When we shouldn’t just leave it to schools

“We trust teachers – the professionals on the front line – to do what is best for their pupils.” This is the mantra which the Department for Education brings out whenever it’s faced with an issue it doesn’t want to have to address. They mean of course teachers in academies and free schools – no one else is allowed an opinion. It doesn’t apply for example to heads and teachers who don’t want to become academies or to those who want to use a wider range of methods to teach reading. They need to do what they’re told.

But let’s look at three recent cases where the DfE’s non- intervention policy is having some very clear effects on children. First, and best known, there’s the row over nutrition standards. A survey of 100 academies showed that 89% were in breach of the regulations that apply to other schools. This is not some minor issue of health and safety bureaucracy. It’s about children’s health and about ensuring that they ensuring that bad food and drink doesn’t have harmful effects on behaviour and on their readiness to learn. But academies don’t have to follow the regulations And Michael Gove has made it clear he doesn’t intend to make them. You may wonder why they don’t follow the guidance anyway …. perhaps someone should ask them what share of the profits they’re getting from the junk food industry.

Less well known outside specialists in the field are the attempts of some academies and free schools either not to admit or to get rid of pupils who present particular challenges. On his website “A Can of Worms” barrister David Wolfe documents many issues of this kind. Recently he describes a case (at http://davidwolfe.org.uk/wordpress/archives/1114) where an academy totally ignored the requirements of the statement and put a child on a reduced (two hours a day) timetable. David Wolfe comments “it is interesting to note that the academy clearly did not consider itself legally bound to make the provision in the pupils’ statement of SEN. The impression which I often get in such cases is that many academies are not overly concerned with the legality of what they are doing. They consider themselves free to do whatever they want”.

In this case, the Tribunal found for the child and the family and ordered the school to undertake a comprehensive retraining programme on the requirements of the Equalities Act. In another case however, an SEN Tribunal decided that it could not require an academy to take a child named in a statement because those rules only apply to local authority maintained schools. The only redress for the family would be to appeal to the Secretary of State!

The third example is to be found on James Hargrave’s wonderful blog (http://blog.hargrave.org.uk/2012/05/seckford-schools-curriculum-and-special.html) which charts the particular lunacies of the free school saga in Suffolk. In this instance, he describes the attempts of a parent with a child with substantial special needs to establish what opportunities would be available in one of the proposed free schools. In particular she wanted to know about non GCSE qualifications as her child was unlikely to be successful at GCSE. The school’s response was that it would only offer academic GCSE’s and proposed to make no provision for pupils for whom that was unsuitable.  When challenged, the school simply stopped answering any communications. The parent concluded finally that I can only assume that your failure to respond is a strategy that you hope will put off parents like me from choosing your school for their children.”

 That’s just the highlights – I recommend reading the correspondence in full.  Sadly this is far from a unique case. Offering a narrow curriculum focussed exclusively around academic GCSEs is becoming a favourite ploy of schools that want to manipulate their intake.

So can we just leave everything to our new bright and shining independent schools? If we do it seems clear that many pupils are going to get a very raw deal and Michael Gove will be very busy sorting out complaints – as will in due course the courts.

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One Comment on “When we shouldn’t just leave it to schools”

  1. johnebolt says:

    Just found this – http://www.maxwellgillott.com/news-may2012-sen-academies.htm – the Academy that refused admission to an SEN child and where the SEN Tribunal wouldn’t enfore the placement was Mossbourne! The child was 11 with cerebral palsy and already had an A* in GCSE maths. The solicitor’s web site says “However, we suspect that this is a general approach being adopted by Mossbourne who have similarly refused to take other children with statements of special educational needs,”