Thursday, May 22, 2008

Official admission: Big failures in British schools

Progress in raising school standards has "stalled", amid fears that the attainment gap between rich and poor shows no signs of closing, the Chief Inspector of Schools suggested yesterday. Christine Gilbert, the head of Ofsted, said it was unacceptable that 20 per cent of pupils still failed to master basic English and maths when they left primary school, while 10 per cent of 16 to 18-year-olds who dropped out of education were not in work.

The link between these two groups of underperformers was very strong and was showing no sign of weakening, she said. "We are not seeing enough movement there. The gap between the `haves' and the `have-nots' is not reducing quickly enough," Ms Gilbert said. "We think standards have stalled and we think we need to accelerate improvement, and we are looking at ways of doing that."

Ms Gilbert's comments appear to contradict claims by ministers of "unprecedented improvements" and a continual and "unarguable evidence of rising achievement" in school standards.

They come after research from the Conservatives suggesting that the school system is dividing children along social and economic lines. Fewer than a third of children in the most deprived 10 per cent of households in England gain at least five GCSEs, including English and maths, at grades A* to C. In those areas that make up the richest 10 per cent, more than half do.

Ms Gilbert, outlining radical reforms to England's school inspections, said that they would be more tailored to the performance of individual schools, with greater focus on underperforming schools. Rather than study overall or average school performance, inspectors would focus more on the progress made by different groups of children, including the weakest and the most vulnerable as well as the brightest.

Under the reforms, failing schools will be monitored two or three times a year. Schools judged as "satisfactory" will be inspected every three years, unless they are struggling to improve, in which case they will receive inspections every 12 to 18 months. The best schools will be subjected to a "light touch" inspection every six years, with a short monitoring "health check" after three years.

Ms Gilbert said that GCSEs and national curriculum tests results may play a greater part in inspectors' judgments in future. Inspectors will also take more account of the views of parents in deciding when a school needs to be inspected, through conducting regular surveys. Pupils will also be surveyed regularly. In addition to being asked how happy, healthy and safe they feel, they may be asked how bored they are at school, Ms Gilbert said. A consultation on how Ofsted will fulfil a new government requirement to measure child wellbeing will begin over the summer.

Ms Gilbert said that the inspectorate would trial "lightning" inspections, in which teachers would receive no warning before a visit, so that Ofsted could "see the school as it really is". Schools currently receive two days' warning of an Ofsted inspection. Inspectors are likely to spend more time observing lessons, but no inspection will last longer than two days.

Teachers criticised the proposals, which are open to consultation until August 11. Christine Blower, acting general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said that the "punitive" inspection system would lead staff to resign. "I can see no virtue in nonotice inspections. Schools will feel that an inspection visit is the equivalent of Russian roulette, and inspectors could visit when half the school is on a school trip," she said.

Nansi Ellis, of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, questioned the idea of enabling parents to trigger an inspection. "We would like parents to take any concerns about a school to the school itself in the first instance, with the confidence the school will sort out any problems," she said.


Marriage registrar 'faced dismissal for obeying Christian doctrine on homosexual unions'

(She is black so that may well protect her. Blackness is second only to homosexuality in the modern British hierarchy of privilege)

A civil registrar who refuses to officiate at partnerships between same-sex couples, claiming that it is "sinful" and against her religion, has brought a legal case that could have implications for ceremonies conducted throughout the country. Lillian Ladele, 47, a Christian, said yesterday that "as a matter of religious conscience" she could not perform civil partnerships for gay couples. She has accused Islington council, in North London, of religious discrimination and victimisation because it asked her to perform the ceremonies as part of her 31,000 pounds-a-year job.

Employment lawyers said that the case, which has angered gay rights groups, could affect councils throughout the country. It is expected to lead to a landmark ruling over whether employees can be required to act against their consciences. More than 18,000 same-sex ceremonies are performed each year under the Civil Partnership Act, which came into force in December 2005.

Clare Murray, of the employment specialists CM Murray LLP, told The Times that Ms Ladele's case could affect the way that councils throughout Britain organise their civil ceremonies. "They are all governed by the same legislation," she said. Even if Islington did lose, other councils might be able to argue that they were justified in requiring registrars to officiate for same-sex couples.

Ms Ladele said that Islington council was forcing her to choose between her beliefs and keeping her job by requiring her to undertake civil partnership duties. Giving evidence yesterday, she told the employment tribunal in Central London: "I hold the orthodox Christian view that marriage is the union of one man and one woman for life to the exclusion of all others and that this is the God-ordained place for sexual relations. It creates a problem for any Christian if they are expected to do or condone something that they see as sinful. I feel unable to facilitate directly the formation of a union that I sincerely believe is contrary to God's law." More than 600 gay couples have had civil partnership ceremonies in Islington, making it Britain's third-most popular borough for the service.

Ms Ladele, who has worked for the council for 16 years, alleged that she was accused of being homophobic by gay colleagues at Islington town hall and was shunned by staff after refusing to carry out civil partnerships. She claimed that she was "ridiculed" by her boss, the superintendent registrar Helen Mendez-Childs, when she raised her concerns about the new ceremonies in August 2004. Ms Ladele said that her superior had told her that her stance was akin to a registrar refusing to marry a black person. For 15 months she swapped with colleagues to avoid the ceremonies. Formal complaints were made about her in 2006. Ms Ladele, who said that she was surprised that colleagues were offended, said that the council gave her an ultimatum to carry out the ceremonies or face being dismissed for gross misconduct.

She said that, to "punish" her for a principled stance, she was denied the chance to preside over lucrative weddings staged at special premises. "There was no respect whatsoever for my religious beliefs," she said. In 2006, Ms Ladele and another female registrar, who shared similar beliefs, were formally accused by two colleagues of "discriminating against the homosexual community". An internal disciplinary investigation as to whether she was guilty of misconduct began in May 2007. Ms Ladele said that staff started to act in a "different, hostile way towards me". "I continued to be civil towards everyone. People would just blank me. It hurt so badly," she said. She claimed that before the furore she had been conducting about fifty marriages a year but was then allocated as few eight per year. Britain's 1,700 registrars were effectively freelance and could opt out of ceremonies until last December, when they were brought under the control of town halls.

Ben Summerskill, of the gay rights group Stonewall, said that public servants were paid to "uphold the law of the land" and could not discriminate. "Doubtless there were those 40 years ago who claimed a moral objection to mixed marriages between those of different ethnic origin," he said. Mike Judge, a spokesman for the Christian Institute, said that the matter was "an important case for religious liberty". He said: "Other occupations allow conscientious objections. No homosexual couple is being denied their right to marriage, because other registrars are performing them."

Islington council denies religious discrimination or victimisation, and claims that Ms Ladele's stance breaches both its dignity-for-all policy and its code of conduct for employees.


Fathers no longer important in socialist Britain: "Fathers were last night effectively declared an irrelevance in modern Britain. The requirement for fertility doctors to consider a child's need for a male role model before giving women IVF treatment was scrapped by MPs. In a free vote, they swept away the rule despite impassioned pleas that the Government plan would "drive another nail into the coffin of the traditional family". Labour rebels said it would send entirely the wrong signal to society as Britain faces a crisis in responsible parenting. The Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, had warned it would remove the father from the heart of the family. He accused the Government of putting the interests of "consumers" who want to become parents before the welfare of children. But in the Commons, ministers won support for the legislation. Voting was 292 to 217, a majority of 75. In a second vote, a Tory attempt to underline the need for a father or "male role model" was rejected by 290 votes to 222, a majority of 68."

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