16 Sep '13

News Letters: Schools nourish communities as well as children

John Harris highlights a catastrophic part of government education policy (Why is Ofsted lashing out against primary schools?, 16 September). When schools are turned into academies, a major change is in their governing bodies. The link with local authority and local community is broken, and organisations like the academy chains Harris Federation or Ark Schools take over – with little or no connection to the local community and what seem to be oppressive views on how schools should be run.

This is particularly serious in the case of primary schools because of the community role they often have in bringing parents together and thereby promoting community life. The report published this summer by the education select committee noted that although in some places there is a shortage of people willing to take on the role of school governors, overall primary schools' governance has been judged to be good or outstanding in 55% of them. If it ain't broke, why fix it?

But the coalition government is driven by an ideological intent to push schools towards privatisation. As John Harris reveals, this has already happened to Ofsted, with inspections contracted to Serco, the Tribal Group and CfBT. Yet Serco, as Alan Travis points out (G4S and Serco can bid for £800m of contracts, 16 September) is "facing alleged fraud investigations". The independence of Ofsted from government is challenged by Harris's revelations. But who can inspect the inspectors?
Michael Bassey
Emeritus professor of education, Newark

• Ofsted inspects schools independently and there simply isn't any evidence to the contrary. Our inspectors go into schools without fear or favour. What matters to Ofsted, as matters to parents and pupils, are good outcomes. We have found it is strong leadership, regardless of whether a school is under a council or an academy chain, which makes a positive difference to pupils' performance.

It is rare for a school to go from outstanding to special measures. When a school's performance falls, it is right that Ofsted inspectors go in to identify why this has happened and help solve problems swiftly.

But the good news is that this is happening less often. Just last week Ofsted published figures which showed that about 400,000 more primary school pupils are getting a good or better education than was the case in August 2012.

This is down to the dedication and professionalism of headteachers and teachers across the country. A strong inspection framework plays a big part in supporting good and ambitious headteachers to make necessary changes.
Michael Cladingbowl
Director of schools, Ofsted

• I do believe that Sir Michael Wilshaw is correct in asserting that there are more good state schools than ever before, but aren't the statistics upon which he bases his assertion a little flawed (State schools making 'radical advances', says Ofsted chief, 10 September)?

Good and outstanding schools are inspected less frequently than other schools – typically within five years, compared to within two years. Doesn't this mean that inspections, because they concentrate disproportionately on those that are not judged good, are more likely to result in an increase in the number of schools graded higher at the end of that inspection round? Schools moving to "good" are more likely to be "picked up", in any one year, than those going the other way.
Ken Hall
Educational consultant, Knaresborough

• Simon Jenkins is right to challenge head-on the testing-mania of the current regime in the Department for Education (Michael Gove should forget maths and turn to marshmallows, 13 September). With some 90% of the world's countries having a school starting age of six or seven, and England's unconscionably early starting age being a quirk of parliamentary shenanigans that occurred around the 1870 Education Act, it is extraordinary that ministers are still furiously digging this antediluvian hole, when all the evidence points to its wrongheadedness. I periodically speak with parents of young children who've moved to England from Europe, and who are in incredulity (and sometimes in rage and despair) at the age when their hapless children are having to start formal schooling here; more than one has referred to it as "child abuse". The day can't come soon enough when a new regime possessing Simon Jenkins' sound sense takes over at the DfE.
Dr Richard House
Department of education studies and liberal arts, University of Winchester

• I was delighted to see the coverage of the launch of the campaign for free school meals for all (School dinners all round, 10 September), particularly as it highlighted the success of one of Southwark's flagship policies.

When we introduced the policy in 2010 in Southwark, it was not without controversy. It is now a popular policy that is widely supported by parents and the community. Offering free healthy school meals addresses a range of issues, from tackling poor diet and obesity to raising attainment and removing the stigma felt by children on free school meals.

The policy removes a disincentive to work and puts money back in to the pockets of families, which can help those on lower and middle incomes feeling the pinch. Parents have reported that their children now come home asking for healthy food and said that because of the policy they are able to afford books, dance and other extracurricular activities for children for the first time. This contributes to children being well rounded and having opportunities they might otherwise not have. The money saved is spent in the local economy.

I hope other councils will adopt this policy as one that can help all children but helps those children who are most disadvantaged most. Politicians of all persuasion should take a long-term view on this and weigh the cost against the long-term benefits to children, their families and society. As a Labour politician, I hope my party adopts this as a national policy – one that demonstrates how One Nation values can become unifying policies in practice.
Cllr Peter John
Leader of Southwark council

• I was relieved to see at long last that some good sense is being spoken about the damage that the "school readiness" mentality is doing to children's development (Early schooling damaging children's wellbeing, say experts, 12 September).

There was, however, one inaccuracy in your article, and in the caption to the accompanying photograph. It is quite untrue that children must be enrolled in a school by the age of five.

Parents have the legal responsibility to provide their child with an education. This responsibility is non-delegable and, whatever arrangements they make, parents remain ultimately responsible for their child's education. Mothers and fathers may discharge their responsibility in part by sending the child for some of the working day to a private or a state school. However, more and more are opting simply to make their own arrangements and to educate their child otherwise than at school under section 7 of the Education Act 1996.

Home education is a highly sociable enterprise these days, with so many families from a variety of different backgrounds and income levels choosing this option. Home education networks across the UK are thriving, with families getting together regularly to provide each other with mutual support.

It is vitally important both for the preservation of civil liberties and for the welfare of children that we remember that education is compulsory but schooling is not.
Karen Rodgers

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