Tuesday, July 20, 2010

MUSLIM country Bans Full Face Veils in Universities

Syria's education minister has issued a decree banning women on university campuses from wearing veils that cover their faces. The decision appears to be drawing fire from some quarters and praise from others.

Syrian Minister of Higher Education Ghaith Barakat says the decision to ban women wearing the "niqab" from entering university campuses was taken "at the request of a number of parents." Those parents, he said, do not want their children to be educated in an "environment of extremism."

The minister's decree follows a decision last month to dismiss 1200 Syrian school teachers who wear the face veil in class. Education officials, at the time, stressed that Syria was a "secular society," and that extremism is "unacceptable."

Al-Arabiya TV quoted an education ministry official, who argued the niqab was "against academic principles" as well as "campus regulations." He also called the practice an "ideological invasion." Syria's ruling Ba'ath Party denounced niqab-wearing at a recent conference.

A decision in Egypt last year to forbid women government employees from wearing the niqab created a storm of protest. The late head of al-Azhar University, Sheikh Mohammed Hussein Tantawi caused a controversy when he urged students at a girls' school to remove their niqabs.

Analyst Peter Harling of the Crisis Group in Damascus says Syria is caught in a bind between its own secular tradition and the Islamic fundamentalism of some of its allies:

"I think there is a fundamental contradiction in Syria's posture," Harling said. "Syria on one side is a secular country, or at least the regime at the helm is deeply structurally secular, and very attached to that particular identity. I think it is the last secular bulwark in the region, so to speak, on the one side. On the other, Syria is very much part of regional trends, which it tends to foster, through its support for militant groups, which most often embrace an Islamist outlook."

He also said there is a deeply felt feeling in Syria that it is time to act against the more extreme forms of Islam in the country, before it is too late."

Syria's minority Alawite sect, which loosely governs the country, is more Western-oriented and less traditionally Islamic than the dominant Sunni sect. But many of Syria's regional allies, including Iran, Lebanon's Hezbollah or the Palestinian Hamas movement have militant Islamic tendencies.

Maral Haidostian, who is Armenian and was brought up in Syria, points out the country's many minorities probably support the ban the niqab, while conservative Muslims might object to the measure:

"For women, maybe it is positive in my point of view," Haidostian said. "But, according to Muslim women, I do not know. I think for liberal women it is positive, but for the (conservative Muslim) community, maybe this is going to be difficult to accept. I do not know if (their) parents are going to allow the ladies-the women-to go to universities without covering themselves. This might backfire for the ladies."

The number of Syrian women wearing Islamic attire has grown dramatically in recent decades. Many observers argue the practice has spread due to the many Syrians who have lived and worked in conservative Islamic Gulf States


MA: Towns turn to school mergers

Under growing pressure from state officials, small public school systems across Massachusetts are discussing potential mergers, defying the state’s staunch tradition of local schools and hometown identity in a quest for greater financial stability.

For the first time in nearly a decade, several towns recently joined ranks to create new regional districts, linking Ayer and Shirley, Berkley and Somerset, and three vocational schools north of Boston.

From a host of small Berkshire towns to Chatham and Harwich on Cape Cod, another three dozen districts are considering teaming up with their neighbors or expanding existing unions. Even Hull and Cohasset, Thanksgiving Day rivals with a decided class divide, are courting.

“It can work,’’ said Marianne Harte, a school board member in Hull, which has also made overtures to Hingham about merging schools amid financial troubles. “And this is where things are headed.’’

But many towns are deeply conflicted over the idea, uneasy with the prospect of relinquishing local control, particularly on tax and budget issues, and fond of their schools the way they are. Many parents blanch at the idea of sending their children out of town for school, while older residents feel nostalgia for their alma maters.

“People don’t want to lose their identity,’’ said Susan Palmer-Howes, chairwoman of the school board in Hopedale, which amid financial woes has begun formal discussions on joining the Mendon-Upton public schools. “Hopedale is the old-fashioned utopian society, where everybody knows everybody. People worry that will change.’’

Governor Deval Patrick’s administration has pushed small districts to consolidate or regionalize over the past two years, believing that larger districts are decidedly more cost-efficient. More than one-third of the state’s school districts have fewer than 1,500 students, and sharing costs could save tens of millions while offering students a wider range of classes and programs, educators say.

“Educationally, you get a better product for the money you’re spending,’’ said John McCarthy, superintendent of the Freetown-Lakeville public schools, which are exploring whether to regionalize at the elementary school level. “Right now, we have a Grade 5-only school that’s half empty and other classes with 30 kids. It doesn’t make much sense.’’

Statewide, just over 1 in 4 communities belong to a regional school district.

Some districts are looking into regionalization on their own accord, hoping it will provide long-term stability. But most are bending to pressure from the state, which since 2008 has more generously reimbursed districts that merge for school construction and renovation costs, like a dowry for an arranged marriage.

“That’s absolutely been the motivation,’’ said Loxi Calmes, the superintendent in Lunenburg, which is exploring a potential merger with the North Middlesex Regional School District after dropping out of lengthy discussions with Ayer and Shirley. “We were told in very specific terms we needed to investigate this.’’Continued...

Even in budget crunches, financial incentives don’t easily wash away longstanding traditions. In the mergers approved this spring, negotiations were often tense and painstaking, delayed by myriad complexities and reluctance to change.

In a state divided into 351 communities and even more school districts, with a fervent belief in local governance and distrust of centralized control, regional districts are often a tough sell.

“It’s not easy to get past the local autonomy issue,’’ said George Frost, superintendent of schools in Ayer, a small town 35 miles northwest of Boston. “It’s an ingrained concept. But the state has been very clear in pushing us in this direction.’’

Supporters point to extremely small districts as the most cost-inefficient, as well as the simplest to combine. But residents usually like the smaller schools, and note that regional school districts often wage divisive budget fights.

This spring, for example, voters in tiny Wales, with just 150 students, rejected a proposed merger with Holland, about 5 miles away.

“Local control is still the way,’’ said Daniel Durgin, superintendent of the Tantasqua Regional School District, a five-town, grade 7-12 system that includes Holland and Wales. While he favors extending the regional approach to elementary schools as well, he doesn’t see much support for it.

In Somerset and Berkley, residents waged an intense back-and-forth over officially regionalizing the high school to land more generous state reimbursement, even though Berkley students have attended Somerset schools for a generation on an informal basis.

“It’s the same arrangement we’ve had for 25 years,’’ said Kim Forbes, a leading proponent. “We thought it was a no-brainer. I never expected to be booed and called names.’’

There has been talk of fully merging the districts, Forbes said, and combining the high school seemed like a sensible first step, a route followed by a number of districts.

Patricia Haddad, a state representative from Somerset and the assistant majority whip, said Massachusetts has almost 400 superintendents, counting charter and vocational schools. Maryland, by contrast, has just 32 districts statewide.

“That’s crazy,’’ she said of the Massachusetts figure. Consolidating schools would sharply reduce administration and school building costs, Haddad said.

But many communities worry they will wind up paying more than their share for regional schools, particularly when merging with less affluent towns.

Others question the premise that combining small schools saves money at all. Nicholas Young, the superintendent in Hadley and an outspoken critic of regionalization, said smaller schools are often highly efficient and are better off sharing some services with other schools, such as transportation and supplies, while maintaining their overall independence.

“We have this business mindset that bigger is better, but it costs far less to build small schools,’’ Young said. “There’s not a stitch of evidence you save money through consolidation. It sounds good politically, but it has been proven not to work.’’

A study last year from the state Education Department found that districts with fewer than 1,500 students spent about $1,000 more per student than districts with between 1,500 and 3,000 students, a range that educators call a sweet spot. Larger districts spend more per student, researchers found.

Declining revenues and enrollments, the study found, could destabilize some small districts.

Supporters say collaborative programs among school systems show the benefits of regionalization, and suggest that schools are increasingly willing to trade autonomy for savings.

“Everything has to be put on the table, because we have no money, and none’s coming in,’’ said Marianne Harte, the school board member from Hull. “The state is just dangling a carrot to get a stubborn mule moving.’’

Supporters and opponents alike acknowledge that the logistics involved in merging school systems are daunting and costs can be prohibitive. From building leases to employee contracts to administrative functions, school leaders say they have to build new systems almost from scratch.

“You have to start from the ground floor,’’ Frost said. “It’s incredibly complex.’’

In contrast, residents often want to keep things simple. Even communities with regional high schools are hesitant to do so in the younger grades. In fast-changing times, the idea of losing the neighborhood elementary school, or have it be subject to the whim of voters in the next town, is disquieting.

“It’s something that many people feel uneasy about,’’ Calmes, the Lunenburg superintendent, said. “We’re used to having this town center. When we built a new primary school that was a mile away, that was unsettling to folks.’’


British charter schools (Academies) 'failing to teach traditional subjects'

Academies are shunning traditional subjects such as English and History in favour of less challenging qualifications in an effort to drive up results, a think tank has claimed.

Figures disclosed in parliament revealed that the proportion of academy students taking GCSEs in courses including English Literature, history and individual sciences are outstripped by those at maintained schools.

In foreign languages and geography, entries from academies were more than a third lower than the average for maintained schools.

Opponents said the figures showed academies had abandoned non-compulsory academic subjects in favour of less challenging GCSEs and equivalent qualifications to boost their performance in league tables.

Academies, which are not subject to freedom of information laws, have faced calls to be more open over the curriculum they offer and the pay of staff.

The figures, based on exams taken last summer, came to light following a question in Parliament by Tristram Hunt, MP for Stoke-on-Trent central, and research by Civitas.

It follows data showing that academy pupils are awarded twice as many A* to C grades in non-GCSE qualifications as maintained schools, but two thirds as many of the equivalent GCSE grades.

Anastasia de Waal, Director of Education at Civitas, said: "Academies are supposed to be improving not impoverishing education, so to find that the proportion of academy students doing core academic subjects is much lower than average makes a mockery out of the notion that academies are exemplary.

"Withdrawing academic GCSEs and replacing them with weak substitutes has been great for academies’ league table position but hugely detrimental to the already often limited opportunities available to the young people they serve."

In academies, just 21 per cent of pupils took a GCSE exam in history and 17 per cent in geography last year, compared with 30 per cent and 26 per cent respectively in maintained schools.

Academies entered just eight per cent of pupils for individual exams in physics and nine per cent in chemistry and biology, compared with 12 per cent for each of the three subjects in maintained schools.

The biggest difference was in foreign languages, where just 26 per cent of academy pupils were entered for a GCSE compared with 41 per cent in all maintained schools.

Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers union, said: "There is nothing wrong with academies devising a curriculum which will get the children to school and get them wanting to learn.

"But the difficulty is when the qualifications are a spurious equivalent to a GCSE, which are widely used to push up the GCSE results of academies to show that they are getting much better results than state schools."

A spokesperson for the Department for Education said: "The fact is that Academies are working - academies have been over three times more likely to be rated outstanding by Ofsted than other state schools, since their new tougher inspection regime was introduced, while half as many Academies are judged inadequate.

“Ministers are clear that young people should be entered for the qualifications that are in their best interests rather than being entered for exams simply to boost the league table position of the school."


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