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Resisting the rail fare rises

Train fares are rising by an average of 4.2% according to The Guardian, and up to 6.2% according to The Mirror. They have risen by 54% in 10 years according to the Campaign for Better Transport.

  • Written by Jacqueline Mulhallen
  • Category: Comment

Police murders: exception or the rule?

Reports of the killing of two women police officers in Greater Manchester by a known murderer shocked many but we shouldn't be led into thinking the police are dutiful protectors

  • Written by Dan Poulton
  • Category: Comment

‘Seriously deficient’: or Whither London Met? or Where’s Willetts?

Last night the news broke at 10pm: the UK Border Agency (UKBA) confirmed the revocation of London Metropolitan University’s ‘highly trusted sponsor’ status. This means that London Met is no longer able bring in non-EU students into the UK to study under the ‘Tier 4’ visa scheme.

In fact, the move is more draconian in that such students currently studying at London Met will have their visas withdrawn: at least 2000 face deportation within 60 days of official notification, unless they can find another sponsor. Effectively they must find a place on another course at another institution.

This is the first ever revocation for a university, although two have previously been temporarily suspended from the scheme (several private and FE colleges have also had their licences withdrawn). Damien Green, Immigration Minister, told Radio 4 this morning that this monumental decision was justified owing to ‘seriously deficient’ practices at the university.

Ostensibly this is the culmination of a spat within government. The Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) which has responsibility for higher education has been keen to promote the sector as one of the UK economy’s few export successes (to which fees from overseas students make up a large contribution). BIS has been lobbying with the support of the sector to have student numbers removed from the official migration statistics which are the responsibility of the Home Office ( in charge of the UKBA).

Theresa May, Home Secretary, is bound by David Cameron’s pledge to reduce net immigration to the  ‘tens of thousands’. Of course, today was the day when the latest such figures were released. In the period covering the year to June 2012, the figures show that net immigration is down to 216 000 with student visas down by 30 per cent on the previous year.

May is a long way from hitting her key performance target which might go some way to explaining the use of the ‘nuclear option’.

That she and Green were allowed to do so at this time is baffling given that the government is meant to be making the economy its priority. The failure to support BIS indicates again that political narrative is instead making the running. Blanket condemnation from other universities about the precedent this sets and the reputational damage it does to the UK abroad appears to cut no ice.

The ‘Task Force’ announced by a spokesman this morning will be led by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) and Universities UK will concentrate on helping ‘genuine’ affected students find new courses at short notice. The difficulties here should not be underestimated.

Vince Cable and David Willetts have lost this battle. The latter is apparently on holiday, but this is further evidence of his weakness as a political operator.

But what of London Met? UKBA suspended its sponsor status in July and had been auditing its records since. It should be emphasised that this is a matter of administration: the paperwork was not in order. UKBA claims that in a random selection of student records, 60 per cent were found to have problems. Green outlined three types of failure on the radio this morning:

  1. In a sample of 101 files, a quarter of students did not appear to have leave to remain in the country – the visa copied in the files had expired;
  2. Not every file held evidence to show that the student had met a mandatory standard of English;
  3. ‘More than half of the student records’ lacked an up-to-date register of attendance to show that they had been to lectures and seminars.

When interviewed at lunchtime, Malcolm Gillies, London Met’s vice-chancellor, seemed to indicate that these findings were unexpected and that he had only received a notification letter from UKBA with no accompanying report setting out the evidence above. He did not rule out the possibility of judicial review.

Administration is the leitmotif of recent travails at London Met. Its disastrous failures in record-keeping between 2005/06 and 2007/08 saw it over-report the number of home and EU students attending the institution. Hefce demanded the return of £35million in grants. London Met’s last published financial statement (for 2010/11) stated that £30million of that was still unpaid making Hefce LondonMet’s largest creditor.

Last year it was further fined £6million for over-recruitment in the 2011 application process – distancing himself from his own administrators, Gillies told Times Higher Education that he had been holiday during last summer’s Clearing.

Only last week, exaro news broke the story that London Met had issued a tender for a management consultancy to take over the running of all university activities besides teaching and the vice-chancellor himself. Perhaps this was Gillies’s intended solution to the problems? The tender was due to be awarded imminently. Unison representatives report a casual management attitude to addressing the audit.

To offer a different perspective on all this: perhaps Gillies did not anticipate any heavy sanction because he believed the experiment he was running at London Met had the government’s approval? He is trying to pioneer a cost-cutting ‘shared services’ scheme, he has slashed courses and has set fees far below what other London institutions consider feasible (the lowest in the country on some measures).  A former advisor to Willetts, Jonathan Woodhead, sits in Gillies’ office, while the Universities Minister himself apparently phoned up after London Met’s fees announcement to congratulate Gillies for ‘having the courage of his convictions’.

Posters invite applicants to ‘Join the Value Revolution’; even in the midst of his interview with Martha Kearney on Radio 4’s The World at One, Gillies managed to slip out London Met’s strapline: Affordable Quality Education.

This experiment now looks to be foundering and Willetts is nowhere to be seen.

Overseas tuition fees accounted for £22.5million of revenues in 2010/11 – 15 per cent of London Met’s annual income. That’s a big gap to fill, though presumably Hefce would hold off calling in its debts for the time being. Although it is eligible to reapply for trusted sponsor status in six months, reputational damage combined with a huge loss of income presents the governors with some big decisions about the future.

Undoubtedly London Met needs some emergency borrowing in the short-term, but Gillies would not rule out the possibility of closure when questioned by Kearney earlier today.

Last year’s HE white paper made it clear that the government was no longer prepared to act as the backer of last resort: ‘it is not the Government’s role to protect an unviable institution’ (§6.9b)’.

Merger is the normal alternative avenue but London Met is already the product of one and there’s no obvious candidate partner in what we used to know as the publicly-funded sector.

The current political climate means we should be watching for private sector entry or expansion instead. I have suggested that London Met’s mooted shared services company resembled a model for buyout. We could see a different form of acquisition floated in the coming weeks. London Met is a company limited by guarantee which means no primary legislation or government approval would be needed for such a development. (By the way, did you read the disinterested comment piece on London Met in last week’s Guardian from the chief executive of BPP Holdings, a subsidiary of Apollo Global?)

Individuals are going to bear the brunt of this decision, but the political stakes may get higher.

To wrap up, UKBA should never have been granted the power to set in motion events with such impact on students and staff, never mind the potential damage to prospective applicants to UK institutions. The repercussions go far beyond the fines levied for previous administrative failings and point to a political failure on the part of Cameron.  Why was no one able to make the case for alternative measures? What does that say about the state of the Coalition when even the conservatives aren’t being made to pull together?

From Critical Education

  • Written by Andrew McGettigan
  • Category: Comment

Open letter to Michael Gove

An open letter to Michael Gove from an English teacher on a dark day for Education.

Dear Michael Gove,

You will never read this, but I feel compelled to put it out there in the faint hope that more people will realise the repercussions of your latest initiative.
I am proud to work at a small school, on a small estate, in the most deprived ward in the county. The life expectancy in this ward is a full 20 years lower than the neighbouring village, which tells you a little bit about our intake. Add to this that within our 530 students, we have 36 different languages spoken and over 40% of students do not count English as their first language. Effectively, we are everything you hate and everything you would like to abolish. We are the skidmark on the sparkling underpants of your brave new world of academies and free schools. It is no secret that you would like nothing more than to see us swallowed up by a nearby school which features higher in your flawed league tables, but we have worked relentlessly hard to maintain our independence and have done enough, miraculously, to keep our heads above your floor targets for the last couple of years.

This time last year, I got immense pleasure when watching my English group, all boys, opening their exam results. 13 of this class of 22 were learning English as an additional language and a further 7 were on the special educational needs register. I was delighted, as you would imagine, that 21 of them passed their English and English Literature Exams and headed off to college, full of confidence and ambition. They hadn’t had the greatest start in life, but had worked incredibly hard to achieve what may seem to you a modest grade C at GCSE level.

Today, I was excited to witness more of the same. The anticipation and excitement I feel on results day is something a thousand times more than when I received my own results. Anyone who teaches at my, or a similar school, will tell you exactly the same. We don’t teach students whose parents pay big money for them to learn Latin with private tutors, simply to be used as status symbols at social gatherings. We teach kids who have seen more turmoil and turbulence in their young lives than you or I will ever have to face and I can tell you that watching them learn that they have passed their GCSEs is the most satisfying, heart-warming reward you could ever imagine.

Fortunately, this year I was given a high set (where only about 30% of students were either EAL or SEN students) and they all performed exceptionally well. However, I spent the vast majority of the morning consoling students, who worked more than hard enough to achieve a C grade in English, had been predicted a C grade in English and effectively had earned a C grade in English, but had been credited with a D grade, thus scuppering their chances of going to a college which had conditionally accepted them based on their predicted grades. Just to be exceptionally clear, these are not privileged kids who were bright enough to get a high grade, but just couldn’t be bothered to work. These are students who are learning English as a second, sometimes third, language who have attended every revision session provided and still requested more, leading to some of us teachers having to put video lessons on YouTube to quench their never-ending thirst for knowledge.

The work ethic shown by some of these students to overcome their language barriers was breathtaking and awe-inspiring. When coming to collect their results, they were far too humble to be over-confident, let alone complacent, but deep down they were content with the knowledge that they had given their all. On opening the envelopes and seeing their D grades, each and every one of them covered their faces due to the shame that they felt. They should, of course, have been celebrating. But instead, a combination of devastation, embarrassment and confusion descended upon them and it was left to us teachers to try to explain to them what had gone wrong.

The wrongdoing, it has become clear, was not their own doing. It would appear that, in a bid to halt the increase in GCSE passes, particularly in English, you have put pressure on exam boards to ensure that only a certain number of students achieve a C grade or above. When the January examination results came out, it would seem that far too many students were passing, so something would have to change for those unfortunate enough to be entered at the end of the GCSE course, which is ironically something that you are trying to make compulsory. So, the marks entered for Speaking & Listening and Written Controlled Assessment (60% of the final grade) were moderated, and agreed. This gave a number of students false hope that they had already achieved a pass in more than half of the course and all they had to do was match that mark in their examination.

Incredibly, it has become apparent that the raw marks given for this part of the course, when converted, are now worth less than originally suggested and less than the credit given to those students whose identical work was submitted in January. This has, in turn, meant that these students were entering the exam, where they traditionally struggle due to issues with accessing the questions, on D grades. They never stood a chance, but they didn’t know. Unfortunately, they found out today. They can’t understand why someone would want to play around with their futures in such a cruel way and we, as teachers, should not have to be the ones to explain it to them.

You have not simply moved the goalposts. You have demolished them, sold off the playing fields where they once stood and left the dreams of these youngsters in tatters.
So, there we go. It appears that today you got what you wanted. The statistics show that GCSE passes are down and to you, statistics is all they will ever be. But to me and every other teacher I have had the pleasure of working with, these children are not statistics. They are young people who you have betrayed and will forever be affected by the contents in that envelope which they opened today. We teachers will continue to do our jobs and sleep soundly in the knowledge that we did all that we could and will continue to do so.

From Chris Edward's blog

  • Written by Chris Edwards
  • Category: Comment

Olympics - sport, politics, schools

I really love many kinds of sport. What I don't want or need, though is to be told that the people I must admire and support belong to this or that nation or this or that team. I want that to be my choice and for me to flex my own biases and leanings. So sport for me is not about me being willing to be recruited for this or that cause that is greater than this or that sportsperson or greater than this or that team.

And the person or team I follow for that particular event doesn't have to be the best or the one that someone else says is culturally nearest to me. I want to enjoy sport so I want to bring to it my own feelings, not something being engineered as part of a national effort, say.
Some of the things I like about sport are: the intensity of the effort that precedes the event; the skill and cunning and thinking involved in doing it; the co-ordination and synthesis involved in partnerships and teams; the ultimate unpredictability of the drama of the event; the fact that there are three stages of a sporting event - the event, the commentary and the report - and that there is so much room for debate in between.
In truth, these Olympics weren't better than any other. They were an Olympics. There is absolutely no need to pretend that they were better. As one would expect, some of the sports and events were world best, others weren't.
Then again, there is really no cause or need for some kind of massive examination of significance here. If you sink a lot of time, money and effort into elite sport, you will produce some performers who perform at world class level. The two areas of the world that did that in previous games were the Communist countries and the USA. The Communist countries did it through state funding, the USA primarily through the Universities. Both methods showed quite simply that given the time, money and effort then human beings will perform better, faster, further etc than before. Alternatively, in combat sports and the like, they will mostly but not entirely outperform those who have had less time, money and effort put in.
The significance of the UK earning itself more medals per capita of population than other places needs to be traced back through the relative levels of funding between different countries, and, very importantly, what particular sports were targeted. So, is it likely that you will get more medals for your buck if you train up a group of cyclists than it is if you train up a group of sprinters?
So, this is about economics and politics. Decisions are made to back elite sport for political reasons. It's deemed politically desirable or expedient for the UK to be at a particular position on the medal table.
That doesn't have very much to do with whether everyone in the UK has access to a pool, a pitch, an indoor space for games and exercise. It has very little to do with what actually goes on in schools.
Again, that is economic and political. What needs to be spent to give everyone in UK access to these things? What kind of exercise should go on in schools?
On this last matter, we had the disgusting spectacle of rather unfit Tory ministers and representatives lecturing us on what should take place in schools: it should be competitive, it should be two hours a week etc etc. And even worse, we had that casual piece of racism about 'Indian dancing or whatever' as if schools were prisoners of a crazed multiculturalism instead of fostering a love of competitive sport. It was nasty and it was crude, trying to ride the crest of national sentiment by throwing in a bit of sneering at the 'other'...not 'ours'. Well, Indian dancing is 'ours' as much as Morris dancing, running, jumping, climbing or anything else. And, ironically, various forms of  dance were on display at both the Opening and Closing ceremonies with Asian dancing commemorating 7/7 and 'interrupting' Eric Idle singing 'Always look on the bright side..'
Some people loathe and hate competitive sport. They are afraid of it, they are humiliated by it. Some people who feel like that may love other kinds of physical activity. It is crazy and illogical for such people to be prevented from expressing themselves physically. Some people who love competitive sport, also love certain kinds of non-competitive activity. Again it's crazy and illogical for such people to be prevented from doing it. There is also a crazy illogic to thinking that great competitors at the elite level are produced by putting children through competitive sport at a very young level. There is a body of thought which argues that the acquiring of skills is at least as important as doing the sport. People who acquire physical skills may well be ones who find it easiest to carry on using the skills later in life - for fun whether that's playing beach cricket with their family, table tennis or whatever.
However, having to listen to unfit Old Etonians lecture us about such things was painful in the extreme and another reason to loathe the fact that the Olympics gave them the platform to do it. I'm quite happy to listen to Steve Cram or Pele or even Sebastian Coe talk about sport and what it means to them. I'm extremely happy to listen to anyone far removed from elite sport who is enthusiastic about exercise and moving of the body  because that person is nearer to me in sporting culture ie like that person I've never been an elite sportsperson. And I'm extremely happy to listen to someone who has worked out how to engage all children in a school (I mean all) in various kinds of physical activity which every child enjoys and looks forward to.
To tell the truth, no matter how much I enjoyed Usain Bolt, Mo Farah and others, I don't see the connection between what I saw on the track and this last point. Bolt - like hundreds of other runners before him - has had the effect of small boys saying in the playground, 'I'm Usain Bolt' and running like hell for forty yards. Great. I was like that about Roger Bannister. The serious question is how to get everyone enthusiastic about something physical and from that base elite sportspeople can and will be found. What happens after that depends on how a society juggles its public money. Ironic of course that at this very time the government is trumpeting the Olympians, it is cutting at the very notion that public finance should exist at all.
  • Written by Michael Rosen
  • Category: Comment

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