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Week in perspective

This week... Woodhead's parting shot... Top UK universities 'falling behind' US... Recruit numbers rise at last...

CHRIS Woodhead, the departing chief inspector of schools, aimed a parting shot at one of his chief bugbears,

troubled Hackney Council in east London, this week.

In his penultimate report as head of the Office for Standards in Education, Mr Woodhead condemned the authority for its "malign influence" on education and "history of endemic turmoil".

"Now is the time to free them (schools) from a council that is not a partner but a millstone,"he said.

Showing he had not lost his taste for controversy, Mr Woodhead said the Government had failed to take radical action when inspectors first reported Hackney's failures in 1997 and even hit out at Nord Anglia, the private contractor that now runs some of the council's services, for being "too slow" in establishing its school improvement service.

Worse news for ministers, however, came in the form of a spate of bad headlines reporting the worst pupil:teacher ratios in secondary schools for 25 years. Prime Minister Tony Blair was challenged in the House of Commons over the figure by Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy and agreed that thousands of teachers would have to be recruited to bring schools up to 1997 levels.

Meanwhile, the Government said it would increase university funding by pound;1 billion from 2003.

An increase of pound;412 million per year on English universities' current pound;5.4 billion budget had already been promised in 2001-02, but Mr Blunkett revealed this would be followed by pound;268 million in 2002-3 and another pound;298 million in 2003-04.

The Government opes to recruit another 45,000 students into the sector, to increase support for students from poorer families and to improve academics' pay.

But it will take more than that to placate concerns expressed this week among leading academics that Britain's top universities are being left trailing by their US rivals.

Andrew Oswald, professor of economics at Warwick University, said: "A bunch of top universities are falling further and further behind America and the country has to be aware of this. This is because of an astonishingly low level of funding."

His comments came after John Kay, former head of Oxford University's Said Business School, revealed more specific concerns that Oxford was "sliding gradually into mediocrity".

The university slipped to third place behind Cambridge and Imperial College, London, in this year's performance tables.

"There is no doubt that Oxford is losing its pre-eminence among British academic institutions and that these in turn are falling behind the top US schools," he said.

Finally, there was a mixed reception for this year's trainee teacher recruitment figures.

Some sections of the media

welcomed the first increase in the number of teacher recruits for eight years, with the number of trainees rising from 26,000 to 28,000. Other journalists stressed that the Government was still falling 13 per cent short of its own secondary school targets.

The schools minister Estelle Morris said: "Our recruitment targets remain a huge challenge, but our strategy is working." Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said the Government was "clutching at straws."

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