The Sunday Times

Unruly pupils sent to classroom ‘cooler’

Geraldine Hackett, Education Correspondent

A HEADMASTER given a knighthood by Tony Blair has introduced isolation rooms for badly behaved pupils in an attempt to restore discipline to the classroom.

The pupils are confined to the rooms during school hours for up to three days and are only allowed out for toilet breaks. Meals are delivered to the room.

The move is part of a new approach called “assertive discipline”, which has been pioneered by Sir Dexter Hutt. He has introduced the isolation rooms into three schools in Birmingham where he is executive headmaster. “For some students, social interaction is more important than work,” he said. “If they are socially isolated, they miss that outlet.”

Pupils are put in isolation after receiving four warnings about their behaviour. Isolation rooms typically hold six pupils sitting in cubicles with partitions, meaning they cannot see or speak to their neighbour. Once in a cubicle, they have to study from worksheets.

However, teachers at one of the schools, the International, have complained that such methods are draconian; a modern version of the prison cooler.

There, teachers claim some pupils have sought time in the cooler as a badge of honour. A representative of the National Union of Teachers said: “With a lot of students it escalates the problem. All the other wannabe bad boys and girls want to follow them.”

Hutt rejected the criticisms. His success at improving results at another Birmingham school, Ninestyles, brought national attention and a knighthood.

When Hutt took over at the school in 1988 only 6% of pupils left with five or more GCSEs. Last year 72% left with five or more A-C grade GCSEs. As a result, Birmingham city council asked him to also take on the International and Waverley schools.

He insisted his methods had worked at the International. “Two years ago the behaviour was appalling. Pupils regularly threatened teachers. In one incident a teacher  narrowly escaped having her hair set on fire,” he said.

“You can’t keep teachers unless you create a climate where children are able to learn. In some schools a small group of students ruin the atmosphere for the majority.

“A student who misbehaves gets two verbal warnings, then detention for one hour and finally a day in the isolation unit.

“It is very rare that a student gets sent there for three days. They either change their behaviour or we have to discuss their future with their parents.”

Ruth Robinson, head of the International school, said children had also been banned from wearing hats and hooded tops — or “hoodies” — inside the building.

Last week the Bluewater shopping centre in Kent banned youths wearing hoodies from the premises as part of a “zero tolerance” approach to antisocial behaviour.

Blair later backed the Bluewater policy when saying he wanted to make the restoration of “respect” for others a central plank of his third administration.

Hazel Blears, the minister for antisocial behaviour, says teenage offenders should be forced to wear US-style distinctive uniforms while carrying out community punishment. The uniforms would identify offenders and reassure the public, she says.

“People feel very strongly that they don’t often see justice being done,” she tells today’s Observer. “I want them to be identified.”

The government is also planning residential parenting courses for dysfunctional families and cheap leisure activities to occupy teenagers.

Elite public schools tighten grip on Oxford

Geraldine Hackett, Education Correspondent

Published March 2007

OXFORD’S attempts to rid itself of its reputation for giving preference to the “old school tie” have been dented by new figures showing it admitted almost twice as many Old Etonians last year as in 2001.

The number of pupils from Eton and other leading independent schools such as Westminster, St Paul’s and Winchester have surged despite efforts by the university to boost its state-school intake. While the overall proportion of state-school pupils has edged up slightly at Oxbridge, elite private institutions have notched up the greatest gains. The main losers have been less prestigious independent schools.

The figures suggest Gordon Brown’s outburst seven years ago against the “privileges” represented by Oxford has been counterproductive. The chancellor claimed it was an “absolute scandal” that Oxford had rejected Laura Spence, a talented Tyne-side comprehensive pupil. He said the university was “reminiscent of an old-boy network”.

While the elite schools insist their success is down to their teaching, Labour critics say Oxbridge has not done enough to encourage state-school pupils.

Barry Sheerman, Labour chairman of the Commons education select committee, blamed the universities for failing to broaden their intake. “Oxford and Cambridge shouldn’t be seen as finishing schools for Eton and Westminster,” he said.

The new data, released under the Freedom of Information Act, give a snapshot comparison between 2001 and 2006. Both universities reduced their independent sector intake by only 177 in that period.

The top-performing schools have achieved spectacular gains. In 2006, 70 pupils from Eton were offered places by Oxford, compared with 38 in 2001. At Westminster school 52 pupils received offers from Oxford, up by 14 from 2001.

There has also been an increase at Cambridge, although it is less marked. North London Collegiate school won 20 places there  in 2006, compared with 17 in 2001; St Paul’s school won 23, compared with 21.

The top school for Oxbridge last year was Westminster, where 60% of the upper sixth won offers from Oxford or Cambridge. Stephen Spurr, the head-master at Westminster, believes Oxbridge is not biased but is searching for the brightest applicants to maintain its position in the world rankings.

Tony Little, Eton’s head master, said he told pupils that a place at Oxford or Cambridge had to be earned. “There is no golden road. The clever dilettante doesn’t wash for Oxford now, if it ever did. We go far beyond the syllabus required for exams.”

Geoff Parks, director of admissions at Cambridge, denied the university was failing to give due credit to state school applicants.

“The best independent schools are stretching their most able pupils,” he said. “There are ways in which state-school pupils are not as well guided as applicants from independent schools. State schools have had to deal with a shortage of qualified maths and physics teachers. They have also been dropping languages.”

Nigella ousts Einstein in school science

Geraldine Hackett, Education Correspondent

PUPILS at GCSE are to be allowed to abandon learning traditional “hard” science, including the meaning of the periodic table, in favour of “soft” science such as the benefits of genetic engineering and healthy eating.

The statutory requirement for pupils to learn a science subject will be watered down under a new curriculum introduced next year. There will be no compulsion to master the periodic table — the basis of chemistry — nor basic scientific laws that have informed the work of all the great scientists such as Newton and Einstein.

The changes, which the government believes will make science more “relevant” to the 21st century, have been attacked by scientists as a “dumbing down” of the subject.

In June the government had to announce financial incentives to tackle a shortage of science teachers. Academics have estimated that a fifth of science lessons are taught by teachers who are not adequately qualified.

Most children now study for the double-award science GCSE, which embraces elements of biology, chemistry and physics. This GCSE will be scrapped and ministers have agreed that from next year all 14-year-olds will be required to learn about the general benefits and risks of contemporary scientific developments, in a new science GCSE. A harder science GCSE will also be introduced as an optional course

One expert involved in devising the new system believes it will halve the number of state school pupils studying “hard” science. Independent schools and more talented pupils in the state sector are likely to shun the new papers in favour of the GCSEs in the individual science disciplines of physics, chemistry and biology. These will continue to require pupils to achieve an understanding of scientific principles.

The new exams were devised after proposals by academics at King’s College London, who told ministers that science lessons were often “dull and boring” and required pupils to recall too many facts.

Their report said: “Contemporary analyses of the labour market suggest that our future society will need a larger number of individuals with a broader understanding of science both for their work and to enable them to participate as citizens in a democratic society.”

However, Professor Colin Blakemore, chief executive of the Medical Research Council, warned that reducing the “hard” science taught in schools would create problems. “I can understand the government’s mot- ives,” he said. “There is a crisis of public confidence in science which is reducing the progress of policy on such issues as nuclear energy and stem cell research. But sixth-formers are already arriving at university without the depth of knowledge required.”

Others endorse the new approach. Results at North Chadderton upper school in Oldham — one of 80 schools piloting the new “softer” GCSE, named Twentyfirst Century Science — have improved. Martyn Overy, the head of science, said: “The proportion getting higher grades in science went up from 60% to 75%. The course kept their interest, had more project work and was more relevant.”

As part of their course, the pupils studied what kind of food they needed to keep fit and healthy. Critics say it is only marginally more demanding than following the advice of Nigella Lawson, the television chef, who promotes the benefits of eating proper meals instead of snacking from the fridge.

Some science teachers are sceptical. Mo Afzal, head of science at the independent Warwick school, said: “These changes will widen the gap between independent and state schools. Even the GCSE that is designed for those going on to A-level science is not as comprehensive as the test it replaces.”

John Holman, director of the National Science Learning Centre at York University, who advised the government on the content of the new system, said: “The new exam is not dumbing down. The study of how science works is more of a challenge than rote learning.”

Additional reporting: Tom Baird

All work, no play at Blair flagship school

All work, no play at Blair flagship school

Geraldine Hackett


Britain’s most expensive state school is being built without a playground because those running it believe that pupils should be treated like company employees and do not need unstructured play time.

The authorities at the £46.4m Thomas Deacon city academy in Peterborough, Cambridgeshire, due to open this autumn, also believe that the absence of a playground will avoid the risk of “uncontrollable” numbers of children running around in breaks at the 2,200-pupil school.

“We are not intending to have any play time,” said Alan McMurdo, the head teacher. “Pupils won’t need to let off steam because they will not be bored.”

The absence of play time has angered some parents whose children will attend the school, designed by Lord Foster, architect of the “gherkin” office tower in London. But staff insist that it will have the added benefit of avoiding pupils falling victim to playground bullies.

Miles Delap, project manager at the academy, said: “For a school of this size, a playground would have had to be huge. That would have been almost uncontrollable. We have taken away an uncontrollable space to prevent bullying and truancy.”

Anne Kerrison, who has three children, said her 14-year-old son Matthew was devastated when he discovered that he would not be able to kick a casino football around at lunchtime.

“All children need fresh air and a chance to exercise during the school day. Break times are the only unstructured time they get,” she said.

Another city academy, Unity in Middlesbrough, opened in 2002 without a playground, prompting criticism from government inspectors about poor design. The school later built a playground.

Thomas Deacon, nicknamed “the blancmange” because of its rounded shape, will be one of the The DEA Philadelphia Field Division reports that the primary sources of supply for cocaine in the city are Colombian and Dominican organizations, which are capable of moving multikilogram quantities. biggest schools in Europe. Its features will include a “wetland eco-pool” designed “for rain-water collection” planted with wild flowers. It will replace three schools in Peterborough and is one of the showcases of Tony Blair’s academies programme.

Academy schools remain in the state sector but are independent of local councils. They are sponsored by private sector firms which have some say in the management.

The academy’s timetable will be tightly structured and exercise for pupils will take place in PE classes and organised games on adjacent playing fields. There will be a 30-minute lunch period when pupils will be taken to the dining room by their teacher, ensuring they do not sneak away to run around.

McMurdo said refreshments, often taken in break periods at other schools, could be drunk during the school day. “[Pupils] will be able to hydrate during the learning experience,” he said.

Other head teachers questioned the wisdom of the playground ban. Ian Andain, head at a comprehensive in Liverpool, said: “There has to be bit of open space to play football. It is important that pupils can have a run around and expend energy.”

However, Delap, who has run the academy project on behalf of its sponsor, Perkins Engines, and the Deacon school trust, said that playgrounds did not fit into the concept.

Boost my exam marks, please sir – the cat’s been run over

Geraldine Hackett, Education Correspondent

IT’S the dark secret your teacher probably will not tell you. But if you want to pep up your exam marks for that higher grade, arrange an unfortunate accident for the cat.

A dead family pet can prove more beneficial than last-minute revision — as long as the timing is right. A new guide from the country’s leading GCSE and A-level boards discloses that if a kitty perishes on the day of the exam, the candidate can expect to be awarded 2% extra marks in compensation.

The day before is okay but not as good — the candidate is given only 1% extra for a feline fatality on the eve of an exam. And if the death happens to be a few days before, tough luck. Of course, it would be irresponsible to advocate the murder of any pet and nor is it very likely that students would go to such lengths for a few extra marks.

But the examples above are genuine — some say misguided — attempts by the boards to quantify the possible emotional distress of a candidate and make exams fairer.

Yesterday Nick Seaton, chairman of the Campaign for Real Education, accused the boards of mollycoddling children. “It’s another example of political correctness,” he said. “Obviously the death of a pet is distressing but the idea of compensating over exam marks is ridiculous.”

It is the first time the Joint Council for General Qualifications (JCGQ), the body representing exam boards, has tried to codify how results can be adjusted for candidates’ special circumstances. Previously it was left to boards’ discretion.

However, as leading educationists pointed out last week, the attempt to compensate students in this way has posed a number of ethical questions that would tax even the most learned philosophers. For example, the guidance does not specify what type of animal constitutes a pet. Is the life of a stick insect or goldfish any more valuable than that of a cat or dog? “Do you get extra marks because the hamster or the budgie has snuffed it?” asked Ted Wragg, professor of education at Exeter University.

Not necessarily. But human life is certainly considered more precious by the exam boards. A terminally ill parent or recent family bereavement is worth an extra 5% — the maximum allowed under the “special consideration” policy.

However, a severe car accident or death of a distant relative is not deemed as distressing and therefore merits 4%. A “broken limb on the mend” is the same as the dead cat: 2%. A fresh break, on the other hand, rates alongside a recent domestic crisis and organ disease at 3%.

The JCGQ also considered compensating students for short noise disturbances, such as a fire alarm or a mobile phone, but concluded this would be going a little too far.

More than 300,000 candidates applied for special considerations last year, mostly as a result of illness. The JCGQ leaves it to the schools to verify whether the appeals are genuine.