Woodhead accused of poaching pupils for private schools

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The Independent Online

A private schools company led by the former chief inspector of schools Chris Woodhead has been accused of "poaching" pupils from the state sector.

A private schools company led by the former chief inspector of schools Chris Woodhead has been accused of "poaching" pupils from the state sector.

Cognita, the company chaired by Mr Woodhead, is planning to set up a network of 50 cut-price independent schools around the country and has offered parents discounts of up to £25,000 for children attending one of the first the company has set up.

Parents have been told that if they send their child to the school, Akeley Wood in Buckinghamshire, at the age of eight they could save themselves as much as £25,000 in fees. The school, for three to 18-year-olds, charges fees of up to £8,475 for senior school pupils. The offer, a 30 per cent discount on fees, was made to parents in a full-page advertisement in a local paper.

The offer has angered heads of neighbouring primary schools who would lose pupils as a result. One school, Marsh Gibbon, may lose 13 of its 100 pupils. Louise Metherell, the headteacher, said: "It's terrible. I'm losing sleep over it."

The effect on local primary schools of losing pupils is a cut in budgets which could well mean they would have to increase class sizes as they can no longer afford to hang on to staff.

Edi Smockum, a mother whose daughter, Molly, goes to Thornborough infants' school - another of the schools in the locality, said it stands to lose up to a third of pupils in the second year (six and seven-year-olds).

"Parents are split into two camps," she said. "Some - who were planning to send their children to Akeley Wood at seven anyway - saw the opportunity to save substantial sums of money."

Cognita is now one of the largest owners of independent schools around the country, listing 16 schools owned by it on its website.

Those include preparatory and high schools and some - such as Akeley Wood - offering an education throughout the years of compulsory schooling. The company is looking to increase this number to about 50.

Mr Woodhead, who clashed with teachers repeatedly during his time as chief inspector of schools over his insistence on removing incompetent teachers, defended the offer and denied it was "poaching".

"Parents have a right to choose a school," he said. "We have said to parents 'this is what is on offer'. In a democracy, this is how things work." The offer has now closed for this September.

Mr Woodhead, who was asked by the Conservatives during the election to conduct a review of the national curriculum if they were elected to power, has made it clear he believes the Cognita schools should concentrate on offering " the basic skills of literacy and numeracy" within "a broad and balanced community".

He courted controversy two weeks ago when he suggested private schools should refuse to work with struggling state secondary schools. Partnerships between the two sectors were just "propping up a failed system which should be left to fail", he added.

Mr Woodhead said last night that 52 pupils had been recruited under the scheme, but it had now been suspended - partly as a result of opposition from parents at Akeley Wood who felt they had not been consulted. He said he would consult them should it be repeated again next year.

Only one other Cognita school has operated a similar scheme - but Mr Woodhead said he was "in no way averse to extending the principle of assisted places".