Tuesday, May 27, 2008

British schools in revolt over under-5s curriculum

A powerful coalition of England’s leading independent schools is demanding that the Government scale back its new national curriculum for the under-fives, claiming that it violates parents’ human rights by denying them the freedom to choose how they educate their children.

The Independent Schools Council (ISC), which represents 1,280 fee-paying schools educating more than 500,000 children, has written a blistering letter to Beverley Hughes, the Children’s Minister, complaining that the new curriculum will mean that the education of under-fives is subject to greater government interference than that of any other age group.

A leaked copy of the letter, seen by The Times, says that the curriculum, known as the Early Years Foundation Stage framework, will compromise its member schools’ independence. “This clumsy intrusion into the early years’ curriculum of independent schools is both unjustified and unnecessary. More importantly, this interference conflicts with the rights of parents to privacy in their home life, which includes the freedom to choose how they educate their children and to educate them free from the control of the state,” the letter states.

The letter, copied to the Schools Secretary, Ed Balls, also complains that the framework is likely to hold back children’s progress and to lower standards. George Marsh, who is headmaster of Dulwich College Preparatory School in South London and chairman of the Independent Association of Prep Schools, said he was concerned that the framework might eventually herald greater interference in the curriculum for older children.

The framework becomes law in the autumn and will affect all 25,000 nurseries and childcare settings in England, whether they are run by the state, charities or private companies. It sets out up to 500 developmental milestones between birth and primary school and requires under-fives to be assessed on 69 writing, problem solving and numeracy skills. The framework has come under heavy fire from a number of leading child development experts and academics, including members of the Government’s own early education advisory group.

Some argue that it relies too heavily on formal learning at the expense of free play, while others fear that its formal literacy targets will instill a sense of failure in teachers and children because they are beyond the reach of most under-fives. There are also fears that the legislation, which requires nursery staff to make constant written observations on children to note their progress, will interfere with teachers’ ability to interact with children.

Ms Hughes has so far resisted any attempts to water down the new curriculum, arguing that standards have to be set high to ensure that children from deprived backgrounds are given the same opportunities for learning in the crucial early years as middle-class children. She said that the 69 early learning goals were aspirations, and not targets.

The entrance of the ISC into the debate will raise the stakes considerably, not least because the independent schools have chosen parents’ human rights, not just child well-being, as their main point of attack. Unlike the national curriculum for schools, which does not apply to independent schools, the framework will apply to all pre-school settings.

The letter, signed by Chris Parry, the ISC’s chief executive, outlines a number of other objections to the framework, which will apply to 946 of its member schools, which cater for children up to five years old. It complains that an anomaly in the legislation will leave independent schools with stricter staffing controls than the state sector, requiring private schools to hire three or four adults for each reception class of 30, compared with one in the state sector. Mr Parry says: “It seems ridiculous that [the framework] should dictate rules relating to staffing in the independent sector and this prescription smacks of an ideological approach.”

The ISC also complains that the requirements for teachers to produce written observations on each child will result in teachers “acting as time and motion experts hovering around children with clipboards, Post-it notes and cameras to collect ‘evidence’ ”. This will not raise standards, but will “simply distract teachers from their teaching responsibilities”.

Mr Parry says that there was inadequate consultation with ISC members over the new law, adding that the regulatory impact assessment which followed the so-called consultation was “materially misleading”. ISC schools, the letter adds, have been given contradictory advice from local authorities as to how the framework should be implemented. Some have not been able to get any advice at all. It says that, given this lack of consultation, there should be a 12-month transition period for the implementation of the framework.

A spokesman for the Department for Children, Schools and Families, said that individual parents would have the option of applying for an exemption for their child for some or all of the learning and development requirements of the framework. He added that the framework was flexible enough to support a wide range of approaches to education.


Cancer victim told to pay for his own drugs by NHS

Government health insurance can be very hard to claim on

A cancer patient who was sent home to die by hospital doctors but then discovered a cocktail of drugs that stabilised his illness has now been told that the NHS will not pay for his medicine. Jack Hose, 71, a retired engineer, was receiving a chemotherapy drug called irinotecan on the NHS, but it was failing to halt his bowel cancer. NHS doctors told Hose, from Bournemouth, that they could do no more for him and that he should go home and make the most of the rest of his life while taking painkillers.

Hose was not prepared to die and sought a second opinion from a private doctor who recommended trying another drug, called cetuximab, in combination with irinotecan. The mix of drugs appears to have stabilised Hose’s cancer. However, cetuximab is not funded by the NHS.

The Royal Bournemouth and Christchurch Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, which is treating Hose, has told him that, if he takes the drug, he will need to pay for all his care, including the cost of the medicine he initially received on the NHS. Hose is the latest victim of the government’s policy of denying NHS treatment to patients who pay for an additional private drug. Alan Johnson, the health secretary, says such an arrangement, known as “co-payments”, would lead to a two-tiered NHS.

“It seems outrageous that, having paid National Insurance contributions for 50 years, they are now asking me to pay for my care,” said Hose.


A suggestion for fighting knife crime

Why doesn't Britain stop the kid-glove approach and start enforcing the existing laws?

The murder on Saturday of 18-year-old Robert Knox has prompted, as have the other 27 teenage murders so far this year, a flood of suggestions as to how we can deal with the epidemic of knife crime that seems to have infected our streets. From analysis of the role of parents to depictions of the gang culture and turf wars that blight so many areas, most have added something useful to our understanding.

So it might seem that another comment is hardly needed. Yet for all the analysis that has been offered and the policy ideas that have been suggested, one basic point seems to have been forgotten. We have yet to try properly using the laws already on the statute book, let alone start properly punishing those found in possession of knives.

Over the past decade, the number of convictions for carrying a knife has risen from 3,360 in 1997 to 6,314 in 2006. Of those convicted in 1997, 482 were teenagers, rising in 2006 to 1,256. That near trebling in the number of teenagers convicted is bad enough. Worse, however, are surveys showing that about one in five teenagers say that they carry a knife with them.

Given the rapid development of a teenage culture in which carrying a knife is seen as normal, not to say essential for self-defence, it is understandable that there have been calls to toughen the relevant laws. The current maximum sentence for knife carrying is two years, or four years if the knife is carried to school.

But since we do not enforce the existing laws properly, it is fatuous to suggest that tougher maximum penalties would serve any useful purpose. They would be ignored just like the existing maximum penalties.

In 2006, only nine of the 6,314 people convicted of carrying a knife were handed down a maximum sentence. Most were given a caution. And I would bet a small fortune on not one of those nine criminals - 0.14 per cent of those convicted - actually being made to serve the full sentence they were given.

Despite the penalties available, the authorities treat this potentially deadly crime as an infringement of the law akin to pilfering an apple from a grocer. This has to change. The courts must use the punishments available to them. Children need to understand that, if caught, their childhood will effectively be over and they will suffer severe punishment.

That also means that the police must be given full powers to stop and search children. But instead, not only do the courts and CPS treat children found with knives with kid gloves, dangerous idiots such as Sir Al Aynsley-Green, to whom we pay œ130,000 a year for his wisdom as the Children's Commissioner for England, warn that allowing police the power to search children might antagonise them. That just about sums up how the whole edifice works: God forbid that a potential murderer is upset by having his coat examined.


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