Congratulations to all those free schools who got their GCSE results this morning. We don’t yet have the full picture, but early reports are good.
Top marks to Tauheedul Islam Boys’ High School in Blackburn, a free school that opened in 2012. Ninety-five per cent of its pupils achieved five A to C grades in their GCSEs, including English and maths, a metric known as ‘5A–CEM’. To put this in context, last year’s 5A–CEM national average was 56.1 per cent.
Another school that has done well is Dixons Kings Academy in Bradford. It was one of the first 24 free schools to open in 2011 – it was originally called King Science Academy – and was taken over by the Dixons Academy chain after financial irregularities were brought to light by a whistleblower. Sixty-seven per cent of its pupils achieved 5A–CEM. (To read more, click here.)
The BBC has published a list of the 100 best films of the 21st century, compiled after consulting academics, cinema curators and critics — and, as you’d expect, it’s almost comically dull. The list contains numerous turgid meditations on the spiritual void at the heart of western civilisation by obscure European ‘auteurs’ and not a single Hollywood comedy. It’s as if the respondents mistook the word ‘best’ for ‘boring’.
To give you an idea of just how absurd the list is, it doesn’t include any of the billion-dollar blockbusters from Marvel Studios — no, not even Guardians of the Galaxy — but does have two movies by the impenetrable Danish director Lars von Trier. Nothing featuring Denzel Washington, Tom Cruise, Matt Damon, Bradley Cooper or Robert Downey Jr, but three films starring Joaquin Phoenix (although not Gladiator, obviously).
Jennifer Lawrence, the number one box office star in the world, doesn’t get a look-in, while Michael Haneke, the miserable Austrian director, appears three times. If an actual cinema confined itself to showing just the films on this list, it would go bust within a month. (To read more, click here.)
After the misery of going abroad for the summer holidays for the past few years, I’m now happily back in Cornwall. Caroline took some persuading. We used to come every year, but the combination of bad weather and cramped accommodation became too much for her. After a bad experience in a mobile home three years ago, she vowed ‘never again’ and we spent a week in Portugal in 2014 and then ten days in France last year. That was purgatory. The last straw was being un-able to order fresh fish at a seaside restaurant in the Languedoc.
To get Caroline to reconsider, I had to splash out on a luxurious ‘chalet’ overlooking Gwithian Beach near St Ives. I say ‘luxurious’ but in Cornwall that translates as furniture from Ikea rather than MFI and, in truth, it’s more of a hut than a chalet. Still, there’s enough room for all of us, provided the youngest sleeps on the sofa, and its proximity to the beach means we don’t have to faff around looking for somewhere to park each day. (To read more, click here.)
By rights, I should be one of those Tories who is passionately in favour of grammar schools. After all, I went to one myself. My attachment to them should be particularly strong because before arriving at William Ellis in Highgate I went to two bog-standard comprehensives and failed all my O–levels apart from English Literature, in which I got a C. The only other qualification I left with was a grade one CSE in Drama. William Ellis was the making of me. Had I not got in, I doubt I would have ended up at Oxford.
Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not a passionate opponent of grammar schools either. I wouldn’t want to deny to other children the opportunities I had and would like my own children to have — a form of hypocrisy that’s widespread among critics of selective education. But I’m not so naive as to think that bringing back grammars would boost social mobility. Rather, they’d be more likely to impede it. (To read more, click here.)
One of David Cameron’s last acts as Prime Minister was to approve an application by Ashlawn School in Rugby to set up a new free school in the city. It’s not surprising that Ashlawn’s application was approved. Not only has it been ranked ‘Outstanding’ by Ofsted, but last year 74 per cent of its pupils got five GCSEs at grade C or above, including English and maths (a metric known as ‘5A*–CEM’). Even more impressive, 65 per cent of its pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds met that same target.
However, before Ashlawn can open its new school in 2017 it has to overcome an obstacle. Ashlawn is one of England’s three dozen or so partially selective schools. These schools represent a ‘third way’ between grammars and comprehensives in that they select a minority of their pupils according to general ability. In Ashlawn’s case this means that 12 per cent of the 256 pupils it admits each year are selected according to their performance in the Warwickshire 11-plus exam, with the remainder being fully comprehensive. These 30 children are then placed in the school’s ‘grammar stream’, where they’re joined by an additional 60 children taken from the non-selective intake so that over a third of the children in the school are taught a grammar school curriculum.
Unfortunately, Ashlawn won’t be able to select 12 per cent of its pupils in the new free school because that’s prohibited by the ban Tony Blair’s government imposed on the creation of any new selective schools, including partially selective schools. At least, it didn’t think it would until now. With this weekend’s news that Theresa May is planning to lift that ban, Ashlawn may be able to go ahead and replicate its model. (To read more, click here.)
I spent last weekend at Port Eliot in Cornwall, the only summer festival I’d pay to attend. Indeed, I ended up paying through the nose. Not only did I rent a teepee so that we wouldn’t have to lug our bell tent from the car park to the campsite and back, but I bought Caroline and our four children special wristbands so they could use the ‘posh loos’. I thought she’d get a particular kick out of swanning off with them to do their ablutions in the morning in the lap of luxury while I had to queue up to use one of the Portaloos.
For those who’ve never had the pleasure, Port Eliot is a literary and music festival that takes place on the estate of the Earl of St Germans in the last weekend of July. It’s intimate and charming in a way that few other festivals are, partly because so many of the punters seem to know each other. To give just one example, there were at least half a dozen families there with children at the same primary school that my two youngest go to in Shepherd’s Bush. Even strangers don’t remain strangers for very long. I overheard one woman saying to another, ‘So which part of west London are you from?’ (To read more, click here.)
The dog days of July probably aren’t the best time to launch a new political movement, but then the people who campaigned for Remain in the EU referendum aren’t known for their media savvy. Consequently, Paddy Ashdown made a surprise appearance on Marr last Sunday to announce the creation of More United, a ‘tech-driven political start-up’ that takes its name from a phrase the late Jo Cox MP used in her maiden speech: ‘We are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.’
More United’s website doesn’t explicitly say that the organisation’s raison d’être is to overturn the result of the referendum. Rather, this is hidden away in a section called ‘Example policies’. One of the core principles that More United revolves around is that it’s pro-immigration and wants a close relationship with the EU and, as an example of what that might mean in policy terms, it says: ‘Campaign for Britain to return to full membership of the EU.’
Why bury this in the small print? (To read more, click here.)
Could grammar schools be about to make a comeback? That Theresa May went to one, and that the number of grammar-school-educated members of the cabinet has increased from three to eight since she took over, has fuelled speculation about a shift in education policy.
There are various forms this could take. The least politically difficult would be for Justine Greening, the new Education Secretary, to let England’s 164 grammar schools expand. Her predecessor, Nicky Morgan, approved an application by a selective girls’ school in Tonbridge to set up an annexe in Sevenoaks; it’s due to open next year. Greening could approve several more. The school in Sevenoaks has been described as England’s first new grammar in 50 years, but because it’s a branch of an older school it doesn’t run afoul of the 1998 School Standards and Frameworks Act, which prohibited the creation of any more selective schools. If May and her Education Secretary want more grammar-school places, this would be the easiest way to get them.
Alternatively, they could bite the bullet and introduce a new education bill. Could a Conservative government with a majority of 12 get that through Parliament? (To read more, click here.)