Newspaper headlines: Mediocrity battle, university fee concern, and the 'British sniper'

A flurry of education stories fill Monday's papers, and headmaster to them all is news of the speech David Cameron is to give announcing a "war on mediocrity".

The Daily Telegraph says the prime minister will announce that all primary and secondary schools rated as "requiring improvement" or "inadequate" by Ofsted could be given new leadership and converted to academies.

Image caption Nicky Morgan's plan to replace head teachers if pupils cannot pass basic literacy and numeracy tests have been condemned as a "gimmick" by union chiefs

The paper says the pledge - which could affect one in five of the country's 20,000 state schools - is to become a manifesto commitment for the Conservatives.

Mr Cameron's big plan for schools follows the weekend's announcement by Education Secretary Nicky Morgan of a new emphasis on "three R's" testing.

There will also be a ring-fencing of spending on primary and secondary schools, the Telegraph adds.

Its editorial says "reforming education" has been one of the Conservative's "proudest achievements" and this speech will remind voters "the Tories are the only party that cares more about the classroom than the staffroom".

The Sun's opinion column says the PM is "right to declare war not just on failing schools, but 'mediocre' ones too".

The paper says that ending the "scandal of 16-year-olds leaving school without even the most basic skills employers demand" will reduce immigration, slash benefit dependency and boost the economy.

The Guardian reports that teaching unions have branded the Tory pledges "a gimmick".

Russell Hobby of the National Association of Head Teachers says: "Apparently headteachers will be sacked should any - yes, any - child fail the test.

"We are all for aiming high but, remember, this is a 45-minute test taken by a young child. Mistakes happen, children feel under the weather or have a bad evening beforehand.

"This does not mean that teachers are not working as hard as possible."

The Independent says ring-fencing school spending will have implications for other spending areas, including social care, policing, prisons and courts, universities and defence.

The paper says analysts have calculated that adding schools to ring-fenced NHS and aid budgets means every other department will have to slash its spending by 31% in the next five years.

The Independent's lead story says that £800m a year is wasted on 16-to-18-year-olds who drop out of courses in schools and colleges.

Image caption Universities UK argues that the level of tuition fees is no longer a "key topic" of concern for English students and their parents

It says the Local Government Association says some educational establishments are prioritising "bums on seats" over guiding pupils to the right subjects to study.

Higher education occupies prime place in the Times.

The paper carries a letter from the body representing English university vice-chancellors warning that Ed Miliband's idea to cut tuition fees from £9,000 to £6,000 a year could damage the sector and hinder rather than help prospective students from poorer backgrounds.

The paper explains that the letter writers are concerned that such a move would rob their places of learning of £2bn a year, which would be unlikely to be made up by central government.

The academics also say that extra help with living costs is a better way to help disadvantaged students.

The Times concludes that criticism from university leaders of Labour policy is "highly unusual" as "many are sympathetic to the party".


'Voice of business'

"Labour's war on Boots the chemist" is the Daily Mail's lead story, building on reaction to weekend comments from Italian Stefano Pessina - owner of the High street chain and much more - that Ed Miliband as prime minister would be "not helpful for business" and could be "a catastrophe" for the country.

The paper says the Labour's business spokesman Chuka Umunna "hit back with a series of extraordinary attacks".

At the heart of these "attacks", the paper notes, is Mr Umunna's statement: "It is important that the voice of business is heard during this general election campaign, not least on Europe.

"But the British people and British businesses will draw their own conclusions when those who don't live here, don't pay tax in this country and lead firms that reportedly avoid making a fair contribution in what they pay purport to know what is in Britain's best interests."

The paper's editorial says "such vicious anti-business rhetoric... risks scaring investors away from the UK".

The Daily Mirror does not agree. Its editorial says "Ed Miliband should give Pessina both barrels and commit Labour to ensuring that sneerers like him contribute more to our public services".

Columnist Matthew Norman in the Independent is similarly unimpressed by the Monaco-domiciled Mr Pessina.

Under the headline "Billionaire tax avoider attacks Ed Miliband. Shock. Horror", he notes the Alliance Boots boss "declined to elaborate" on which Labour policies he disliked.

"Perhaps we can jog the old fella's memory," writes Norman. "Might one policy not wholly to his taste be Labour's commitment to stamp out corporate tax avoidance?

"Since he took the High Street chain into private ownership six years ago, Boots has avoided some £1.1bn in corporation tax by such elegant (and yes entirely legal) measures as rerouting cash through subsidiaries in tax havens and loading debt repayments to slash declared profits."


At risk

Many papers report on the freeing of Peter Greste, the Australian al-Jazeera journalist who had been detained by the Egyptian authorities for more than a year on charges of "spreading false news" and aiding the banned Muslim Brotherhood party.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Peter Greste

The Times says the "ecstatic" reporter - freed by presidential decree - looked "exhausted but happy" as he boarded a plane, to be deported to his native country.

The paper notes Mr Greste's Canadian-Egyptian colleague Mohammed Fahmy is expected to be similarly deported "within days", but a third al-Jazeera worker Baher Mohamed has no foreign residency so might be called on to serve his full 10-year sentence.

The paper's analysis said the three jailed men were "pawns in a deadly game between Cairo and the Qataris".

It says Qatar, which owns the station the men worked for, has "made little secret of its support for Egypt's old Islamist regime.

"Egypt wanted to punish Qatar and in many ways they succeeded.

"Al-Jazeera's journalists are among the best in the world, and jailing them in an attempt to silence them is abhorrent.

"However, the network's owners must acknowledge that decisions dictated by Doha can undermine their credibility and put all of them at risk."

The Guardian notes that at least 11 other journalists besides the al-Jazeera three are believed to be in jail in Egypt.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Judge Shehata jailed Mr Greste for seven years

The paper says the 2014 trial of Mr Greste, Mr Fahmy and Mr Mohamed had been widely denounced by human rights groups and other journalists.

"Evidence presented by the prosecution in court included a song by the musician Goyte, a programme about sheep farming, footage of trotting horses and a press conference in Kenya," it recalls.

The Guardian reports that sunglasses-wearing judge Mohamed Nagy Shehata "sarcastically" told the journalists "happy World Press Freedom Day" during one sitting.


'Deadlier than the plague'

The most arresting front page of the day may well be the Sun's which claims "the world's deadliest marksman" is a Briton serving in the Royal Marines.

The paper compares the 173 "confirmed enemy kills" of the unnamed man - whose identity it protects in pictures - which the late Chris Kyle, the US Navy Seal who wrote a controversial book about his 160-kill sniping career which has been made into a hit film.

The Sun's Marines' source says the British sniper is "a legend. A unique breed".

Image copyright Ministry of Defence
Image caption Operation Herrick V lasted from November 2006 to April 2007

"Only people inside the community know about his incredible contribution - but young recruits are in awe of him.

"He's not the sort of man to brag. He's very professional and humble, but with a gun in his hand this bloke's deadlier than the plague."

The paper says most of the Marine's kills were recorded during Operation Herrick V over the winter of 2006/7, when the Afghan War was beginning in earnest.

It adds he is said to have killed more than 90 Taliban fighters in a day, firing at sentries in an Islamist stronghold.

His weapon of choice is an L115 A3 Alpharifle, accurate at ranges of up to a kilometre, and fitted with a silencer to eliminate tell-tale noise and muzzle flash.

The paper says colleagues knew that there would be interest in the "British sniper" after the success of the Clint Eastwood-directed hit film American Sniper, based on Kyle's life.

The film, which is tipped for an Oscar, has taken £166m in the box office already.

But the Sun says, "its gung-ho nature has led some left-wingers saying it glorifies war".


'Not very well'

And so to those lighter stories readers may find dotted around Monday's press.

Presumably, many may be reading them from a bed at home as the Daily Express reports the day is Britain's unofficial "national sickie day".

Image copyright AP
Image caption Why would anyone want to avoid the early February weather?

The paper explains the first Monday in February is traditionally the day most workers call in with bogus complaints.

Reasons for this, researchers from a bed company have found, include wanting to avoid going out in the miserable weather, feeling "not very well" with colds, and fighting the hangovers that came with the abandonment of ""dry January".

Feeling rather sickened (but still working) is Port Talbot priest the Reverend Wena Parry.

The Daily Telegraph reports that the 75-year-old cleric has been told by her car's insurers that religious stickers on her Vauxhall Zafira might have voided her policy.

Ms Parry became aware of the problem when she tried to make a claim for damages to her vehicle caused by thieves.

She was told the stickers reading "Christ must be Saviour" could be regarded as "modifications much like the spoilers associated with boy racers", the paper says.

And so to the art world, and Britons can be thankful that a nuclear holocaust did not envelope the country in the 1980s for reasons other than the obvious, if they read a story in the Independent.

The paper says newly released documents show Whitehall officials of the time drew up "bargain basement" plans to protect the nation's art treasures in the event of Soviet missiles raining down.

Image copyright AP
Image caption At least the Rembrandts would be safe....

The Indy notes that while works in London's museums received "preferential treatment" and access to official nuclear bunkers, artworks in Scotland were to be protected in a more "haphazard" way, including hiding them in boiler rooms.

The paper notes, "briefing papers also contained a healthy dose of scepticism about the immediate importance of rescuing art in the event of an attack".

It quotes one as saying: "The most probable scenario suggests that people will begin to emerge from sheltered accommodation from about one week after a nuclear attack; it is unlikely that attention to stored exhibits will be a high priority during the survival or recovery stage." Well, quite.

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