Monday, March 18, 2013

MPs attack British Government’s 'downgrading’ of religious education

Religious education in schools is to come under attack in a report which will warn that more than half of those who teach the subject do not have any expertise.

A cross-party group of MPs, peers and bishops will claim that “a raft of recent policies” have undermined the teaching of RE in schools.

Their report, to be published tomorrow, includes a survey of 430 schools, which found that 10 out of 130 secondary schools broke the law by not teaching RE to some pupils.

In a quarter of the primary schools surveyed, pupils were being taught by teaching assistants, rather than qualified teachers, while 43 per cent of staff teaching RE in primary and secondary schools did not have any specialist training in the subject.

The All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Religious Education described its findings as “unacceptable”.

“A raft of recent policies have had the effect of downgrading RE in status on the school curriculum, and the subject is now under threat as never before, just at the moment when it is needed most,” it concludes.

The group took evidence from sources including current and former schools inspectors and the Department for Education (DfE). The report, RE: the truth unmasked, will be given to Michael Gove, the Education Secretary.

The report suggests there is a contradiction in the Government’s vocal support for “well-trained” RE teachers, while at the same time withdrawing funding for specialist training.

Stephen Lloyd, the Lib Dem MP who chairs the APPG, said: “It is illogical to think that we can dilute the professionalism and expertise needed to teach RE well and still have a generation of young people that understand and are sensitive to the growing levels of religious and non-religious diversity in our society.”

A DfE spokesman said: “There are now 1,000 more RE teachers than there were in November 2010 and the number of RE teacher training places for 2013 has actually increased by 99 from last year.”


British schools will be 250,000 places short next year: Immigration, baby boom and exodus from private schools blamed

A quarter of a million extra school places are needed by next year, the National Audit Office warns.  The biggest baby boom since the 1950s combined with high levels of immigration have been blamed for the huge shortfall.

The squeeze on household incomes has also seen large numbers of  families turn their backs on private schooling.

An estimated 240,000 of the places expected to be needed in the 2014-2015 academic year are in primaries. More children than ever could be forced to travel large distances to school, be taught in makeshift classrooms or in oversized classes.

Amyas Morse, who is head of the NAO, said yesterday: ‘Despite increases in places and funding over the last two years, the Department for Education faces a real challenge, with 256,000 places still required by 2014-2015.

‘There are indications of real strain on school places.’

The number of pupils in state schools is expected to soar by nearly a million to 7,950,000 by the end of the decade. Last year alone the primary school population went up by 78,000, the fastest rise in a decade.

At least a fifth of schools were full or overflowing last May and the number of infant classes with more than 31 children has doubled since 2007.

Last September, hundreds of primary children were left waiting for a confirmed place as the term began.  And around 23,000 began their education at schools their parents didn’t want them to attend.

The rising demand has had a significant impact on the average time a child spends travelling to school.

Areas under the greatest strain include Hampshire, where 122 primary schools are educating children who are ‘in excess of school capacity’.

Kent has 733 too many children in 114 primaries and 1,351 ‘excess’ pupils in 33 secondary schools.

Were migration reduced to zero, 106,000 fewer places would be needed, DfE figures suggest.

But it is feared that the arrival of an estimated 50,000 Romanians and Bulgarians when an immigration cap expires at the end of this year will heighten the problem.

Councils have been concreting over parks and other open spaces to build extra classrooms.

Children are also having lessons in former warehouses, police stations, offices and retail outlets.

Some education chiefs have considered ‘radical’ solutions such as split-shift schooling, with school days staggered to have different year groups taught at different times of day.

Sir Andrew Green, of MigrationWatch UK, said: ‘This is yet another example of Labour’s failure to plan for the inevitable effects of mass immigration which they stimulated.’

The Office of the Schools Adjudicator warned in November that a shortage of capacity for four- and five-year-olds is one of the biggest problems facing councils.

The Government has pumped more than £5billion into creating more spaces. But this did not include costs such as acquiring land – because the Department for Education assumed most places would be in existing schools, the NAO said.

The shortage increases the likelihood of more ‘super’ primaries being opened that can accommodate up to 1,000 children.

Kevin Brennan, Labour’s schools spokesman, accused the Government of cutting funding for school buildings by 60 per cent.

‘Michael Gove’s first job as Education Secretary is to provide enough school places for children – he is failing in that duty,’ he added.

But schools minister David Laws said the NAO report confirmed the Government was ‘dramatically’ increasing funding for school places.  He added: ‘Labour reduced the number of places available even though there was a baby boom.

‘We have already created 80,000 new places to deal with the shortage left by the last government and there will be more places to come.’

A DfE spokesman said: ‘We will have spent around £5billion by 2015 on creating new school places, which is more than double the amount spent in the previous parliament.

‘We are confident that this will meet the local demand that local authorities face.’

David Simmonds, of the Local Government Association, said councils  faced ‘unprecedented pressures’.

‘If the Government wants to rapidly increase the number of school places it should release money from the grip of Whitehall mandarins and let councils, who have both the legal duty and the local knowledge to deliver new places.’


America and continental Europe compared: university study

When I discuss my observations about study in the United States with friends, many remark on the differences and similarities to their studies on continental Europe. Several read Modern Languages as undergraduates and chose to spend their obligatory year abroad at universities in non-English-speaking countries. Some went on to do post-graduate study on the continent. Others, my European colleagues at British and American universities, took the opposite route.

A common set of remarks have emerged throughout these conversations. For British students and academics contemplating a move – across the Channel or the Atlantic -, they give a useful overview of the advantages and disadvantages of different study destinations.


Keen on a good work-life balance? Then Europe’s the place for you. American students tend to shoulder a heavier burden of essays, worksheets and presentations than their French, Spanish and even German cousins. Partly, my sources reckon, this is because study is much, much more expensive in the United States. But it is also a result of social mores: particularly in Latin Europe, young people are expected to play an active role in family life and the American working culture – taking pride in working inhumanly long hours – baffles people.

In the lecture hall

The disadvantage of those inexpensive European degrees is that sometimes, lecture halls are vast, with hundreds (or reportedly: thousands) of students in each one. Your professeur or professore may not “teach” so much as “broadcast” – he may not know your name or deign to ask questions. In some cases (though by no means all), your fellow étudiants and studenti will respond accordingly: browsing social media, listening to music and sometimes even making phone calls during lectures. The intimate seminars and study groups of American universities are rare.


Relative to their American equivalents, European university libraries are less high-tech (some still use card catalogues rather than a computerised system) but can contain a fantastic range of historical texts. 42 existing European universities were founded before Columbus sailed the ocean blue, let alone before Harvard (the oldest American university) was founded in 1636. The depth of their archives and the beauty of their architecture reflect this heritage.


Although American universities are better-funded overall (and have deeper pockets when it comes to funding particularly high-achieving students) it is undoubtedly less onerous to attend a European university. For Brits looking to do a year of study abroad, the Erasmus programme offers zero tuition fees and a grant towards living costs. Most British universities have Erasmus links with counterpart institutions in France, Germany, Spain, Italy and other EU countries. Other European universities are sometimes willing to grant British students “visitor” status for free, particularly if a faculty member from your home institution is willing to write a supporting reference. At most continental institutions, fees for a full degree (undergraduate or graduate) are significantly less than what they are in the UK, let alone the United States.

Uppsala University, founded in 1477, is widely regarded as one of the best universities in the world – although it does not score highly in the Times World University Rankings

Quality of experience

This one is deeply subjective. American universities have served me very well over the past three years. Consult the international league tables and the overwhelming impression is of the superiority of American institutions. The upper echelons of the Times Higher Education’s ranking are dominated by them – and most of the other top spots are occupied by British, rather than continental, universities. Even prestigious European centres such as Leiden (64th), Heidelberg (78th), and Uppsala (106th) come relatively low down.

But partly these figures depend on the research funding available to universities. When it comes to top-end scientific research, wealthy American institutions leave others in their dust. But this is not everything. All my friends who have studied in Europe (including those that have experienced university life on both sides of the pond) speak fondly of their time there. Many talk of the intellectual rigour involved in studying in a different language, and in non-Anglo-Saxon academic cultures. Others point to the benefit of being close to the subjects of their historic, literary, artistic, political or scientific investigations. Oh, and the coffee’s better


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