed up by ministry to praise Gove’s free school policies

Headteachers signed up by ministry to praise Gove’s free school policies

guardian.co.uk |by Jeevan Vasagar on July 11, 2012

Michael Gove

Education secretary Michael Gove is due to announce the next wave of free schools soon. Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Civil servants at the Department for Education were asked by Michael Gove’s advisers to enlist sympathetic headteachers who could act as defenders of controversial government policies, including the creation of free schools.

The PR operation involved creating a database of sympathisers who could advocate policy instead of ministers. Quotes from headteachers on the database were added to official announcements. It was shut down amid concern that it risked politicising the civil service.

The education secretary, who is due to announce the next wave of free schools imminently, has faced mounting criticism in recent weeks.

The Stakeholder and Advocacy team was established within the DfE last April as the government prepared for the opening of the first free schools.

One source with knowledge of the operation said: “It was just a pretty simple database: anyone supportive of free schools or academies or back-to-basics 1950s schooling was just dumped on the database, you could roll them out with an announcement – to back it. It was all driven by spads [special advisers].”

The new drive marked a shift from the traditional civil service method of using data to back government announcements, the source said. “DfE [in the past] would just put out loads of data; Tory spads were from a softer PR background and wanted to use case studies.”

The aim was to have headteachers advancing policy rather than ministers, the source said.

Headteachers on the list included Patricia Sowter, head of an academy school, who spoke before Gove at the Conservative party conference in 2010.

Press releases from the DfE in the past year have frequently included supportive quotes from headteachers. An announcement about the new school admissions code had a quote from Rob McDonough, headteacher at West Bridgford school in Nottingham, which read: “I very much welcome the direction of change. Through greater school autonomy, and the academies programme, which will positively impact upon standards, I do believe this will increase the supply of good school places for parents.”

McDonough told the Guardian: “In that particular instance, I had as a headteacher been invited to work on the working party looking at the new admissions code. The fact that as a practising headteacher I’d been offered the opportunity to look at all the new admissions proposals, I was very appreciative of that. If they’re putting my name to that on a press release, it’s justified.”

External endorsement has been an important source of support at a time when Gove faces intense criticism. The education secretary’s proposed reforms have been attacked by senior figures including Lord Adonis, the former schools minister, and the director of the Institute of Education, Chris Husbands.

Gove is due to announce which free schools are approved to open in September 2013 before parliament rises on 17 July.

While the Labour government also sought out supportive headteachers, Gove’s team wanted to put this PR operation on a formal footing, another source said. The operation was closed down amid concern about how the people on the database were selected, and that civil servants were being asked to do work that was the province of special advisers. The civil service is required to be politically impartial while special advisers assist ministers in areas where the work of the government and governing party overlap.

“If you were being uncharitable you could say it was using civil servants to wheel out Tory supporters,” a source said.

Civil servants would be encouraged to add names to the list by ministerial aides who said: “This guy’s good, we know him from Tory circles.”

In response to questions in parliament from the Labour MP Lisa Nandy, the government confirmed the team was intended to “improve relationships and build understanding of the department’s policies with key stakeholders”.

Nandy said: “I asked these questions because I was increasingly concerned about the politicisation of the civil service. It has been incredibly difficult to get answers to parliamentary questions and FOI requests out of the DfE, and particularly in relation to this group on why it was disbanded so suddenly.

“If you set that within the wider context of the last two years – public money awarded without a proper tendering process to an organisation run by a former [Gove] adviser, Tory donors brought on to the board of the Department for Education, an outside body linked to the Tory party directing civil servants, and private emails used to discuss official business – it seems there is a blurring of boundaries between the Conservative party and the civil service, which is a significant cause for concern, and deserves answers.”

The PR drive was established after the media strategist James Frayne was appointed Gove’s director of communications. Frayne, a former campaigns director at the Taxpayers’ Alliance,  has written about the importance of “mobilising third parties”.

Frayne is leaving the DfE post at the end of August to work for the Republicans in this year’s US presidential elections.

A DfE spokesman said: “The Stakeholder and Advocacy Team was created in the spring of 2011 and existed for just over six months. In that time it helped stage events on the curriculum and on maths and science policy. It also generated lists of interested parties that were invited to events and kept informed about departmental policy. It was closed as part of a restructure which halved the size of the communications team.

“All civil servants operate under the civil service code. Any substantive allegations of breaches of the code would be investigated in the usual way.”


The expensive free schools no one needs

The expensive free schools no one needs

guardian.co.uk |by Dorothy Lepkowska on July 9, 2012

  • Dorothy Lepkowska
Jeremy Rowe, headteacher of Sir John Leman high school in Beccles, Suffolk

Jeremy Rowe: ‘The government is giving £2m to a school for 37 pupils. It makes me angry to think what I could do with this money’. Photograph:  /Si Barber

There are around 10,600 empty school places in Suffolk. Or, to put it another way, if 10 average-sized secondary schools were closed down, there would still be a place for every child living in the county who needs one. Which made it somewhat surprising, therefore, when the Department for Education approved four free schools in the county, with a further two in the offing.

“The Suffolk free school scandal”, as local campaigners are calling it, has turned this rural county into an ideological battleground for the education secretary Michael Gove’s flagship policy. Millions of pounds are to be spent on setting up and kitting out new schools that are simply not needed, and in most cases not wanted, by local communities.

Campaigners in the county say they do not object to free schools per se, but they don’t understand how or why approvals were granted here. They are not likely to find out. Freedom of Information requests, seen by Education Guardian for access to business plans, minutes of meetings and consultation reports have been refused on the grounds either that they are not in the public interest or because to disclose the information would be “inappropriate”. In some cases, the documents were released, but only after approval had been granted, for example the consultation report for a free school in Beccles, carried out by Cambridge Education, which revealed an unequivocal lack of support for such a school.

Requests by parents and community leaders to meet DfE officials to discuss the proposals were also refused. The DfE, it seems, will meet only bidders.

“There is a staggering lack of transparency,” says Emma Bishton, a parent and member of the Compass (Community and Parents Actively Supporting Our Schools) group, which has opposed the creation of a free school in Stoke by Nayland. “Free schools are supposed to be about community engagement, but we are not getting any opportunity to engage,” Bishton says. “At every turn we have been refused information.”

This included details of a meeting between county council and DfE officials held to discuss the progress of free schools in the county. The response to the FOI request states that as no minutes were written or actions taken, there was no information to disclose.

“We have people from a broad political church within our group, but one thing we are all clear about it that this is not the way to plan the future of education in this county,” says Bishton.

Most of the free school bids in Suffolk are driven by the Seckford Foundation, which runs a fee-paying school and residential care homes in the county. It is being aided, in no small part, by an ongoing county reorganisation that will see a three-tier system of first, middle and upper schools replaced with a two-tier structure. This has left some empty school buildings that could be used for free schools.

Jeremy Rowe, head of Sir John Leman high school, in Beccles, where the most controversial free school to date is scheduled to open in two months’ time, put up a tough fight on the grounds that the school would undermine his own. His school’s most recent Ofsted report described it as  “good with outstanding features”, offering a broad curriculum and good pastoral care – not a school that seems to cry out for  a bit of competition.

Rowe says recent months have been difficult as the school has had to plan time-tables and staffing without knowing how many pupils would opt for the free school instead of Sir John Leman. To attract more pupils away from their chosen schools,  the Seckford Foundation has offered free uniforms, free school meals and an iPod Touch for each child. Even so,  only about 37 students are due to start at the free school in September.

“The government is giving the foundation a cash hand-out of about £2m to open a school for just 37 pupils, which was opposed by more than 3,000 local residents,” says Rowe. “It makes me very angry when I consider what I could do with this amount of money in my own school.” He has called on Seckford to withdraw its “farcical free school project” from Beccles.

But Rowe is claiming victory. On Twitter, he wrote: “McFree school: whatever happens, we won.” And he says: “I am delighted that even after all this, 97% of parents are showing confidence in their local school. By anyone’s standards, that is an extraordinary approval rate and vote of confidence.”

In other communities, the lack of suitable buildings has created opposition by planners as well as residents. In Frome, Somerset, the proposed Steiner free school is embroiled in a row with some sections of the community about school places, traffic and planning permission. Planning permission has also been refused by councillors for the proposed Bedford free school, in Bedfordshire. Gove is reported to have told a recent free schools conference that he would try to overrule refusals to grant planning permission to free schools, smoothing the path for them to open.

The manner in which free schools are being approved around the country is raising eyebrows elsewhere. A report last week from the Royal Society of Arts said: “There does not appear to be any rhyme or reason as to where free schools are being encouraged or permitted” and described them as an “unguided missile rather than a targeted weapon in the school programme”.

The DfE says the aim of the policy is to increase parental choice and not to reduce it by undermining existing schools. “Every stage of the process of approving, or otherwise, a free school is entirely open and transparent, and the process is clearly set out,” a spokesman said.

“As with all free schools, we work hard to ensure good value for money for the taxpayer. Parents should have choice over which school their child attends.” On the  issue of Beccles free school enticing students away from the local secondary, he added: “As long as there are sufficient places available, they can send their children to whichever school they think best suits their child’s needs.”

Graham Watson, director of the Seckford Foundation, says: “The foundation remains confident that numbers will continue to rise for places at the Beccles free school in the coming weeks as more and more people take up the freedom of choice in their child’s future education.”

The National Union of Teachers has complained to the Information Commissioner about the education secretary’s refusal to release assessments of the likely impact on local schools. “It is vital that these are made public and the veil of secrecy lifted,” said its general secretary, Christine Blower.

Meanwhile, the Local Schools Network is watching developments with growing concern. Fiona Millar, one of its founders, says: “It is impossible to find out what criteria are being applied to these schools or how these decisions are being made. The DfE is now creating a situation where it is survival of the fittest and it is doing so deliberately, believing competition will improve provision and up everyone’s game. At the same time, it wants to increase the number of free schools as the policy is stalling in many areas and starting to look like a failure.”

For Rowe, the Beccles free school decision has been an “utter catastrophe” for the public image of the policy. “The government has exposed itself as being prepared, in a time of so-called austerity, to throw money at pet projects to make them succeed, despite the strength of opposition locally. It is complete hypocrisy to suggest that this is being done for any other reason than political ideology.

“Michael Gove has seriously under-estimated the confidence and sense of loyalty that people have towards the schools in their communities.”

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.

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