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Sector news, 10 - 14 October 2011

Business-backed university technical colleges to open next year The Guardian, 10 October 2011

Large companies are behind some of the new wave of comprehensive schools called university technical colleges which are to open in England next year. They are part of the new generation of vocational schools in which business help shape the curriculum. The companies involved include BlackBerry (business partner of a school in Buckinghamshire), Toshiba, Boeing and Rolls Royce. There is one specialising in life sciences backed by the pharmaceutical firm Novartis, one in Plymouth backed by the Royal Navy and Babcock, a defence equipment firm. The schools for 14-19 year olds are sponsored by universities but the firms will help provide training that the students will need to meet their call for skilled workers. There will also be 63 new free schools, which are independent of local authorities and set up through parental demand. They include a school which will run in both English and Spanish, a Steiner school and one being set up by Peter Hyman, who used to advise Tony Blair.

Fees deny the basic human right to education The Guardian, 10 October 2011

Michael Mansfield QC, the human rights lawyer and candidate for the chancellorship of the University of Cambridge, has written an opinion piece arguing that if the thought of debt persuades students they should get out of the education ‘supermarket’, then society as a whole will suffer. He cites several instruments of human rights laws and policies to make his case, and looks at the level of fees against average UK household income.

Are the public paying the price for free schools? The Guardian, 10 October 2011

Five of the free schools which opened last month are former independent schools, and this article looks at what the justification for this is. It focuses on Batley Grammar school, a private school near Leeds, which was one of them, meaning parents no longer had to pay fees of up to almost £9,000. The Department for Education says 40 of the 281 proposals in the second wave of applications were from private schools, though only two of those have been approved so far. Critics say it is using public money in effect to fund private education. Another unusual case is The Priors school in south Warwickshire, which was threatened with closure in 1996 and has since been kept open by parents’ fundraising and working there. By becoming a free school it has been able to employ a cleaner, and a music and French teacher, and employ a full-time administrator, as well as expand from two-three classes. The head of trustees, Tony Porter, still wants the fundraising to continue as he says it made the school the focus of the community.

Gove calls for students to be ranked on A-level scores Times Higher, 13 October 2011

A study by Durham University researchers has demonstrated the amount of A level grade inflation over the past 20 years. The report shows pupils who got a D or E at A level in 1988 would these days have got a B. Overall grades went up by a tenth of a grade every year for the past 20 years. People who got a D or E in biology in 1988 would get a B today and a D in French would now be equivalent to a B. The statistics were produced by the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring at Durham University, and cited by education secretary Michael Gove at an event organised by the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual) in London. Martin Stephen, former high master of St Paul’s School, writing in the Daily Telegraph, says “world-class universities … need to recruit from the top 15 per cent of the ability band”. Grade inflation means elite students became indistinguishable from the next tier down.

Universities could be in private hands 'in six months' Times Higher, 13 October 2011

A legal expert has predicted that a private equity firm or private higher education provider will buy a UK university “within the next six months”, the Times Higher reports. The prediction by Glynne Stanfield, a partner in the education group at Eversheds, came as he pointed to a passage from the government’s technical consultation on the White Paper proposals, which closes on 27 October, and says “It has been argued that it would be helpful to institutions to ease their ability to convert to a legal status of their choosing - for example, to make it easier for them to attract private investment." It then asks if the consultee would welcome legislative change to make the process of changing legal status easier. He said private equity firms or “trade buyers” could buy a university out and gain degree-awarding powers.

A deft touch at IfL may end spat with UCU TES, 14 October 2011

Stephen Exley interviews the new president of the Institute for Learning (IfL), who is its first woman president – though Beatrix Groves started life as Robert Groves and only in 2008 told her employers at North Tyneside Adult Learning Alliance that she would be returning next term as a woman. She talks here about life as a transgender computer repair tutor, and about how she sees part of her role as giving her an opportunity to raise issues about the need for more positive role models of all sorts as tutors. She also talks about her plans for the IfL, peacemaking with the UCU, boosting CPD and improving the role of the humanities at FE colleges.

EMA cookie crumbles in unexpected ways TES, 14 October 2011

A survey by the Association of Colleges of nearly half of England’s 347 FE colleges has found mixed results relating to recruitment following the abolition of the Education Maintenance Allowance. More than one in 10 colleges saw more than 10 per cent of their numbers of 16-19 year olds disappear. But at 5 per cent of FE institutions numbers rose by 15 per cent or more, despite a reduction in funding per student and student support. The net loss was 0.1 per cent, which could reflect demographic shifts. The North East and East Midlands saw the biggest decline in enrolments, and the West Midlands saw the biggest gain, of 0.8 per cent.

Skilled young Brits achieve best ever WorldSkills result TES, 14 October 2011

Team UK came fifth in the Worldskills London 2011 contest, its best ever placing in the medals table. The team of 36 students, apprentices and under-25 workers won four gold, two silver and six bronze medals. The winner was South Korea with 24 medals.