Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The British school lottery

When Pauline Patrick had to tell her daughter that she wouldn't be starting at her chosen school in Brighton in the autumn with her friends, 11-year-old Chloe's response added to the anxiety her mother was already feeling. "She came home from school the day the letter arrived and asked, `Did I get in?'," says Patrick. "I had to say no and she just broke down, crying, `Why me, Why me?' I kept saying to her that we would appeal against the decision and we would win. But what if we don't win? What will we do then?"

The Patrick family's experience was replicated all over the country on the so-called "national offer day" earlier this month. Some families logged on after midnight to discover their child's fate; others waited for the envelope to drop through the letterbox. One way or another there was a lot of bad news: one in five families - 100,000 children - had missed out on their first choice of school place. Government ministers promptly admitted that many parents would feel "let down" by the system and urged them to make a case to local appeals panels.

But the thousands of families now caught in this predicament know that the chances of persuading a panel to throw open the gates of an oversubscribed school is stacked against them: two out of three appeals fail. So parents now face weeks of worry searching for alternatives to the sink schools that many have been offered.

With one-sixth of Britain's 3,000 secondary schools turning in appalling GCSE results, it is clear that there are simply not enough good schools to go round. National offer day 2008 seems to have condemned thousands of children to scrappy qualifications and a second-class life - at the age of 11.

Patrick, however, refused to be felled by the bad news. Within hours of learning the decision, she had shot off a letter to the appeals panel. She is now waiting for a date for a hearing where she will try to persuade them why her daughter should be given a place at Hove Park, a school close to the family's home. Instead, Chloe has been offered a place at a school several miles away, which means taking two long and, her mother says, unsafe bus journeys across the city twice a day. At this school, fewer than one in four children (23%) got five good GCSEs last summer.

In Kingston upon Thames, Surrey, dozens of parents have been left out in the cold because the Tiffin girls' school, the local grammar, accepts children from all over the country who pass the tough entrance exam, leaving local families scraping around. Among them is Tamsin McNicol's 10-year-old daughter Xanthe [above]. She was turned down at her first four choices and offered a place only at her fifth - a school in the neighbouring borough of Richmond, which was until recently failing badly. "It's bonkers," says McNicol. "The grammar school is two minutes from our home, but there are children applying from Yorkshire. Some pupils travel two hours each way to go there." Her daughter was a whisker away from achieving the marks to get a place, but lost out to children with higher marks who could be living at the other end of the country.

McNicol and other parents are campaigning for a new secondary school to be built in the north of Kingston, but in the meantime she is left high and dry. "I'm worried because I don't think the school Xanthe has been offered a place at is the right school for her," says McNicol. "It is undersubscribed because it used to be a failing school." She is appealing for a place at Tiffin girls, and will be writing to Ed Balls, the schools secretary, to point out just how unfair she feels the system is. However, McNicol's situation, to quote Monty Python's four Yorkshiremen, is "luxury" compared with that of Louis Modell, who has nowhere to go in September.

Louis was a Blair baby, born in February 1997 - three months before Tony Blair was elected - with the words "education, education, education" ringing in his ears. Eleven years on, Louis doesn't know what he will do in September after he finishes at Lauriston school in east London - ironically a primary that Gordon Brown singled out for praise in his 2007 Labour conference speech. And Louis's situation is by no means unique: he is one of 14 children out of 30 in his year 6 class in the same position. His father, David Modell, a documentary film-maker, has lived in Hackney for 13 years with his girlfriend Madeleine. The couple have two younger children in local primary schools.

Louis applied for six secondary school places - the only three in Hackney that his father said "he had a cat in hell's chance" of getting into, two schools in a neighbouring borough to hedge his bets, and one last-chance saloon: a school in Ingatestone in Essex, a 40-minute train journey away. With no offers so far, Louis has as yet no hope of any - the best the trust that runs education in Hackney could come up with was a suggestion that he consider home schooling. "We did everything we were asked to do. We were not picky - so when you get that letter saying you haven't got a place anywhere, it's shocking," says

Modell. "This year it's like carnage - all these kids and parents are walking around stunned." Three families, three unhappy unsettled children. Over the next few weeks they and their parents will have their lives turned upside down as they write letters, wait by the phone, attend appeal hearings and cross their fingers. Will Chloe avoid having to catch four buses a day? Will Xanthe be allowed to go to a better school closer to home where her friends go? And will Louis have a chance to go to school at all? Questions that, 11 years on, the Blair generation feel they should not be having to ask.


Convicted Felon Abortionist is Now the Principal of a Chicago Elementary School

A convicted felon and abortionist responsible for the deaths of at least two women has been hired at a Chicago public school as the new principal. A spokesman from Mildred I. Lavizzo School in the greater Roseland area told a pro-life advocate that the Lavizzo school council were apprised of the full background of their new principal, Dr. Arnold Bickham.

Jill Stanek, a Chicago area pro-life activist and nurse posted a letter on her website from an 8th grader at the school, who said that students and teachers "aren't comfortable with being around him and we want help. If he has this kind of back ground (sic) he shouldn't be able to work in this type of organization because you'll never know what he will try to do."

Bickham's days as an abortionist were ended in 1988 when the state permanently revoked his medical license after the death of a patient, Sylvia Moore, but his criminal conviction was for defrauding government job-training funds to cover his abortion facility payroll. Bickham's license was revoked in 1970 after it was revealed he was attempting abortions on women who were not pregnant.

Two women, 26 year-old Sherry Emry and 18 year-old Sylvia Moore underwent abortions at Bickham's hands at his Water Tower Reproductive Center in Chicago; both died of complications. Emry bled to death from an undetected ectopic pregnancy and Moore with a lacerated uterus that still had a plastic surgical instrument embedded in it.

Bickham was sued by patients several times for malpractice for infection, internal injuries, perforated uterus, and hemorrhage.

Stanek said she spoke with Chicago Public Schools spokesman, Mike Vaughn, who told her, "I did confirm with the law department that the crimes he was convicted of were not enumerated offenses that state school code lists as prohibiting someone from working for the school district".


Private Colleges Proliferating, Worldwide

With the demand for higher education ever-growing and unmet internationally, the private sector continues to grow. A paper to be presented this week at the Comparative and International Education Society conference in New York explores global patterns in the growth of private higher education - how it increases access and who for, how private institutions expand, and what the worries are.

"Fewer and fewer countries disallow private higher education, whereas many did several decades back," writes Daniel C. Levy, a professor and director of the Program for Research on Private Higher Education at the State University of New York at Albany. "Furthermore, while private growth has often exploded unexpectedly and on the fringes of legislation, it has also emerged where laws have been liberalized" - in various Indian states and Chinese provinces, for instance. Whereas private education earlier developed in Latin America outside of a "state directive," it's increasingly common, Levy writes, for governments in Asia, Eastern Europe, Africa and the Middle East "to articulate a rationale for private access." In the context of the report and international higher education, "private" can mean nonprofit, for-profit or somewhere in between.

While Japan is the only developed nation to have a majority of its enrollment concentrated in private colleges, such is the case in many developing countries in Asia and Latin America, Levy writes - adding that there's been significant growth elsewhere, including in post-communist countries that previously had no private higher education at all. In addition to providing more seats, private education's expansion is justified in part for bringing in additional revenue to the higher education system as a whole. At a recent forum presented by Fulbright Scholars studying access and equity in higher education around the world, researchers described a need to reduce pressures on massive, often tuition-free but resource-starved public higher education systems (existing in political climates oriented around the belief that free public higher education is a public good).

While private growth sometimes is focused on creating institutions similar to public universities but for their sources of revenue, private growth also often involves differentiation, including the education of students who wouldn't otherwise participate in higher education, Levy writes. Among them are students whose academic qualifications are sub-par by public university standards.

"It involves many students from socioeconomic backgrounds lower than that in public institutions, notwithstanding tuition charges. After all, the main obstacle to access for those from poor backgrounds is not higher education tuition but rather factors that limit their chances to perform well through schooling and thus to be qualified for selective public higher education." Private education can also increase access for particular groups. In Kenya, for instance, where women don't perform as well on science-based, public university entry exams, private universities can provide alternatives.

While growing primarily as freestanding institutions, private colleges do sometimes expand through linking or affiliating with public institutions. "The other thing is that it's fascinating how in some parts of Africa, Central and Eastern Europe, public universities, which are tough to get into, have opened private parallel programs. So, `I'm not good enough to get into the public and go for free but I am good enough maybe to get into a parallel program,'" Levy said in an interview.

On the one hand the programs expand access to students who wouldn't land a highly subsidized or even tuition-free public university spot. But they also raise questions about equity, with fee-paying, students in the private, parallel program sometimes studying right alongside the subsidized students - who generally come to the public system with better preparation and from higher socioeconomic backgrounds, he said.

Such issues are complicated, and the concerns remain. Among these is a distrust of profit motives. More common than for-profit private colleges, Levy writes, are "for-profits legally cloaked as nonprofits." Questions about quality - and whether private colleges are achieving efficiencies or operating at low levels of quality - persist, he writes. And of course there are philosophical issues at the core. "You can always make a counter-case. One counter-case would be do we need this much access? Do we need this many people in higher education? A second could be, if we do than why not pay for it on the public side?" Levy said in a phone interview Tuesday.

"Theoretically you could do it all through public education and try to save on cost by forcing people to pay, particularly if you establish good loan mechanisms. But that isn't really the reality in most places. The stark reality in most places I believe is there's huge demand, and the public sectors operate mostly on the basis of public money, and there isn't perceived to be enough public money to make great increased access possible through the public sector alone." "That doesn't mean that most people are tickled pink by all this. I think there are a lot of reservations."


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