Thursday, October 28, 2010

DOE: Schools may be liable when bullying ignored

The US Department of Education will warn schools that tolerating or failing to adequately address ethnic, sexual, or gender-based harassment could violate antidiscrimination laws.

Following several high-profile cases of bullying, the department will write to schools, colleges, and universities today, reminding them of their obligations.

Russlynn Ali, assistant secretary for civil rights, said the department was responding to what it senses is a growing problem. The Office for Civil Rights received 800 complaints alleging harassment in the last fiscal year, and reports from the field indicate an increase in harassment of certain groups, including gays, lesbians, and Muslims.

In September, a Rutgers University student, Tyler Clementi, 18, committed suicide after his roommate secretly webcast his dorm-room tryst with a man. The roommate and another student have been charged with invasion of privacy, and authorities are considering a hate-crime charge.

In January, a South Hadley, Mass., girl, Phoebe Prince, 15, took her life after being relentlessly bullied by classmates, prosecutors said. Six teenagers have been charged.

Also yesterday, New Jersey lawmakers introduced an “antibullying bill of rights’’ that one advocate said would be the toughest state law of its kind.

Introduced by a bipartisan group of legislators and advocates, it seeks to augment laws New Jersey passed eight years ago. It would require antibullying programs in public K-12 schools and language in college codes of conduct to address bullying.

US Education Secretary Arne Duncan sought to assure students that action will be taken.

“No one should ever feel harassed or unsafe in a school simply because they act or think or dress differently than others,’’ Duncan said.


British teachers, bureaucrats and others blocking school reform

The Education Secretary's optimism is unshakeable. He considers creating new secondary schools that offer all the benefits of grammars, minus the selection, to be his mission. Wherever he goes, he finds parents and teachers clamouring for the chance to create a free school – free to teach, free to expand to meet demand, free to get rid of bad teachers and pay more to good ones, free from bureaucratic tyranny and union bullying.

Yet around him, and in Downing Street, there are fears that momentum is fast being lost – and that it is largely due to resistance from inside Mr Gove's own organisation. The Department for Education, suggest increasingly riled ministers, is becoming the biggest single obstacle to improving the woeful attainment of children languishing in what Alastair Campbell described as "bog standard comprehensives".

Of course, the enemies of free schools outside Whitehall are not hard to find. The National Union of Teachers has taken to bullying head teachers who express an interest in breaking from local authority control by sending letters threatening industrial action. Christine Blower, the head of the NUT, is orchestrating the resistance, and according to Fraser Nelson, whose Spectator magazine exposed her racket, she is doing it "dangerously well".

Or take the Anti-Academies Alliance, the umbrella organisation backed by the trade unions that has fought free schools since they were first set up by Tony Blair. Far from being a rainbow coalition of parents united only by concern for their children's education, it is in effect a Left-wing pressure group shaped by the Socialist Workers' Party and their enthusiasts with the sole aim of securing the grip of the big state on the education system. One of its most vocal supporters is Fiona Millar, Mr Campbell's partner.

Then there are the local authorities. Although Labour councils are more likely to obstruct free schools, Mr Gove must also be worried that Tory Bromley recently came out against proposals for a new Harris Federation academy, even though the chain set up by the carpet magnate has posted blistering results in terms of rescuing failing schools. As Fiona Murphy, the mother of three behind the campaign to bring Harris to Beckenham, complained: "It's a key Conservative manifesto policy, and we've got a Conservative council blocking it."

Finally, there are Ed Balls and the Labour Party. Until he was moved to the Home Office portfolio by Ed Miliband, Mr Balls was a one-man demolition squad who came close to wrecking Mr Gove's project in its earliest stages. When the list of prospective victims of the decision to axe the bloated Building Schools for the Future programme was released, to a storm of criticism, fingers were widely pointed at the former education secretary and his sympathisers in Whitehall.

However, as that episode suggests, the biggest threat facing free schools is now the enemy within. Senior figures in Downing Street have discussed how to rally support for Mr Gove, who is seen as isolated in a hostile department, able to count only on a small team of advisers and ministers, alongside the minority of officials who have embraced the reforms. They mutter darkly about "sabotage"; one of the Prime Minister's closest allies was heard to ask, "Shouldn't we do to Education what Ronald Reagan did to the air traffic controllers, and simply sack the lot?"

Under its different incarnations, the department has long had a reputation in Whitehall for being an obstacle to reform. How could it be otherwise, when it exists to serve the producer interest – the teachers and the bureaucrats, not the pupils and parents? Keith Joseph was stymied by his senior officials; Kenneth Baker had to fight to get his landmark reforms to the curriculum passed; and David Blunkett needed outsiders to help him, even though he could count on the support of Michael Bichard, a permanent secretary who was evangelical about change.

The current resistance takes many guises. In a minority of cases it is active, if difficult to prove (although I'm told that ministers have traced the leaking of harmful stories to a handful of senior officials). Those in the thick of the free schools project point to the legislative tools that civil servants who understand the system can use to slow the process to a trickle.

In particular, campaigners have identified three avenues – Freedom of Information, European Union competition rules, and the threat of judicial review – that are being used to delay decisions and frighten ministers. The first can be deployed to force the disclosure of a free school's supporters, who might be embarrassed by premature public exposure. The second is invoked to scare would-be sponsors of the schools who might balk at finding they have to compete with a commercial rival. The third is a stultifying catch-all, used to justify delay "while we double-check the small print, Minister".

Mr Gove puts all this down to inertia and risk-aversion, rather than politically motivated hostility. But he is not being idle. Internally, processes have been overhauled and an entire directorate set up by Mr Balls – for youth issues – has been axed. He has also created project management teams to turn policy into action. Two external hawks – John Nash, the sponsor of the Pimlico Academy, and Theo Agnew, who helped prepare the policy in opposition – have been appointed to the department's board. He will also shortly name someone from outside the Civil Service to be schools commissioner, and act as a champion for reform.

Bolstered by a better-than-expected spending settlement, Mr Gove is working on persuading teachers to rally to the free schools flag. Next Wednesday, in a nifty piece of political theatre, he will introduce union representatives to Arne Duncan, who ran the Chicago schools system before becoming Barack Obama's education secretary. His message to them will be that the reforms here are the same reforms embraced by Mr Obama's Democrats.

Still, the challenge for Mr Gove, and for the Coalition, remains daunting. "It's a huge department, in which four people at the top are trying to change everything," one reformer says. "It's still entirely doable. But if the department carries on moving at this pace, reform just won't happen." And what is happening there will happen elsewhere. David Cameron has launched revolutions on all fronts, but the Cabinet ministers watching Mr Gove from the safety of their shelters haven't even begun to fight their own battles. They should realise that this is what it will be like for them, too, and charge to his support.


Australia: NSW High School curriculum fails students

BUSINESS experts have slammed the HSC curriculum for failing to provide skills where they're needed. NSW Business Chamber CEO Stephen Cartwright said schools were ignoring demand for trade qualifications. "The HSC is focused on university outcomes more than trades and apprenticeships, areas in which we face a skills shortage," he said. "It's important that HSC students are encouraged to take up a trade, especially in those areas facing a skills shortage like construction."

Mr Cartwright called for an urgent review of the HSC curriculum to ensure vocational education students don't miss out on crucial skills. "Young people who do not enter university after they leave school need to be supported in their preparation for adult life, including their life at work," he said.

This year about 19,000 students were enrolled in a vocational education and training course, but not all choose to take the written HSC exam that goes toward their Australian Tertiary Admissions rank. There are 2724 Year 12 students enrolled in construction this year - up 8.4 per cent from 2009 - but only 80 per cent of them will sit tomorrow's test


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