Sunday, November 18, 2012

British regulator  to 'root out' failing councils in new standards drive

(Most State schools in Britain are still run by local authorities)

 Education inspectors are to launch a fresh crackdown on failing councils and chains of academy schools amid growing fears over a postcode lottery in standards.

 Ofsted is drafting in a new wave of regional directors in January as part of a major drive to “iron out” chronic underperformance in some towns and cities.    Under the plans, inspectors will identify local authorities with a persistently poor record of running schools.

 The watchdog will also focus on chains of independent academies – run by third party sponsors with complete freedom from council control – amid fears their performance may be going unchecked.

 Institutions with the lowest standards will be shopped to Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, who has the power to intervene if problems persist.

 Sir Michael Wilshaw, the chief inspector, said the English education system would continue to lag behind rivals in other countries until “the big regional variations are ironed out”.  In an interview with The Daily Telegraph, he said: “There are regional differences that need to be addressed if we are going to move towards a world-class system.  “With this regional structure, we will hold local authorities, academy chains and diocesan authorities and governance in general to account.”

 The comments came as new figures exposed the vast gulf in standards between England’s 152 local authorities.

 Data published following a Parliamentary question shows that in some areas fewer than one-in-five children currently leave school with decent GCSEs in the core “English Baccalaureate” subjects – English, maths, science, languages and history or geography.

 Last year, just 3.2 per cent of pupils gained A*-C grades in Knowsley, Merseyside, while as few as 4.9 per cent hit the target in nearby Halton. Standards were as low as 4.7 per cent in Sandwell in the West Midlands and 4.9 per cent in the London borough of Barking and Dagenham.

 In a further 28 council areas, fewer than one-in-10 pupils gained good grades in the core subjects, it emerged.

 Nationally, 15.4 per cent of teenagers hit the target, rising to around a third in the best-performing areas such as Buckinghamshire and the London boroughs of Barnet, Kingston-upon-Thames and Sutton.

 Chris Skidmore, the Conservative MP for Kingswood, and a member of the Commons education select committee, who obtained the data, said: “These figures demonstrate that there are local authorities failing some of the most disadvantaged pupils in achieving what is becoming the minimum standard for a school education.  “Every pupil, regardless of where they grow up, should be given the opportunity to succeed, and it is clear that this is not happening.”

 From January, Ofsted will draft in eight regional directors covering the North East, North West, East Midlands, West Midlands, East of England, South East, London and the South West.

 Each one – reporting directly to Sir Michael – will lead a team of inspectors tasked with rooting out councils, large-scale chains of academies or faith groups suspected of failing to properly support schools.

 Although Ofsted does not routinely inspect these institutions, Sir Michael insisted that area-wide problems would be reported to the Education Secretary who can then order the watchdog to carry out a full probe.

 Sir Michael will raise further concerns over regional variations in education standards in his first Ofsted annual report, to be published later this month.

 Speaking to the Telegraph, he said: “We need to look behind what’s happening in individual institutions to see whether there is an issue with governance… Is the governance at the local authority good enough? Is the governance by academy chains good enough?

 “If we identify particular issues in a local area, I think it is important that we talk to the Secretary of State about it.”

 A Department for Education spokesman said: “Sir Michael is right – standards in some local authorities are simply not good enough. We are working with them to turn round poor performance in their schools.

 “We are identifying consistently weak schools and allowing experienced academy sponsors to take them over. The best way to turn round these schools is the strong external challenge and support from an academy sponsor.

 "Academies have already turned around hundreds of struggling secondary schools across the country and are improving their results at twice the national average.

 “As with maintained schools, if academies do not make the progress we expect, we take further action. This may result in a change to the sponsorship arrangements."


Test case could dictate admissions policy in British faith schools

New faith schools could be forced to admit pupils from non-religious backgrounds if a judicial review currently being heard in the High Court is successful.

Campaigners have brought a legal challenge against Richmond Council, claiming that in approving two new Catholic schools it had broken the law and discriminated against non-Catholic children.

The British Humanist Association (BHA) and a group of local activists, including parents, argue that all new state schools in the London borough should have religiously inclusive admissions policies.

They say they want to halt the “back-door” spread of new religious state schools in England.

If successful, it could mean that traditional faith schools that cater only for believers, could no longer be opened by a local authority without first seeking proposals from those wishing to establish an academy.

A faith academy would be required to reserve at least 50 per cent of places for non-religious pupils if oversubscribed.

The BHA is fighting to overturn the council’s decision to offer a new £8.4 million site to the Catholic Diocese of Westminster to be used for one primary school and one secondary, which are due to open next September.

It says that the council breached a new law introduced earlier this year which states that if a local authority believes a new school is needed, it must seek proposals from groups wanting to set up free schools or academies.

If there are no suitable proposals, local authorities can the open up the competition to include other types of schools.

However, the Department of Education insists that it is possible to open new faith schools outside of such competitive arrangements. Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, has personally intervened in the case to back the council.

The council said that 67 per cent of parents and residents who responded to a consultation on its plans were in favour of them. There is no Catholic secondary school in the area and the Church insists it is responding to local demand.

Cllr Lord True, leader of Richmond Council, has accused the BHA and Richmond Inclusive Schools Campaign (RISC) of using local children as “play thing in their ideological campaign to stop church schools”.

But Andrew Copson, chief executive of the BHA, said the case reflected "a disturbing national pattern", in which religious groups were being given preferential treatment by local councils through "back-door proposals".

He said outside the High Court: "Victory here would hopefully set a precedent and level the playing field on which proposals to establish schools are treated equally, with the same level of scrutiny, whether religious or not.

Voluntary aided faith schools can select pupils solely on the basis of their faith. In Richmond, the new primary school plans to allocate two thirds of its places to Catholics while at the secondary, all places will be selected based on religion.

The two-day judicial review, which represents the first time the new law has been tested, is due to end on Friday.


Australia: Principals say teachers forced to do risk assessments for things like painting and drawing.  Children too frightened to "have a go"

PRINCIPALS say children are becoming too frightened "to have a go at things" as teachers are forced to do risk assessments for activities including painting and drawing.

Principals say common sense has been abandoned in "the litigious age", with society's risk aversion starting to have a visible impact on children.

They warn risk-taking is "absolutely crucial to learning and development", with some students visibly frightened of making mistakes.

Tiggy [tag], handstands and running on bitumen have all been banned in some schoolyards over the past few years.

State schools now keep a Curriculum Activity Register recording all approved high and extreme-risk activities and some medium ones.

In one of the 134 Curriculum Activity Risk Assessments (CARA), painting and drawing is considered as dangerous as ice skating.

Teachers are told the use of toxic material in painting and drawing activities including glues, pigments and solvents require them to document controls or complete a curriculum activity risk assessment.

"Consider obtaining parental/carer permission," teachers are told.

It comes after the Queensland Association of State School Principals (QASSP) warned a senate inquiry "risk management is no longer left to good old 'common sense'."

QASSP president Hilary Backus said workplace, health and safety issues now gobbled up budgets and time, but there was no turning back from the CARA requirements because of fears of being sued.

She said while people once walked around uneven pavers or underneath branches, they were now pointing them out and expecting principals to deal with them immediately.

She said helicopter parenting and a desire to protect children was hurting learning. "We are starting to see children actually frightened to have a go at things and frightened of making mistakes - it does hinder the learning process," she said.

Queensland Secondary Principals' Association president Norm Fuller said people were now looking for someone to blame when accidents occurred.

"In this day and age the (CARA) forms are necessary," Mr Fuller said. "I believe that we have gone past the area of common sense and we are now seeing a trend of relying more on legal interpretation of risks . . . these days everything must be written down and signed."

Education Queensland assistant director-general Marg Pethiyagoda said parents expected their children would be safe at school.

"The department is working to streamline the curriculum activity risk assessment process to reduce the administrative burden on schools while still ensuring schools are safe places for students to engage in a range of learning activities," she said. She said painting involving toxic materials such as glues could result in students being exposed to dangerous fumes, but general art classes in primary school would use non-toxic materials and were considered low risk.

Queensland Teachers' Union president Kevin Bates said the register and CARA guidelines were in line with community expectations and brought schools in line with the private sector.

He said people might decry any suggestion a game like tiggy could be dangerous but children could be seriously hurt.

Queensland Council of Parents and Citizens' Associations president Margaret Leary said she was worried children were being "bubble-wrapped", but CARA was a result of "the litigious nature of society these days".

Education Minister John-Paul Langbroek said the top priority for all schools should be student safety, which is why CARA guidelines existed. He encouraged staff to take "a commonsense approach" to decisions on playground safety.


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