Week in perspective

24th March 2000 at 00:00
THE GOVERNMENT'S inspection system was put on trial this week by defenders of the country's most famous progressive school.

Summerhill school in Suffolk, threatened with closure by Education and Employment Secretary David Blunkett, began an outspoken defence against criticism by Office for Standards in Education inspectors at the High Court on Monday.

"OFSTED's inspectors have demonstrated ignorance, a lack of professionalism, and even ... a degree of persecution in the demands they have made on Summerhill," the school's barrister, Geoffrey Robertson QC, told an education tribunal. Closing the school on the basis of a "biased and illogical" inspection would be an act of "educational vandalism".

The school - where lessons are optional and pupils decide rules democratically - is appealing against a notice of complaint (the final warning before closure) issued by David Blunkett last year. It was one of six independent schools to receive such a warning in 1999. Inspectors are believed to have a list of 115 other independent schools with serious shortcomings.

OFSTED accuses the school of allowing pupils "to mistake the pursuit of idleness for the exercise of personal liberty" and attacked widespread absence from lessons. But Summerhill says inspectors with a "blunderbuss" agenda are riding roughshod over the autonomy of the school and pupils. "It's freedom or nothing," Mr Robertson said. "If it's not freedom, it isn't Summerhill."

As ministers confronted the partisans of progressive education in the courts, their stand-off with the forces of moral conservatism over Section 28 continued.

Last week, the Government reaffirmed its commitment to getting rid of the law hich forbids the promotion of homosexuality by local authorities, but tried to buy off its conservative critics by announcing a package of strict guidelines for teaching traditional family values in schools. Under the guidelines, schools will be forced to teach the value of marriage. But a new crop of headlines this week showed that the damage limitation exercise had backfired.

In Scotland, where the controversy first sparked, First Minister Donald Dewar said there were no plans to follow England and Wales. A letter of condemnation from Roman Catholic head Cardinal Thomas Winning and 14 other church and religious leaders was soon in the post.

In England, key conservative national newspapers declared against the compromise guidelines and a quick passage through the House of Lords - which rejected the first plan to scrap the clause in February - appeared unlikely.

With all that shrapnel flying around, Department for Education and Employment spin doctors were scrambling out of their bunkers on Tuesday to push a bit of good news for a change.

Gordon Brown's Budget pumped a further pound;1 billion into education, including pound;837m for England. (And yes, that seems to be new money, not stuff that has already been announced.)

The boost includes about pound;300m to be sent directly to headteachers in England without the usual restrictions on how it is spent. That means pound;30,000 to pound;50,000 spending money for secondary heads and up to pound;9,000 for primary schools. Mr Blunkett said that the Budget would add pound;45 to spending per pupil next year.

There was also some good news from Europe. An EU plan to end school milk subsidies in Britain was thrown out by European ministers.

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