Monday, February 02, 2009

British charter schools under attack

They are called "academies" in Britain to make them sound grander than they really are

ONE of the inventors of the government's city academies has warned their success is being jeopardised by the "creeping return" of council control. The academies were designed under Tony Blair to close failing inner-city schools and replace them with institutions that are independent of meddling local politicians and run instead by outside sponsors. However, Sir Cyril Taylor, former chairman of the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, warned that, since Gordon Brown came to power, councils have been allowed to reassert their influence over the staffing, admissions and finances of academies. The government aims to open 400. "The whole point is to give them independence," said Taylor in advance of his new book to be published by Routledge on February 10. "Now the programme risks drifting from the core mission with too much control being exercised by local authorities - no doubt in my mind about that."

Ed Balls, the schools secretary, restated his commitment to academies last week. This has failed to allay concerns. Taylor said the initiative should remain focused on failing schools - sponsors should not be given the easier option of taking over well-performing schools, and troubled private schools should not be allowed to become academies as an escape route from bankruptcy. This weekend the schools minister, Jim Knight, said the government would consider such approaches in areas where there was demand for more school places.

Taylor was ousted from chairmanship of the trust in a board-room coup in 2007 after angering colleagues with abrasive comments about incompetent teachers. He returns to the theme in his new book, A Good School for Every Child. Taylor writes that there are more than 13,000 incompetent teachers, adding: "Procedures to move on ineffective teachers or staff in English schools are absurdly complicated, time-consuming and frustrating."

Taylor is seen as the co-founder of academies along with Lord Adonis, the Blairite former schools minister moved to the transport department last year by Brown. Taylor, 73, last week described Adonis's departure as "an absolute tragedy". He added: "The turnover of staff since has been absolutely appalling. A lot of the officials they have now, you don't even know if they believe in the initiative." Taylor argues that academies have proved their worth by improving grades 50% faster than the national average. This, he says, has happened despite them having twice as many pupils on free school meals.

Academies have long been controversial. Labour back-benchers and unions oppose their control by sponsors who include companies, a duke, charities, church groups, private schools and universities. Last month, official data showed improvements made by some academies had slipped back. Ofsted, the schools inspectorate, has declared an academy in Carlisle as failing after an emergency inspection sparked by pupil violence, a teachers' revolt and parental protests.

Alasdair Smith, secretary of the Anti Academies Alliance, said: "If what Taylor is saying was true, I'd be delighted. My worry is it isn't true enough. In some cases, they are being left with no alternative but to turn to councils as the businesses they wanted are getting cold feet." Michael Gove, the shadow schools secretary, said: "Sir Cyril is absolutely right to point out how academy freedom has been eroded."

The schools department said: "We are not changing the academy model. The local authority role has not changed and will not change."


Australia: Exodus to private schools continues in Queensland

Tracking the decay of discipline in government schools

PARENTS deserted Queensland's state schools last year, with independent primary schools growing at a much higher rate than government schools. Catholic primary schools also experienced massive growth compared to their state counterparts. The surprising figures were released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics this week in its "Schools, Preliminary Australia" 2008 report. It showed state primary schools, which had 308,698 students in 2007, attracted only 73 more students in 2008. Meanwhile, independent primary schools grew their ranks from 48,035 in 2007 to 50,577 in 2008.

Government high schools fared better, with growth rates only eight and five times higher in the independent and Catholic sectors respectively.

The figures also confirm the government is having trouble retaining staff, with full-time teaching staff growth rates dipping just below 0 per cent, while non-government schools grew 4 per cent.

Independent Schools Queensland executive director Dr John Roulston said choosing a school was "a very considered decision these days", with many parents settling on the independent sector for its academic excellence, sense of community and variety, including Christian, Muslim, Montessori, Steiner and grammar schools.

Queensland Catholic Education Commission executive director Mike Byrne said parents and students were continuing to choose Catholic schools for their Christian values, emphasis on pastoral care, academic excellence and strong family partnerships.

Non-government Queensland schools also had one of the highest rates of students staying on to Year 12 in the nation, according to a Productivity Commission report released yesterday.

Education Minister Rod Welford said enrolments continued to grow at state schools, which this year enrolled more than 480,000 children - about 65 per cent of Queensland's students. "School subject options ranging from academic to vocational education offered by state schools are equivalent to, or exceed those offered at many private schools," he said. "State school enrolments continue to increase."


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