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Week in perspective

MORE black clouds gathered over the Government's Fresh Start initiative for failing schools as it was confirmed that the first school to take part in the scheme is threatened with closure.

Newcastle City Council said Firfield community college - formerly known as Blakelaw school - had failed to attract enough pupils since reopening with a new name and new staff less than two years ago. The council wants to close it and another school and replace them with one new school.

Firfield has a budget deficit of pound;200,000 and only 433 pupils, despite having room for 700. The school has been plagued by appalling exam results, poor behaviour and high truancy.

In March its head, Carole McAlpine, resigned to become director of an education action zone in Norfolk, the first of three "superheads" to resign within days of each other.

At Islington arts and media school, meanwhile, another Fresh Start that lost its head in March, most of the pupils were told to stay home for an extra 10 days after the Easter break while staff get emergency retraining.

Cambridge Education Associates, the private firm now running Islington's schools, said more time was needed to sort out the timetable, curriculum, disciplinary system and the monitoring of attendance. The school, formerly the George Orwell, was relaunched as a Fresh Start school last September.

Perhaps the problems of rural schools are more tractable. The Government this week launched a drive to keep them open.

The Local Government Association is asking LEAs to encourage federations and clusters of schools to save money by sharing facilities. Education minister Jacqui Smith told an LGA conference that, where schools forme federations, they would be protected by the same presumption against closure that applied to stand-alone schools.

Meanwhile, the Government is struggling to devise a policy for A-level maths that pleases everybody. Last week, John Dunford of the Secondary Heads Association (among others) attacked plans to make A-levels tougher, saying it would discourage pupils from taking maths and make the teacher shortage worse.

This week, the Mathematical Association weighed in over the new-style modular A-levels, saying they were discouraging high-flying students from taking the more demanding further maths A-level, with potentially disastrous effects on the country's performance in maths, science and technology.

The association is worried that potential sixth-formers have misinterpreted ministers' demand that they take a greater breadth of subjects, and think they will be penalised by universities for taking both maths and further maths. An informal survey found the number of students signed up for further maths in September had reached an all-time low. The association fears that the course could eventually become the

preserve of independent schools.

Already the virtual preserve of independent schools is the teaching of foreign languages to primary children.

This week's Nuffield inquiry into foreign languages - co-chaired by Trevor McDonald, the ITN newsreader, and Sir John Boyd, Master of Churchill College, Cambridge - calls for primaries to teach children over seven a foreign language by the year 2010 and a compulsory foreign language test for university entry. Reaction to the report has sympathised with its aims but stressed the shortage of teachers.

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