Recent Education Articles



When will Michael Gove take responsibility for failing Free Schools or Academies?

by Natalie Bennett     October 7, 2013 at 9:18 am

Free Schools and Academies are currently imposing a revolution in British education, but at great cost to many pupils’ education and public funds.

When local authorities had oversight, they were expected to understand what was going on, keep an eye on spending and step in if anything started to go off the rails. But what now?

The Al-Madinah free school in Derby was subjected to emergency closure, all of its pupils sent home for “health and safety” reasons, while it be given the lowest possible rating by Ofsted. Separately, there are investigations about possible financial irregularities in the letting of contracts at the school.

And a knighted superhead in the terminology of the tabloids, has pleaded guilty to six counts of false accounting and been sentenced to two years’ jail, albeit a suspended sentence, relating to a reported £900,000 in payments to him.

Meanwhile, at the Quintin Kynaston Community Academy, where the Department of Education concluded there had been misuse of public funds, and the head resigned when her situation became “untenable”.

Given that these free schools are directly under Michael Gove, is he going to take responsibility and resign? Of course not.

Indeed, David Cameron went out of his way at Tory conference last week to gush about just how well Mr Gove was doing. But it is important that we look at the trend in what’s happening here: identify it and highlight it.

The importing of the ethos of the City and the financial sector into schools – that the ‘superhead’, some kind of ‘educational master of the universe’ can transform through their will and brilliance an entire educational community, and in doing so they have a free hand. Of course we know how well that ended in the City: fraud, mismanagement and chaos.

The idea of more freedom for heads could and should be a positive – if Mr Gove stopped trying to dictate teaching methods (such as phonics), stopped shoving children through endless exams as though they were sausages, and dictating what literary texts they should read.

But that doesn’t mean there doesn’t need to be oversight – which should be local and democratic. Schools are there for their communities –and they should be controlled by those communities, through democratically elected councillors.

This is why we should fight against out-sourcing at universities

by Guest     October 1, 2013 at 4:50 pm

by Luke Martell

Sussex Uni’s 13,000 students started back last week. So did the campus’ formidable anti-outsourcing campaign.

Private company Chartwells have taken over the university’s catering. Sussex management said this was for a better consumer experience. But campus consumers have complained of a reduced service. That’s putting it mildly. And international consumer feedback for Chartwells, owned by Compass, looks very negative.

It’s rumoured that Interserve may take over Sussex’s estates and facilities. The company were fined £11.6m by the Office of Fair Trading for illegal bid-rigging. They had to cough up £50,000 for exposing MoD workers to asbestos.

The company’s chairman Lord Blackwell spoke in the House of Lords for the outsourcing of NHS services. The bill was passed. Guess who got a contract. Whether Interserve get the Sussex job or not; this is the kind of company that public bodies are outsourcing to.

It won’t end here. At Sussex, IT services, sports and the library could be opened up to for-profit companies. The university plans distance learning where profiteers will be sought to provide IT and student services.

The reason – it will be cheaper. How? Low wages and poorer pensions and conditions for the employees. The university is forging ahead despite widespread staff and student opposition, and no consultation with them about whether to outsource.

Outsourcing to for-profits is expanding to academic areas. The government are allowing in controversial for-profit universities. Last year we had none in Britain. Now we have two, and companies like Pearson finding a platform to gain access, not because of their educational values, but for a cut of the money to be made.

In the USA, for-profit colleges spend 24% of their revenue on marketing. That could be devoted to students and staff, but marketisation means it isn’t. At the University of Phoenix, the priority is to get fee-payers enrolled. What happens next is less well resourced. 16% of students graduate. 95% of its tutors are part-time, with little time to research on what they teach.

It’s what happens when higher education is outsourced.

The companies that usually take over, pay poverty wages. They’re accused of corruption and fraud, and a shocking record with consumers and students. The Sussex anti-outsourcing campaign is back. This is the reason why.


Luke Martell is Professor and Head of Sociology at Sussex University

How Gove’s schools ‘choice’ agenda denies debate and transparency to parents

by Guest     July 25, 2013 at 8:55 am

by Jonathan White

This government appears to prefer faith-based policy-making to the inconvenient complexities of evidence.

Jonathan Portes has noted that the Tories appear to operate a curiously faith-based economics, Iain Duncan Smith assured us that he ‘believes’ his policies are working and no amount of evidence that Free Schools and academies have little positive benefit will stop Michael Gove imposing them on our communities.

The government’s education policies are sold to anxious parents as increasing “choice”. How this works out for parents in practice is a very different matter.

In Waltham Forest for example, some local parents have been sufficiently scared by the shortage of school places in London to call in two Free School sponsors: Oasis Community Learning and Tauheedul Free Schools, both religious organisations.

Both promise to extend choice and quality in the borough, yet the Oasis chain’s academic record is below the national average and, crucially, below the borough average. Plus there is no need for another single-sex girls’ school let alone another faith school in Waltham Forest. These things don’t appear to worry the DfE.

The process whereby these schools got ‘preapproval’ from the DfE, accompanied by triumphant press releases, was a travesty of democracy.  Both collected supporting signatures through a survey that asked if anyone fancied a new school in the borough, together with false claims that there was no alternative.

The Local Authority does not want the Free Schools, the head teachers don’t want them, the teaching unions certainly don’t and they’re supported by only a tiny minority of parents. In spite of this, Gove has merrily rubber stamped the proposals, content, apparently that he understands the needs of the borough better than anyone who actually lives there.

Unaccountable Free Schools imposed on the borough by the Secretary of state and two religious organisations without any public debate or transparency do not equate to “choice”.

In fact, there is a genuine choice to be made. The Local Authority has a plan for delivering the secondary school places using its community schools as far as possible. Michael Gove has noted this and makes clear that he reserves the right to put in his own choice regardless.

The local authority is now being supported by a broad-based campaign comprised of local parents, teachers, residents and trade unionists.

Our Community, Our Schools was set up to oppose the Free Schools, but the experience of campaigning against this grotesque policy agenda is widening its horizons and developing this into a local campaign that unites parents, teachers, residents and elected councillors, arguing for democracy and equality in education. Michael Gove’s policies are dogmatic and antidemocratic, but ironically, they may also be forging new progressive alliances for education.

Gove is dismantling teacher-training: you should be worried for the sake of your children

by Guest     April 24, 2013 at 9:10 am

by Natacha Kennedy

Michael Gove’s outburst on lengthening the school day, like most of his pronouncements, obscures something much more sinister. His plan to see kids kept at school through long summer days and into the evenings will obviously appeal to the Gradgrinds of the New Right.

Yet behind the guise is a deliberately hidden reduction in teaching quality – not merely through allowing unqualified teachers to work in academies and “free” schools, but by removing teacher training from universities and placing the responsibility for this onto individual schools.

This was the conclusion of Prof Sir Tim Brighouse in a paper published last week about the future of teacher education.

Sir Tim is blunt about the damage Gove is doing to schools through the destruction of teacher training. Yet Ofsted has shown, using hard data, that university-based teacher training is far superior to school-based routes (p76).

For example, Finland is consistently one of the best performing countries in the PISA international comparisons. Teachers in Finland are all university-trained to Masters level and this is reflected in their pupils’ academic achievements in schools.

Of course training teachers at universities does not mean student teachers don’t spend a lot of time in schools; in fact they spend almost the same amount of time in the class as if they were on a school-based route anyway.

So the loss is of the tried and tested input they get for the rest of the time, seminars and tuition sessions which develop students into reflective practitioners able to continue to develop their practice as professionals.

In May 2010 Michael Gove said that the current generation of teachers were “the best trained ever”. Almost all of those were trained by university departments of education.

In other words Gove is dismantling, as fast as he can, something even he recognizes as a particularly successful system for training teachers.

The issue of teacher training appears to be one that is irrelevant to most people, but ultimately it comes down to a choice: what would you prefer for your children, long hours of rote learning which bore and demotivate them, or a smaller number of stimulating and inspiring lessons?

The full story of Michael Gove’s dept and the @ToryEducation account

by Guest     April 18, 2013 at 8:50 am

by James Elder

Over the past 18 months, I have been keeping an eye on what’s been going on with Michael Gove and his Special Advisors at the Department for Education. This is a story which, being about the Freedom of Information Act (the gears of which grind slowly), has taken a long time to reach any sort of resolution. Having found that I had lost the plot on the most recent developments, I did a bit of digging and present it all here in one post, for the convenience of others.

It is perhaps telling that originally I was intending to tell a particular story, about the use of private email accounts, but that this post has grown like topsy as I’ve found that there are so many linked strands which don’t make full sense unless you have the whole picture. I decided that the best way of telling the story was as a simple timeline of events. All of this was already in the public domain, although I have exchanged tweets with Chris Cook at the FT and exchanged emails with a case officer at ICO to clarify a couple of points.

So, apologies that this is so long. I hope there are at least a few people who find it interesting or useful! The first few entries are necessary scene-setting. Things start getting interesting in February 2011, so stick with it.

NB some of the links are to ft.com, which allows free access to a certain number of articles per month before a subscription is required. As such, you may or may not be able to get access to all of them.

February 2010

The Twitter account @toryeducation is set up. Its creator claims to be a “Conservative Education Press Officer Pantomime Villain of leftie Education Folk” (later this is amended to “Pantomime villain of leftie education folk.”) The list (now removed) https://twitter.com/conservatives/conservative-hq on the official @conservatives page, which says it is a list of twitter accounts “run by staff at Conservative party headquarters”, has @toryeducation as one of its ‘members’. The account will go on tweet well-informed updates on Conservative education policy, and some sharp attacks on anyone deemed to be opposed to it.

July 2010

Caroline Flint asks in a Parliamentary Question ”how many expressions of interest in becoming a free school the New School Network has received in (a) Doncaster and (b) Don Valley [this being her constituency] to date”. New Schools Network (NSN) is a charity working with DfE on new schools. In a leaked email, Dominic Cummings, freelancing for New Schools Network, tells a senior civil servant:

NSN is not giving out to you, the media or anybody else any figure on ‘expressions of interest’ for PQs, FOIs or anything else. Further, NSN has not, is not, and will never answer a single FOI request made to us concerning anything at all.

Cummings is completely within his rights, as charities are not covered by FOI, but it does provide an insight to his views of the merits of transparency! Flint is, in fact, given a relatively helpful response by Schools Minister Nick Gibb.

Late 2010/Early 2011

Dominic Cummings is appointed as Special Advisor to Michael Gove. For those not aware Special Advisor is a formal designation. Special Advisors (often known as Spads) are paid for by Departments (i.e. by the taxpayer) and

are employed to help ministers on matters where the work of government and the work of the political party in government overlap, and where it would be inappropriate for permanent civil servants to become involved.

They are not obliged to be politically impartial, but they do have to keep to a code of conduct which states, amongst other things that Spads

should avoid anything which might reasonably lead to the criticism that people paid from public funds are being used for party political purposes. The highest standards of conduct are expected of special advisers and, specifically, the preparation or dissemination of inappropriate material or personal attacks has no part to play in the job of being a special adviser as it has no part to play in the conduct of public life. Any special adviser ever found to be disseminating inappropriate material will automatically be dismissed by their appointing Minister.

As employees of a public authority, any records they create that relate to the business of the authority are covered by the FOI Act.

24 February 2011

Cummings emails Spads across Government, including his fellow DfE SpAd Henry de Zoete, and colleagues at Conservative Central Office, to say that he

will not answer any further e-mails to my official DfE account?…i will only answer things that come from gmail accounts from people who i know who they are. i suggest that you do the same in general but thats obv up to you guys – i can explain in person the reason for this?…?[sic]

February – March 2011

Chris Cook, Education Correspondent at the FT gains gains sight, through third parties, of a number of emails between Gove, Cummings and de Zoete using private email accounts (gmail and the like) rather than their DfE addresses. He begins asking DfE for the emails (or parts of them), using targeted FoI requests. He also asks whether Michael Gove and his Spads are following a deliberate policy of using private email accounts to try to place themselves beyond the reach of FoI.

29 March 29 2011

The FT informs DfE of legal advice it has received. Andrew Partridge, the lead DfE Official forwards the legal advice to Sir David Bell, the then Permanent Secretary of DfE (i.e. DfE’s top Civil Servant – its ‘Sir Humphrey’). The advice states that

using a personal email account to conduct government business does not render the emails ‘personal information’ for the purposes of FOIA.

Partridge noted that this

accords with our view in the IR [Information Rights] team.

17 May 2011

Partridge tells the Permanent Secretary the Act is not confined to the contents of departmental accounts if

information held in personal accounts may relate to the business of the department.

June 2011

In a separate issue, three FOI requests to DfE, for lists of those making expressions of interest about setting up Free Schools are rejected by DfE (more on this later).

19 September 2011

Chris Cook publishes his first FT story on this subject; it runs on the front page. Among the details is that at least one of the emails in question is from Michael Gove himself, using a gmail account, registered in the name of his wife, Sarah Vine (a journalist at The Times) and known as the “Mrs Blurt” account. The story is also picked up by others. Cook refers the case to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).

21 September 2011

Cook reports that DfE is taking the position that

The Cabinet Office is clear private email accounts do not fall within the FOI Act

whereas the Information Commissioner, Christopher Graham states that

It is certainly possible that some information in private emails could fall within the scope of the Freedom of Information Act if it concerns government business. This will be dependent on the specific circumstances.

21 September 2011

@toryeducation begins tweeting insults about Cook, calling him a “Stalker” and “Walter Mitty”.

It also becomes clear that DfE are relying on the argument that conversation between Ministers and Spads should be on personal email because, under their Code of Conduct, SpAds must “not use official resources for party political activity”. However as this piece, by a former Government lawyer, notes this is an unusual interpretation of the Code of Conduct and “the strong starting point should be that what special advisers do is official business and therefore subject to FoI”.

15 December 2011

ICO releases guidance clarifying the proper interpretation of the Act as applied to private email accounts. This is unequivocal:

It should not come as a surprise to public authorities to have the clarification that information held in private email accounts can be subject to Freedom of Information law if it relates to official business. This has always been the case – the Act covers all recorded information in any form.

It is accepted by the Commissioner, in certain circumstances, it may be necessary to use private email for public authority business. There should be a policy which clearly states that in these cases an authority email address should be copied in to ensure the completeness of the authority’s records.

Graham also visits DfE in person to talk about good practice, and publishes the findings of his discussions with senior officials there:

The Department for Education have a number of policies, procedures and guidance notes which cover responses to Freedom of Information requests. A process is in place to ensure that correspondence to and from Ministers and Special Advisers is searched in response to requests where required. Furthermore, the Information Rights Team have demonstrated an understanding of the application of the FOI Act in the context of the use of private email accounts and there is evidence that this has been provided in advice and guidance since the allegations have been made. However, it is not clear that this advice and guidance has been fully understood and followed by those covered by it.

31 January 2012

Michael Gove appears before the Education Select Committee. Questions 137-8 by Ian Mearns and 170-187 by Lisa Nandy are the relevant ones. He is evasive in the extreme over whether he and his advisors have used private email accounts to discuss official business but is clear that, regardless of the December advice from ICO, he continues to rely on advice from the Cabinet Office that the emails requested by Chris Cook were of a political nature and as such out of scope of FOI.

9 February 2012

In October, Martin Rosenbaum at the BBC had asked the Cabinet Office for a copy of any guidance it held on the subject of personal email accounts and FOI. Rosenbaum reports that the Cabinet Office had replied in January stating that it does not hold any such information.

In other words, there was no written Cabinet Office advice or policy; any advice given was oral only.

February 2012

A strange development. The FOIman blog posts an article on the saga. In the comments below it, someone calling themselves Captain Sensible makes a number of postings. This person says that s/he is involved in politics though not a Minister or Spad. However as this article points out, Captain Sensible seems strikingly well-informed and to have unusually strong views on the subject. My personal suspicion is that the author is someone very close to the centre of the whole affair.

Sensible says Christopher Graham is a “second rate egotist” making a “power grab” and takes the line that a

minister talking to his or her SpAd is, ipso facto, political and not a matter for nosy journalists.

There is also an interesting take on the role of Civil Servants who

have zero interest in allowing the public to see what is going on behind closed doors. Their interest here – and the reason they love the latest FoI lebensraum – is that it allows THEM to see what’s going on behind the doors of ministerial offices, where they have no business during political discussions.

13 February 2012

Chris Cook publishes the text of the Michael Gove email from the Mrs Blurt account. This would seem to demonstrate that little or none of it is party political in nature and as such is in scope of the FOI Act. Whether it would be caught by one of the Act’s exemptions is of course a different matter.

2 March 2012

ICO releases a Decision Notice on Chris Cook’s FOI request. Unsurprisingly, given its December advice, ICO finds that the emails are in the scope of the Act and should be disclosed.

3 March 2012

Chris Cook reports that the Media Standards Trust has learned that many emails between Cummings, de Zoete and journalists on their official DfE accounts (i.e. this does not refer to their private accounts) have been deleted. DfE states that

Many individuals routinely delete emails so as to maintain order in their inbox. The act of deleting emails is no evidence of wrongdoing.

But, as Cook reports

according to rules laid out by the Lord Chancellor, officials destroying documents must keep deletion logs with which ‘to defend themselves against a charge … that records were destroyed in order to prevent their disclosure’. The DfE has refused to reveal any such logs.

Adam Chapman, partner at Kingsley Napley and a former government litigator on FoI, said the disclosures were ‘very curious’. ‘A department should be able readily to explain what its records management policy is, what emails or classes of emails it has deleted and why.’

The ICO is investigating what Christopher Graham, information commissioner, has called ‘allegations of a criminal nature’ at the DfE – whether data were destroyed or concealed to prevent its release.

So far as I have been able to establish, the Information Commissioner has not yet released any findings on this last point.

14 March 2012

There is a debate in the House of Commons on the issue.

Late March 2012

It is confirmed that the DfE is appealing the ICO decision notice to the Information Tribunal. Chris Cook reports that DfE says it

does not accept the grounds on which the Commissioner has come to his conclusion.

May 2012

ICO issues a Decision Notice on the Free Schools request (see June 2011), requiring disclosure.

29 September 2012

DfE drops its appeal to the Information Tribunal of ICO’s decision notice on the private emails, and discloses the emails to Chris Cook (the strong legal consensus appeared to be that DfE was certainly going to lose). It is announced that the Cabinet Office will be issuing new guidance of the use of private email. Effectively this confirms that ICO’s guidance of December 2011 stands: if it concerns the business of a public authority, information can be within scope of FOI whether it is held in a private gmail account, a text message, a twitter DM etc etc.

The Information Rights and Wrongs blog considers the impact and enforceability. While the guidance states that it is appropriate for public authorities to ask their staff to search their email for any information within scope, the employer does not have the right to infringe staff-members’ privacy by itself searching the account.

On one view, then, nothing much has changed with the concession by the DfE, although no doubt many new FOI requests will be made as a result. What has changed, perhaps, is the focus on individuals’ personal responsiblity under FOIA. Currently, section 77 creates an offence if a person alters, defaces, blocks, erases, destroys or conceals a record in response to an FOI request. If a trawl of emails on a public authority’s systems is required this will normally fall to IT, or similar, and employees have little say – or, if you like, given the existence of back-up systems – limited opportunity to commit a section 77 offence. Now, if the same employee is asked whether private emails contain specific information, and he or she untruthfully says “no”, criminality – the mens rea – will be relatively easy to make out.

The question is, how would we find out?

21 December 2012

ICO announces that for the three months beginning 1 January 2013 reports, DfE has been placed on Special Monitoring because of its ongoing poor performance on FOI. Martin Rosenbaum of the BBC says:

This is a bit like the ICO’s equivalent of schools being placed in special measures following a critical inspection by Ofsted. The ICO increases its checks on poorly performing authorities until it is satisfied that their procedures have improved.

15 January 2013

The First Tier Tribunal upholds the ICO Decision Notice on Free Schools – see June 2011 and June 2011.

17 January 2013

James Forsyth, in a Spectator blog about a former DfE Minister Tim Loughton, who had been ousted at a reshuffle, cites a “senior DfE source” as saying that

Loughton was a lazy incompetent narcissist obsessed only with self-promotion.

Loughton writes to the new Permanent Secretary at DfE, Chris Wormald, asking that the Department identify and discipline the source.

23 January 2013

Michael Gove appears before Education Select Committee (the transcript does not appear to be online yet). The Observer reports that he is asked if he is “aware of allegations of Spads acting inappropriately to civil servants within the department?” Gove answers: “No.”

2 February 2013

The Political Editor of the Observer, Toby Helm, feels the ire of @toryeducation after he writes a story not entirely to their liking. The accounts tweets a series of derogatory remarks and accusations against him.

The Editor of the Observer, John Mulholland, writes to Michael Gove and to Chris Wormald, asking them to investigate the Twitter account.

The Observer also has an exchange of emails with Dominic Cummings and Henry de Zoete asking whether they have contributed tweets for @toryeducation.

De Zoete:

I am not toryeducation

Which doesn’t really answer the question.

Cummings:

I’m not wasting time on the tantrums of Toby Helm and Chris Cook over anonymous Twitter accounts. Am I supposed to take seriously anonymous accusations about anonymous Twitter accounts ridiculing journalists with too much time on their hands? I suggest that your advice to both of them is: take a Twitter detox because it’s melting your brains, focus on what’s important, stop behaving like eight-year-olds…Of course I’m not this Twitter account and never have been, I focus on project-managing priorities, I don’t waste my time on Twitter and you should tell your staff to do the same.

Again it’s not quite the same thing to say “I’m not toryeducation” (i.e. the account is not registered in my name) as it would be to say “I’ve never tweeted from the account”. Given that The Observer gave Cummings and de Zoete the chance to deny that they had tweeted from the account and they didn’t, the conclusion that can be drawn is fairly obvious.

9 February 2013

The Observer reports that

a senior civil servant in the education secretary’s department has received a secret payoff of about £25,000 out of public funds, after a lengthy grievance procedure involving members of Gove’s team, including his special adviser, Dominic Cummings, and the department’s former head of communications, James Frayne.

While an investigation within the department cleared the men, and said no disciplinary action was necessary, the final judgment made clear that their conduct had on occasions fallen short of the levels expected and that the behaviour of Cummings and Frayne, who has since left the department, “has been perceived as intimidating”. After the internal investigation was launched in the spring of 2012, the civil servant also decided to lodge a case with a tribunal, where the allegations would have been heard in public. A date was set for January 2o13, but after further negotiations the financial settlement was agreed and the tribunal was cancelled.

As a result of this report, Michael Gove and Chris Wormald are recalled to give further evidence to the Education Select Committee.

13 February 2013

Michael Bosch, using the WhatDoTheyKnow website, makes the following FOI request to DfE:

I would like the contents of the Direct Message mailbox for
@toryeducation, which is in scope of the act. Special advisers may
only perform media work to the extent that it advances the agenda
of the government. Any use of a public Twitter account, therefore,
must be government work.

Please also perform a keyword search for any emails using the term
“toryeducation” across the inboxes (including private accounts) of
the permanent secretary, the special advisers and of Mr Gove.

At the time of writing, DfE has only managed to provide a holding response to this request. They are nearly a month overdue in providing a response.

15 February 2013

Richard Garner in the Independent writes a story on alleged bullying and bad behaviour by Michael Gove’s advisors at DfE.

19 February 2013

Having been compelled by a Decision Notice of ICO, upheld by the Information Tribunal (see 15 January 2013), to disclose details of those making expressions of interest about setting up Free Schools, Michael Gove thinks it necessary to write an open letter to the Information Commissioner explaining why this a A Bad Idea. Gove says he would:

defend, to the death, the right of anyone to oppose Government policy. I do
not believe however that it is right to facilitate the targeted intimidation of brave
people acting on noble motives.

He gets a reply from the Commissioner on the same day. Christopher Graham is unimpressed. While he notes Gove’s

strong views, strongly expressed…I do not for a moment accept that the publication of the material that you are obliged by law to make public today in any way ‘facilitates the targeted intimidation of brave people acting on noble motives.’

I will join you in defending the right to oppose (or support) of Government policy. But I will also defend the operation of the Freedom of Information Act in the public interest.

20 February 2013

Responding to the article on 15 February Dominic Cummings says that The Independent’s Richard Garner should “speak to Chris Cook about a good therapist”. The Independent notes that Spads are supposed, under their Code of Conduct, to avoid personal attacks.

13 March 2013

As reported by The Guardian, Michael Gove and Chris Wormald appear before the Education Select Committee (UPDATE: transcript here).

Gove had said on 23 January that he was not aware of any allegations of inappropriate behaviour by his SpAds. Then on 9 February the Guardian had published details of a complaint by a member of DfE staff which had been due to go to an Employment Tribunal but had been settled with a payment of £25,000.

Wormald confirms that, because an internal DfE inquiry had cleared Dominic Cummings and James Frayne, Gove had not been told. He says there had been a judgement that, if told, Gove would have had a potential conflict of interest. However, some Labour members of the Committee find this odd because the Ministerial Code states that Ministers should take direct responsibility for the actions of their SpAds.

Gove also states that he had directly asked Cummings and de Zoete whether either of them was responsible for briefing The Spectator on Tim Loughton (see 17 January 2013) and that both had denied it.

25 March 2013

@toryeducation goes after Suzanne Moore. At this point it is apparently still listed as a ‘member’ of the list (now removed) https://twitter.com/conservatives/conservative-hq on the official @conservatives twitter page, which says it is a list of related twitter accounts run by staff at Conservative headquarters.

26 March 2013

@toryeducation and Tim Loughton exchange a series of strongly-worded tweets. The argument relates to a 2011 Serious Case Review (SCR) of what had gone wrong at Doncaster social services after a terrible case in Edlington, South Yorkshire. I feel I need to apologise for bringing such a tragic case even tangentially into this story, but unfortunately those few details are necessary to make sense of the exchange of tweets.

Loughton welcomes the Government’s response to the SCR but tweets:

“Tougher intervention in Doncaster children services http://tinyurl.com/bqoj9m8 should have happened in 2011 when I wanted to publish SCR in full”

In 2011, Loughton was the Children’s Minister and the implication of this tweet is that as Secretary of State, Michael Gove had overruled him.

@toryeducation responds:

.@timloughton Your lies on this subject are by far the worst of anything you’ve done in politics & we hope nobody believes a word you say

Loughton’s answer to this:

@toryeducation time 4 a senior DfE source to come out from cloak of anonymity and face scrutiny rather than rewriting history shamelessly?

@toryeducation now we know there were only 5 people in room privy to me being blocked from publishing SCR so shall I name them?

@toryeducation time 2 man up & reveal yourselves both of u-lets publish DfE Edlington memos redacted & see who is lying & who ur protecting

At this point, the conservative HQ list disappears from the @conservatives page. A Conservative Party spokeswoman says that @toryeducation is “not one of ours.” and a DfE spokesperson said:

This is not a Department for Education account.

If we were to receive any evidence that anyone connected with the DfE had broken the Special Advisers Code or the Civil Service Code, then we would take appropriate steps.

 

27 March 2013

Last twitter activity for @toryeducation suggesting perhaps that someone has decided that things had gone too far.

So, there we have it. I said at the start that I would leave comment on the implications of this sorry saga for another day. But in large part it speaks for itself. Set aside the febrile Westminster-village gossiping and backbiting, there are serious questions raised.


This blog-post was first posted to his blog. He is also on Twitter

Why our anti-bullying policies at school don’t work

by Guest     March 24, 2013 at 12:05 pm

by J.C. Piech

Last week, 14 year old Ayden Olson committed suicide. His mother said on Twitter her son had been ‘bullied to death’. There is no denying what a tragedy this is, yet sadly it is a common one: type ‘bullied student commits suicide’ into Google and you’ll find thousands of cases.

It’s compulsory for UK schools to have anti-bullying policies, yet when so many children are suffering we must ask meaningful questions about why these policies aren’t working.

First, anything ‘anti-bullying’ requires a child to identify themselves as a bully before they can take action to stop being one. Yet bullies are vilified; we portray them as nasty people who should know better. So who is likely to think of themselves that way?

In truth, most of us have blurted out an unkind word, or ignored someone, or stood by when someone is being treated unfairly. But, you might argue, you were having a bad day. Or you were angry. Or you were only six at the time.

And when we don’t consider children to be mature enough to have sex, or join the armed forces, or drive or smoke or drink, why do we expect them to have full comprehension of how their actions and words affect others?

This is why anti-bullying policies don’t work. They demand a differentiation between good and bad children, and they perpetuate the idea that only bad people bully.

Second, schools state that children are encouraged to report incidents of bullying, yet this is a redundant offer when it’s not safe to do so. Many teachers don’t handle bullying with much skill or insight.

In 1997, when I was 11, I was being bullied by a friend. I didn’t want to say anything about it because I didn’t want to get her into trouble. But eventually I’d had enough and summoned the courage to mention it to my form tutor. The tutor took me and my friend aside to talk about what was going on. I started to explain, when my friend started crying and said it was in fact me who was bullying her.

Because I was unable to cry at that time in my life, even when I wanted to, the tutor took my friends tears as a sign she was telling the truth, and I was told to stop bullying her. Some weeks later, the truth came out and my head of year apologised to me. Yet the damage was done.

As long as adults insist on labelling children as either the villain or the victim, bullying will continue destroying lives. No case of bullying is black and white. Perhaps the bully is mirroring what’s happening to them at home, or maybe they’re jealous of the child they’re picking on, or maybe they’re trying – in their clumsy, unskilled way – to make friends by joking around.

Teachers need to find out what’s really going on, for all involved, and facilitate communication. And this isn’t some fluffy idealistic idea: when done properly, it works. After successfully facilitated conversations between the bully and the bullied, children often leave on amicable terms, sometimes even as friends.

Lastly, if schools are serious about tackling bullying, more needs to be done about teachers who are bullies. I’ve heard countless stories of teachers screaming into pupils’ faces, of teachers not allowing teenage girls on their periods to go to the bathroom during class, of teachers embarrassing children in front of their classmates, including one school that produced a video advocating the use of shaming as a technique.

Children mirror the behaviour they receive. So to combat bullying we don’t need stronger policies. We’ve wasted enough time pushing paper. What we need now are emotionally literate and aware adults to show children, by example, how to treat each other with respect, tolerance and care.


J.C. Piech is a freelance writer. She has also facilitated community workshops for people with mental health issues. http://twitter.com/jcpiech

It’s unfair to criticise Oxbridge for ‘bias’ against ethnic minorities

by Salman Shaheen     February 28, 2013 at 9:30 am

Every few months, newspapers decide to have a pop at Oxford and Cambridge for institutionally discriminating against a particular section of society that isn’t white, male and public school educated.

This time it’s the turn of the Guardian to criticise Oxford University, presenting statistics obtained under a freedom on information request that reveal that white applicants are up to twice as likely to get a place as applicants from ethnic minority backgrounds.

Having been to Cambridge, I can say anecdotally that ethnic minority students certainly were under-represented there too. My brown face was duly splashed on the front cover of the college prospectus presumably to present a façade of a diversity that didn’t really exist.

But the statistics presented by the Guardian are misleading in that while they suggest correlation, they fall far short of proving the kind of causation asserted by the article.

Oxbridge is being unfairly criticised for discriminating against minority students in the same way it is often unfairly criticised for discriminating against working class students.

The real problem lies much further down the line, with the schooling system and with wider society.

Every now and again stories will emerge about a straight-A student complaining that Oxford or Cambridge didn’t offer them a place. The trouble is, almost everyone applying to Oxbridge is a straight-A student, so much of the final selection comes down to performance at an often gruelling interview.

Public school students tend to be prepped far in advance for these interviews. They know what to expect, what to read around, how to act and most importantly how to project a confidence that will come across well in an educational environment based on supervisions and tutorials which favour the bold.

Students at many state schools, particularly ones in deprived areas that are less likely to attract teachers who were educated at Oxbridge themselves and know the system, cannot provide the same level of silver spoon-fed service.

I was lucky in that the head of Sixth Form at my state comprehensive had been to Cambridge and could give me a punishingly realistic mock interview, as could my Oxford educated father. I suspect that’s not the norm.

It’s a sad fact that public schools are predominantly the preserve of the middle classes. It’s also a sad fact that ethnic minority students are more likely to be from poorer backgrounds with parents less able to pay for them to attend public schools.

State school attendance at Oxbridge remains poor. Last year, state school attendance at Cambridge hit a 30-year high at 63.3%. But considering only 12% of all students attend public schools, it shows that those who have been privately educated remain disproportionately represented there.

The statistics are a negative reflection not on Oxbridge, but on wider society. Oxford and Cambridge can do all they like to encourage more students from ethnic minority, working class and state school backgrounds to apply, but unless inequalities much lower down the chain in the education system and in society are tackled, the problem is not going to go away.

Support the ongoing occupation at Sussex Uni against privatisation

by Guest     February 22, 2013 at 10:38 am

by Luke Martell

The Sussex University sit-in against privatisation is in its third week. Josie Long and Mark Steel have performed on-site. Will Self and the university’s MP Caroline Lucas have been to speak.

Support has come from Billy Bragg and Frankie Boyle, not to mention professors and public figures worldwide. Owen Jones and Laurie Penny come next week. Even Malcolm Tucker has sent his best wishes!

Sussex University proposes mass outsourcing of 10% of the workforce, 235 individuals, and vital services like security, care of student residences and catering. Every day hundreds are part of the occupation. They hear a stream of lectures by supportive academics from Sussex and elsewhere. And they dance. Affected staff send food, letters, and call in, in contrast to the management claim that the 235 oppose those occupying on their behalf.

The occupation is a last resort. It’s a widespread topic of discussion at Sussex that there’s no meaningful consultation. Adult education has been closed down, a high-prestige research unit moved from its specially designed building, and 112 employees made redundant three years ago. In these cases staff feel discussions with them started after the decisions were made, or not at all.

Staff and student unions feel that managers had decided on outsourcing before talking to them. Meetings seem to be so the management can say they’ve had them, but empty of substance. The sit-in is searching for dialogue. They invited the Vice-Chancellor to their hub for talks. There’s no sign of him yet.

There isn’t much evidence of, well, evidence behind the proposals. The management say there’ll be no redundancies. Yet the 235 have been offered severance and retirement. They say pay and conditions will stay the same. But admit that pensions will be much worse. After staff have transferred, new contractors are free to hire on lower wages and holidays or sack employees.

The management say the change is to free up funds for more students. Yet applications to universities are plummeting because of the eye-watering fees being charged.

Sussex is renowned for community. But outsourcing would create a divided university: its own employees, workers transferred to contractors, transient staff provided by private operators like G4S, and students becoming customers rather than citizens of the university. Services would be accountable to external privateers, not the campus society.

It’s the thin end of the wedge. Outsourcing across universities will follow. It will expand to education where only courses that turn a profit will run. This will restrict learning to the rich and rule out what doesn’t make big bucks. Don’t plan on taking a degree that involves thinking critically. Or support the sit-in, which does.


Luke Martell is Professor of Sociology at Sussex University

Oxford University’s hypocrisy in rejecting a student with not enough savings

by Guest     January 22, 2013 at 8:58 am

by Jacob Williamson

As The Observer reported on Sunday, Oxford requires that graduate students demonstrate that they have £12,900 annually to live on.

Damien Shannon’s decision to sue St Hugh’s College, Oxford, on the grounds of ‘selection by wealth’ is vital and valid, as a graduate student at Oxford I want to add my views.

St Hugh’s plans to defend this requirement on the grounds that it is necessary to ensure that students will ‘be able to complete their courses without suffering financial difficulty and anxiety’.

Furthermore, St Hugh’s denies that this requirements falls “disproportionately within” the lower socio-economic groups. Shannon was only able to demonstrate that he had £9,000 to live on, and planned to make up the difference through part time work. But St Hugh’s, following university policy, deemed this insufficient, and so Shannon was refused a place for this reason alone.

The fact is that the requirement of a £12,900 living allowance is a farce. My accommodation, courtesy of my college, costs £4,500 for the duration of my academic year, and includes all utilities. This means that students need to prove that their income after accommodation costs is £700 a month, or £23 a day. Students could dine at the Randolph Hotel on a regular basis and still not need that much.

Moreover, even the scholarships reflect this. My personal living allowance, generously granted by the university, is £9,490 a year. The Arts and Humanities Research Council grants some graduate students the same amount.

That’s only £490 more than the amount Shannon had, and it’s a significant £3,410 less than the university’s requirement. And yet I know from experience that it is ample to live on. I am not suffering from financial difficulty and anxiety. I’m still perfectly capable of engaging thoroughly in university life.

The only difference is that unlike Shannon, I was fortunate enough to have parents who could vouch that they would make up that wholly unnecessary difference and bridge the financial gap for me. I do not intend on taking any extra money from them to supplement my allowance, but the reason I am here is that I showed that I could. Otherwise, I would have faced the same personal tragedy that Shannon did.

That should strike anyone as an obvious case of injustice. And it makes the claim that this doesn’t disproportionately affect people in lower socio-economic groups very doubtful indeed.


Jacob blogs about philosophy and politics here and tweets from here.

Why the government is not paying any attention to evidence on education policy

by Guest     November 14, 2012 at 9:30 am

by Tom Bailey

David Willetts recently wrote that “evidence should be the bread and butter of policy makers”. Unfortunately his call for evidence-based policy is undermined by the lack of evidence supporting his own government’s higher education reforms.

The coalition’s university policies have consistently neglected both evidence and research.

Willetts wrote of the importance of putting “more research in the hands of decision makers” in order to improve policy. However, current higher education reforms have not been based on the thorough research that underpinned previous major change to higher education.

In supporting the introduction of for-profit-providers into the higher education sector, the government ignored the warning signs from the USA. Those private universities do not have a good record: the most recent US Senate report makes for grim reading.

Of the million students enrolled with for-profit companies in 2008-9, over half had withdrawn by 2010. In the companies studied, 22.7% of revenue was spent on marketing/advertising, 19.4% went on pre-tax profit while a mere 17.2% was spent on teaching. Introducing such providers into the UK would not be putting ‘students at the heart of the system’, but private profit, irrespective of the educational outcomes.

Perhaps the worst failures on evidence were those relating to financial calculations.

The government claimed initially that £9000 a year would only be charged in ‘exceptional’ circumstances. That so many universities announced their intention to charge £9000 a year was not surprising given that they have faced a mantra of ‘more for less’ since the early 1970s, with ever greater output expected off the back of stagnating state investment. The government then resorted to creating the complicated core and margin bidding system for student places, yet another development that threatens universities with the worst of both state control and market chaos.

Most absurdly, reforms presented as part of the austerity drive risk increasing overall state spending levels. According to the Intergenerational Foundation (IF), “there is likely to be no saving to the public sector finances from the reforms to higher education funding”.

As student loan repayments form part of the consumer price index (CPI) inflation calculation, the rising tuition fees will force CPI inflation up. Certain government pensions and benefits are linked to the CPI. The IF estimates that this could add £2.2bn to the social security budget by 2016. The latest inflation figures seem to indicate that will effect is coming into effect. Upfront savings on supporting universities could be wiped out by a soaring benefits bill.

Finally, the student loan book could become an extremely dubious liability for the state. The government’s figures are based on optimistic default estimates of only 30-32% losses on loans. The IF argued that a 40% level is more likely and should be adopted. If such high levels of defaults occur, the student loan book could make expensive PFI deals pale into insignificance.

Willetts should not talk about evidence-based policy. His higher education reforms reflect a triumph of both incompetence and ideology over research.


A longer version of this article was published at the Guardian. Tom Bailey is a freelance education writer and researcher.


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