Why all schools must be good

For some parents this Easter will be a time for celebration as the results of ‘destiny day’ – the day when children starting formal schooling were told which school they will be attending in September – is celebrated. For other parents, whose children have been assigned their second or third choice of school; or in some cases none of those they asked for, the mood will be no doubt be more downbeat. I can sympathise. As I have mentioned before, in 1952 my brother and I failed to secure places at the first choice school identified by our parents, a small one form entry Church of England primary school, and instead went to a four form entry infant school that was admittedly nearer to where we lived.

So, parents of children born in years when the population is growing in an area are always going to struggle to secure a place at the school of their choice, especially as it doesn’t make good sense to have too many places standing empty when they are not needed, even though a reservoir of places to cope with peaks in demand is sensible.

What may worry parents more these days is if the expansion of places to meet growing demand isn’t always in the best performing schools. Now I am aware that Ofsted judgements are moveable feasts; and school can and do improve, as well as in some cases perform less well over time. Also, some new schools haven’t even been inspected by Ofsted. However, the DfE has recently published a Basic Need Scorecard with interesting data about the distribution and cost of new places in each local authority.

Some 25 local authorities were coded red in the DfE dashboard as the percentage of new places in school deemed ‘good’ or better by Ofsted up to 2103 was seen as concerning. Many of the authorities in the code red group were small unitary of other urban authorities. Interestingly, only three were London boroughs where the most noise about this issue seems to be generated in the press. Only one authority, Westminster, was an inner London borough. By contrast, there were eight shire counties in the group, ranging from Shropshire to Essex, and from North Yorkshire to Wiltshire. I suspect that if we were able to find the individual schools in these counties where places been increased, even though Ofsted was less then complimentary about aspects of the school, we would find them concentrated in the market towns and larger settlements within the counties rather than in the more rural areas. Answering that question might make an interesting research study for someone to conduct.

When the report on the admissions process is compiled by the Adjudicator, it will be interesting to see whether any other authorities than Oxfordshire, where I am a county councillor, raise concerns about academies not being willing to cooperate over placing pupils even where they have spare capacity. It would be a real irony if choice, meant choice by school as to how many pupils to take, but also an outcome resulting in more cost to rural authorities in additional school transport expenditure because some schools weren’t willing to help accommodate the growing number of pupils.

Even in a coalition Ministers are Party politicians

The good news from David Laws at the ATL Conference this week was that the Lib Dems back the need for qualified teachers in all state funded schools, unlike their Tory coalition partners. How far they are prepared to support the principle as a Party, as opposed to a Conference where delegates voted for a wide-ranging motion on the subject in the spring of 2103, only the Manifesto will reveal, but it would be helpful to see a return to at least the 2005 position of the need for appropriate preparation to teach that included subject knowledge plus pedagogy for all teachers, with a more restricted permanent licence to teach than the present un-restricted QTS that in practice is little different to sanctioning the use of under-qualified if not un-qualified teachers without letting on to parents what is allowed.

Now it is becoming more of a challenge to recruit new entrants into the teaching profession, it does seem sensible to keep track of what is actually happening post-training. We won’t achieve a world-class schooling system by letting some schools return to a position where they have insufficient trained staff. Personally, I hope that someone somewhere at either the DfE or the National College is asking the unthinkable questions about supply, and how the newly diversified system would respond to a severe shortage. One scenario that has already arisen in Oxfordshire is that of academies with spare capacity refusing to take local children, and putting the local authority in the position of having to find other places for them, even if that means paying for unnecessary transport. If schools felt they might not recruit staff, as academies they might trim their admission numbers even though it caused extra expenditure for others.

David Laws also told the ATL Conference he wanted stability in the system after the next general election. Personally, I want predictability ahead of stability. Michael Gove is increasingly looking like his Labour predecessors of the 1960s who wanted a universal comprehensive system for all, but failed to impose their will on local authorities, leaving a legacy of secondary education that was little more than a geographical lottery when it came to the type of school system. There was some explanation then for the reticence of the Labour government in that schooling was seen more as a local responsibility. There is no such excuse in the new nationalised world of schooling in the Labour/coalition era of the last decade. At least make all secondary schools academies, so that parents know the rules they will play by, even if the rules are set in Westminster. A failure to take this action will leave a legacy of school organisation that is different across the country, and also with local government still struggling to know its role in education. The position of the primary sector is more complicated, and there is a need for the faith communities to engage more in the debate since they manage a significant proportion of primary schools, especially in the rural areas. Are they happy to see power transfer to Whitehall from the local town or county hall?

Sufficient teachers, of the right type and quality in a school system that is sound in organisation seems like a good recipe for moving the education system forward, especially if some of the more idiotic curriculum changes are also addressed.

And now for some good news

Not everything in the education world is going in the wrong direction. There are some nuggets within the 2013 School Workforce survey that tell of improvements over time. One of these is the percentage of qualified teachers with a relevant post ‘A’ level qualification teaching various subjects. The School Workforce Census contains a Table (Table 13 this year) that identifies the percentage of hours taught in a subject by the highest qualification of those teaching the subject. In many subjects, the percentage of hours taught by those with no relevant post ‘A’ level qualification declined between 2012 and 2013. For instance, in Mathematics, the 2012 census recorded 17.9% of 478,200 hours taught hours taken by teachers with no relevant post ‘A’ level qualification. In the 2013 census the total was down to 17.3% of 487,600 hours. This represented a very small gain of 150 hours taught by qualified staff. In fact, the number of hours taught by those with the highest qualification of a degree and normally QTS increased by a far greater amount. The challenge will be to continue this increase once school rolls start increasing again, and if policy dictates more mathematics is taught to the 16-18 age-group.

It is really it was only in some of the languages where the trend in the use of fully qualified teachers has been going in the wrong direction. This may be partly due to the mix of linguists a school employs at any one time, as even a change of head of department can affect the balance of language teaching hours available within a department.

In English, Mathematics, and most of the Sciences, the total number of hours the subject was taught across years 7-13 increased between 2012 and 2013. Among the Languages group of subjects, German lost ground, although other languages increased their total hours. There was some decline in the hours of design & technology. However, the main losers were subjects such as Religious Education, music, drama, art and design and media studies. If these declines continue no doubt they will eventually be reflected in the number of training posts seen as required by the Teacher Supply Model. However, hours taught is but one element of that model and since many of these subjects are aggregated into a single conglomerate ‘subject’ for the purpose of the modelling these days it isn’t clear what the overall effect would be as the decline in hours in some subjects might be counter-balanced by the increase in other creating an unhelpful average outcome.

Still, with so much gloom around it is helpful to see some improvement in the percentage of qualified teachers even if there is a risk that it will be short-lived as school rolls start to increase again and under-recruitment to training will mean fewer highly qualified trainees available for employment in 2014. Sadly, the overall tables tell us nothing about the distribution of teachers between different types of schools and across the country.

Physics still a major concern

Just how bad is the situation in Physics this year when it comes to applications for teacher training?Before answering that question it is worth recalling the situation in the spring of last year.  During March last year I reported on this blog that on the 15th March 2013 only 4% of the ‘salaried’ School Direct places for Physics were shown as ‘unavailable’, as were just 6% of the ‘non-salaried’ Physics ‘Training’ places. That was a total of 29 places out of 572 on offer for Physics shown as ‘unavailable’, and presumably, therefore, filled in March 2013.

I thought that I would have a go at repeating the exercise this year. The unified UCAS application system makes tracking less of a challenge than the DfE system in use last year, and with a bit of cross-checking against the NCTL allocations list that appeared recently, I think I have been able to make a fair stab at the position as of 11th April, some three weeks later than last year, and without the interference of Easter.

The NCTL identified some 263 salaried and 587 tuition places available for Physics 2014 through School Direct according to the allocations spreadsheet I have used. There were also no doubt some places for Physics and Mathematics, but I have ignored those for this exercise. Allowing for some anomalies between UCAS and NCTL regarding tuition fee and salaried routes, my estimates suggest no more than 10 of the 263 Salaried places are current ‘unavailable’ – some 3.8% compared with 4% last year at a date three weeks previously. Similarly, the tuition fee route appears to have some 31 places ‘unavailable’ out of 587 – some 5.28% – compared with 6% in last year’s analysis for March. However, 13 of the 31 places ‘unavailable’ are located in just two schools, one of which has been showing ‘no vacancies’ for some time. It would be helpful if both Whitmore High School in London and Sandringham School in St Albans could share with others how they have been so successful in attracting trainee Physics teachers. But, at least the overall numbers recruited to date are slightly higher than last year, even if the percentages are similar because of the extra places available through School Direct, albeit the total is just 38 this year compared with 29 at a point three weeks earlier in 2013. However, thanks to a Rumsfeldian ‘known unknown’ there are a 100 or so Salaried places, and slightly more than 300 tuition fee places that might have been filed in schools awarded more than one place. Any of these places filled cannot be distinguished from the figures this year.

In view of the fact that overall the UCAS data showed that 26% of the Teacher Supply Model figure of 853 trainees (the level of suggested need) were shown as ‘under offer’ of one sort or another on 17th March it would seem likely that higher education and SCITT providers have achieved higher rates of filled places in Physics  in the current recruitment round when compared with School Direct unless the there are lots of filled places in the ‘known unknown’ schools with more than one place on offer. If it is the case that higher education and SCITT have filled a greater proportion of their places so far, and the situation does not change by the end of the recruitment round, then it must reopen the debate about the usefulness of a training model that fails to fill places available.

Now the issue, as it was last year, may well be around what is the acceptable quality of a trainee? Pitch the standard  too high, and there won’t be enough trainees, and next year some schools won’t be able to recruit a Physics teacher – assuming the TSM calculations are anywhere near correct. Pitch the standard too low, and the quality of new teachers won’t be good enough.

To my mind this is an issue where government needs to provide a clear steer to the sector so that when Ofsted calls everyone can be judged by the same standards. Otherwise, the advice to higher education must be: play safe and don’t take a candidate you think a school wouldn’t offer a School Direct place to. If that further reduces supply, so be it.

What is very clear now is that, at least in Physics, we are heading for the same outcome as last year when the required number (note not a target) wasn’t reached unless there is a swift and dramatic change in acceptances, and probably applications. This is especially as at the 17th March there were only 200 applications not covered by offers in the UCAS system, including those declined places.

 

Another warning sign

Yesterday, the DfE published the 2013 School Workforce Census conducted last November. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/school-workforce-in-england-november-2013 It is a tribute to the power of new technology and the hard work of government statisticians that a census of approaching 25,000 workplaces, and covering close to a million employees, can now be published within six months of the date it was conducted. Along with the headlines about a rise in the number of unqualified teachers – probably in fact increases in Teach First and School Direct trainees rather than entrants plucked straight from the street to the classroom – there was a worrying sign in the trend in reported vacancies.

A census taken in November is always going to report low levels of vacancies. After all, schools have had nearly three months to find a teacher after the start of the school year, and only the most determined and disillusioned teacher will have quit mid-term, knowing that to do so would make the chance of every working again in the profession very slim. For these reasons the fact that in the four years since the first of the new censuses was taken in 2010 the number of vacancies has almost doubled from 630 to 1,220, and that between 2012 and 2013 there was a 50% increase from 800 to 1,220 in vacancy levels suggests a cause for concern in this sensitive indicator. Even more of a concern is the fact that the increase was not confined to ‘traditional’ shortage subjects, but included almost all subjects except languages and music must be of concern. The significant increase from 150 to 230 in the number of vacancies for teachers of English is especially concerning in view of the relatively small number of trainees being recruited as a result of DfE modelling that seems flawed in some way.

In the past the DfE used to release data about vacancies on a regional basis as well as by subject. The absence of that data from the published tables makes it difficult to know how far the issue is concentrated in certain parts of the country, possibly London and the Home Counties, or whether the malaise has spread nationwide. No doubt Ministers will be reviewing the evidence in order to see how the regional balance of allocated training places might help alleviate the situation.

Perhaps just as alarming as the growth in vacancies for classroom teachers is the fact that vacancies for school leaders also increased for the first time in a number of years. Here the actual numbers are tiny, but each school that fails to make an appointment of a school leader risks the continued progress of that school during any interregnum, however well-intention and experience the interim leader is.

Taken as a whole, the news from the School Workforce Census of a shift in direction from ‘no recruitment issues’ to one where vacancies are starting to rise at a time when recruitment to training is now acknowledged to be under pressure for the second year in succession must move the traffic light for those that make policy in this area from green to amber. The seeming success in attracting more recruits to design & technology courses this year by the creation of a £9,000 bursary and some subject knowledge enhancement courses shows what can be achieved, especially if it boosts recruitment beyond the 410 achieved in 2013. We cannot as a nation afford another teacher supply crisis if we want a first-class school system. Either we recruit enough trainees or we have to change the way schooling is delivered.

A rose by any other name

One of the interesting things about language is that it has the ability to be both precise and vague at the same time. As a wordsmith, the Secretary of State, who always seems more comfortable within the literacy domain than the numeracy world, has made two interesting statements this week. As already reported in an earlier post on this blog, he told the House of Commons on Monday that Osfted inspected Academy Chains. This fact was news to many who thought that Ofsted inspected only the schools in such chains, and that although the Funding Agency could look at the books of academy chains, Ofsted didn’t have the power to inspect their overall performance as they can with local authority support for school improvement orChildren’s Services.

And then, yesterday, the Secretary of State was interviewed by pupils experiencing the life of reporters as part of the BBC’s annual School Report exercise. http://www.bbc.co.uk/schoolreport/26768138

During the interview the BBC reported that Mr Gove said:

“Teachers should definitely be paid more than they are at the moment,” But he added that his department paid off the debts of some teachers at the start of their careers in the form of bursaries or additional support – particularly those teaching key subjects such as maths, physics or chemistry.

Now the idea of using bursaries to pay off student debt – at the same time as requiring the trainee teachers to take on further student debt as part of their PGCE or Tuition Fee School Direct course – is a curious one. In fact they could only voluntarily pay off existing student debt using the bursary if they were allowed to: it seems pretty unlikely that the Student Loans organisation would be able to offer a new loan with one hand will taking payment on an earlier one with the other. Perhaps the Secretary of State meant that the bursary allowed those trainees not to take out further loans (and thereby increasing their debt) to study to become a teacher.

He may, of course, have been mixing up what happens on Teach First with the situation faced by the much greater number of trainees on the other routes into teaching. In my view, working towards a salary for all trainees, to encourage the best in all subjects to become teachers, would be a positive policy development. After all, graduates that enter most private sector training programmes are now normally paid a salary and don’t have to pay for their training. Most employers recognise that making possible entrants pay for training puts off some applicants.

So, using the phrase ‘paid off the debts of some teachers’, if indeed the transcript shows that those were the words used by the Secretary of State, seems like a somewhat loose use of language. Perhaps Mr Gove could explain both what he actually meant about paying of the student debt of teachers and the inspection of academy chains, so we can all be clear.

He might also like to elucidate on the statement about ‘paying teachers more’, perhaps in his next remit letter to the Pay Review Body.

 

Concerning, but with some good features

The latest data for applications to postgraduate teacher preparation courses in England was published earlier today. As expected, the rate of applications has slowed over the month from mid-February to mid-March when compared with the previous month. The increase in applications for Primary courses was around 12%, and for Secondary courses, 14%; with School Direct faring better than higher education courses, although the actual numbers were smaller than for higher education. As courses have begun to fill, future applications will be targeted on the remaining providers with places.

Regionally, applications for courses offered by providers in London have held up strongly, registering a 17% increase over last month compared with just a 10% increase for providers in the North East. The national average was a 13% increase. As might be expected at this time of year, applications from older career changers rose faster than from those applicants still at university. Indeed, there was only a 7% increase from those aged 21 or under compared with a 16% increase from those aged over 40. The percentage of older applicants presumably reflected the fact that many final year undergraduates are now concentring on their final assessment examinations, dissertations and coursework rather than making applications for teacher preparation courses.

Applications for Primary courses have now topped the 18,000 mark, similar to the level seen at this point last year for the GTTR Scheme. However, once the School Direct applications are taken into account (there was a separate application scheme for those places last year) then applications are probably still behind where they were at this point last year.

By these set of figures, around 10,300 of the 15,000 or so primary places have been the subject of an offer, although only 940 of these were unconditional offers. The majority of conditional offers will no doubt be subject to the passing of the Skills Tests. Assuming even a modest margin for unsuitable candidates, there will be the need for at least 20,000 applicants to fill all the places on offer. That is around another 4,000 applicants, or probably some 1,000 a month, so the rate of application would need to halve from the level of the past month before worry might turn to concern. Even so, 20,000 applicants require a 75% acceptance rate. Assuming the current 2,000 per month last for the next five months, the maximum time possible that would generate would be some 28,000 applicants. The conversion rate would then reduce down to a healthier figure in the 50-60% range.

Outcomes for secondary subjects remain challenging to determine from the data as published. However, it seems likely that at least some of the subjects that failed to fill all their places last year are heading in the same direction this year as well. Physics and design & technology are the two subjects where there must be the most concern, whereas history and physical education will again be over-subscribed; possibly significantly. In the middle are a range of subjects where the outcome on these figures is too difficult to tell. Some will recruit sufficient trainees; others might not.  Much will depend upon how the schools offering School Direct places respond to the applications they receive. By the next set of data in May the position will be much clearer, but there will be little time to take any action to deal with a shortfall.