Three Rs revolution: Changing East Midlands' schools

Both opponents and supporters agree education is undergoing big changes

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Education is changing. GCSEs are on their way out. Grade boundaries are on their way up.

But it's not just how pupils learn that's changing - it's where they learn too.

Over the past two years many schools across the East Midlands have been transformed.

When the coalition government came to power in 2010, there was only a small handful of academy schools in Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Rutland.

Now, for the first time, the number of secondary school academies has reached the 100 mark. That's more than half of all state secondaries.

Union picket line Unions have called the reforms "back door privatisation"

This rapid rise in numbers came after Education Secretary Michael Gove opened the door for all schools to apply for academy status - with priority being given to those deemed "outstanding" or "performing well".

Beyond exams

Academies are independent, state-funded schools. They have more freedom over their budget, curriculum, term dates and teachers' pay. Gove says these freedoms give schools the opportunity to drive up standards.

And here in the East Midlands, many new academies say they've already noticed an improvement. Nottinghamshire County Council says more pupils in academies are now achieving five A* - C grades at GCSE.

It's also helped breathe new life into schools. South Wolds College in Keyworth, Nottinghamshire, became an academy over the summer. Its headmaster Andrew George says there's now a real buzz around the school.

"It's not just a name. It's the confidence that we're in a position where we can spend our money where we think it'll benefit the pupils. Our aims as a school haven't changed.

"We also want to provide our children with wider skills needed in life that aren't measured by exam results."

Faith groups

But of course the academy programme has its critics. Unions say they are unaccountable and a form of back door privatisation.

"If they're really the answer to a better education, why are only some schools converting, but not others?" asks NUT member Ian Stevenson.

Grammar school head teacher Graham Burks believes it would be interesting to set up a satellite school

"Simply changing the name of a school and removing it from local authority control doesn't necessarily equal better educational standards."

Free schools represent another major change. Like academies, they are state funded and free from local authority control. But unlike academies, they can be set up by anyone from parents to faith groups.

The East Midlands' first free school was the Krishna Avanti Primary School in Leicester - a Hindu school which opened in September 2011. The school day starts with morning worship, followed by yoga.

"We have three main ideals," says principal Christopher Spall. "Academic excellence, character formation and spiritual insight. Our Hindu ethos fits perfectly with good results."

Nativity play

Krishna Avanti is one of only four free schools in the East Midlands. But what they lack in number, they make up for in controversy.

"I'll be honest with you, I hope the schools fail," NASUWT member Dave Wilkinson tells me. "They take children out of state schools and break up state education."

But despite being a Hindu school, Mr Spall says the Krishna Avanti School aims to represent all beliefs.

"There's no requirement for any of our staff or pupils to follow the Hindu faith. This year we're putting on a nativity play with the Catholic school next door."

So if academies and free schools are the future, where does that leave one of the country's more traditional types of school?

Michael Gove Michael Gove has dismissed critics as "ideologues"

Grammar schools have all but died out in the East Midlands. Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and Leicestershire no longer have any - although some schools still carry the name. But in Lincolnshire 15 schools still admit pupils based on results of the 11 plus exam.

Current legislation dictates no new grammar school can be built in the UK. But earlier this year Kent County Council voted to allow one of its grammar schools to expand onto another site. So could the same thing happen in Lincolnshire?

"It would be interesting to set up a satellite school in Nottinghamshire or Leicestershire," says Graham Burks, headmaster of the Kesteven and Grantham Girls School.

"Or we could certainly advise a free school if it wanted to set up and call itself a grammar school.

"But I can't see that happening in the short term."

Many grammar schools have also elected to become academies. This means they're free from local authority control, but retain their selective admission arrangements.

With Michael Gove continuing to push his academy idea, it seems certain more secondary schools will convert. But for primary schools it's a different matter.

In the East Midlands, fewer than 5% of primaries have converted to academy status. Mr Gove's efforts look likely to be focused on increasing this number.

Expect more changes in education to come.

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