Where the long grass grows

It doesn’t look like there will be rapid action on coasting schools. Neither, despite it having been an issue for many years, does it seem as if the DfE has yet completed work on a scheme for a national funding formula for schools; another two years work is estimated to be required. With coasting schools being judged on outcomes up to 2016 that presumably won’t be available until early in 2017, schools that can do so have time to meet the criteria announced yesterday by the Secretary of State.

I had suggested using data for two years in my earlier post on coasting schools, so measuring progress over three years up to and including 2016 provides an even longer time scale.

The DfE announcement suggests:

The new measure … sets out a clear definition of what a coasting school is.

Those secondary schools that fail to ensure 60% of pupils achieve five good GCSE grades and have a below average proportion of pupils making expected progress over three years, will be classed as coasting.

From 2016 onwards those secondary schools who fail to score highly enough (over a three year period) on Progress 8 – our new accountability measure that shows how much progress pupils in a particular school make between the end of primary school and their GCSEs – will be deemed to be coasting.

At primary level the definition will apply to those schools that for three years have seen fewer than 85% of children achieving level 4, the secondary ready standard, in reading, writing and maths and which have also seen below average proportions of pupils making expected progress between age seven and age eleven.

Of course, the Bill Committee might amend the definitions in some way or at least put a clear appeal procedure in place; perhaps for small schools where the introduction of one child not speaking English  late in the day might tip the balance for the school. As I suggested last time, schools must be able to recruit the staff to teach pupils effectively. It would be silly for the government to create a staffing crisis and then penalise schools that suffered as a result.

I was amused to read of the Regional Commissioners that the Secretary of State’s announcement said that the eight education experts had in-depth local insight supported by elected head teacher boards from the local community. How local is the knowledge for the Commissioner and associated Board of six about Oxfordshire when their remit stretches from Brimsdown in Enfield to Burford on the Gloucestershire borders seems questionable, but perhaps this statement is just government hyperbole.

However, of more importance is where the cash to pay for extra powers for Commissioners will come from? Surely, it is time that the Treasury asked how we can afford to run two parallel system of local authorities and Commissioners, not to mention the costs of transferring schools between the two systems. Money is still tight, yet the education department and the Conservative government seems willing to waste money on a governance system no longer fit for purpose. Either schools are run by elected officials or they aren’t: if not, then should the government not put all schools under the control of Commissioners and treat the issue of ‘coasting’ as a problem to be solved and not a reason to change the governance of individual schools.

Good news or not?

The latest data on applications through UCAS to train as teachers contains both good and disturbing news. The good news is that around 10% more offers have bene made than at this point last year to applicants wishing to train as secondary school teachers. The more disturbing news is that the majority of these offers are in just three subject areas; languages, physical education and history. These are likely, on the basis of the current position, to be the only three subjects that will meet the government Teacher Supply Model figure for estimated recruitment needed into training. All other principle subjects are now likely to fall short of their Teacher Supply Model number, although some subjects will hopefully do better than last year.

Part of the problem is that the required number has increased in some subjects, making the likelihood of it being reached less than if it had remained at the 2014 level.
Perhaps more worrying for the government is that the decline in applications this year covers both School Direct and University courses and is reflected across all geographical regions and among all age-groups, with significant declines among the young age-groups of applicants. There are, for instance, around 1,500 fewer new young graduates applying to become a teacher than at this stage last year. Indeed, although gaps between the total number of applicants this year and last year has been reducing month on month, it still stands at just under 4,000 or a 10% reduction on this point last year.

Perhaps even more alarming than the secondary numbers is the fact that the number of offers for primary training only amount to just over 12,000. This is around 1,000 less than at the same point last year and nearly 2,000 fewer than the 14,000 places allocated. If the allocated number is anything close to the actual requirement for September 2016 then there will need to be a recruitment drive over the new two months to fill the empty places. It is one thing to under-recruit in the secondary subjects but quite another to create a situation where primary courses also don’t meet their targets.

These numbers must give pause for thought over the distribution of places between universities and schools. The fact that probably less than two thirds of the School Direct Salaried places allocated for 2015 may be filled by the end of the cycle across both primary and secondary sectors must be of some concern.

By next month the conditional offers that make up the bulk of the offer totals will largely have been translated into full places as degree results and other issues are resolved and the picture will be clearer, at least in the secondary sector. For primary, there will remain the uncertainty of the undergraduate cycles and the outcome of the ‘A’ level examinations. Whether the clearing system will be able to handle places in ITT with the issues over the pre-entry skills tests required will be worth watching.

This autumn may well be a time to reflect about the balance between the teacher preparation system desired by government and what is achievable on the ground. As regular readers will know, I would start by abolishing the £9,000 tuition fee for graduates. Compared with the complex bursary system a no fee policy is easy to sell and easy for applicants to understand.

Education and The English question

The Education & Adoption Bill has now passed its second reading in the House of Commons. This is the debate that takes places about principles rather than details; these come in the later Committee Stage. Realistically the Bill has but two key clauses, one about coasting schools and the other about adoptions. As the Secretary of State wasn’t able to furnish a definition of a coasting school in time for the second reading debate MPs were floundering around a bit. Indeed, since the original academy programme was devised by Labour to deal with under-performing schools, the opportunities for Labour to attack the Bill on its basic principle of improving schools were somewhat limited.

The debate did, however, offer the opportunity for many new backbench MPS to make their first or ‘maiden’ speech in the chamber. Most, but not I think all, followed convention and paid tribute to the former representative of their constituency. Many said what a great place they were representing and some went on to explain their interest in education.
What was more interesting, in a debate entirely about schools in England, were the contributions from two SNP MPs and the Labour Shadow Minister for School who sits for a constituency in Wales. Since education is a devolved activity one might have expected contributions only from MPs representing constituencies in England.

One SNP MP talked mainly about how wonderful her constituency was and didn’t really seem to mention education very much at all: something of a waste of parliamentary time when backbench members were being restricted to speeches of only six minutes duration. This was later extended to ten minutes, presumably because some potential speakers waived their previously expressed intention to speak.

Listening and reading in Hansard about contributions from MPs from Wales and Scotland speaking on devolved matters in these sort of debates does focus minds on the so-called English question at Westminster. I have no problem if their contribution adds to the store of knowledge on the question under discussion but frankly I see little point in contributions about how wonderful Glasgow is as a city. As a former teacher that SNP MP did finally say something about education at the end of her speech, but not enough on the subject under debate. As she completed her speech with a Gaelic phrase and an MP from a Welsh constituency started in that language, I also wondered how long it will be before simultaneous translation makes an appearance at Westminster?

The Bill now goes to its Committee Stage with the aim of completing this during July. As there are so few clauses this seems like a manageable timetable, assuming agreement can be reached on what is a coasting school? As I wrote earlier today, Sir Chris Woodhead initiated that debate around 20 years ago, so the DfE and Ofsted should have been able to provide some choices for Ministers to select from by the time of the debate.
Finally, I was disappointed not to see a contribution to the debate from one of the remaining Lib Dem MPs: a sign of how times have changes and the new world at Westminster where Scottish MPs can talk on matters that are of little or no concern to them, but the voice of Liberalism might now struggle to be heard.

End of an era

Reflecting on the announcement of the death of Sir Chris Woodhead, announced earlier today, I was reminded of two aspects of his time as Chief inspector at ofsted. Firstly, he raised the spectre of 15,000 incompetent teachers by extrapolating from numbers found in early inspections. For some reason that number stuck as the figure everyone remembered, even if it was probably not completely accurate. In fact, 15,000 teachers out of a profession of approaching half a million teachers is only around 3-4% rated as incompetent and it would be surprising if there weren’t some teachers performing less than effectively in a profession of that size. The question was, and is, how to help such teachers improve once they have been identified.

The second aspect of his time as Chief Inspector that I recall was his attempt to start what we would now call the coasting school debate. I suppose in that respect it is slightly ironic that his death is announced only the day after the House of Commons debated the Second Reading of the Education & Adoption Bill that seeks to deal once and for all with such schools. As Chief inspector, Chris Woodhead had less success in the 1990s in starting a debate about such schools. But where he led, others now follow.

I first met Chris Woodhead in 1979 when I came to Oxford to pursue my academic studies in the governance of education. At that time he was a tutor in English spending some of his time instructing PGCE students. He later went into education administration and then to the National Curriculum Council before ending up in charge of Ofsted. It will be interesting to see how history deals with him. As baby boomer, like myself, he moved from teaching in a comprehensive school in the 1970s to become a firm favourite of the right and advocated policies that I could not agree with, even where we shared a view on the nature of the problem.

During the passage of his final debilitating illnesses Chris had rather passed from sight, even though he was still only in his 60s. But, in his prime he was as well known, if not well liked, as any figure on the education scene, even well after he relinquished his role at ofsted.

The approach Chris Woodhead took to improvement was to challenge in a forthright manner. I recall that the Lib Dem Education Association invited him to speak at a fringe during the Brighton Conference in, I think, 1997. The debate was interesting and robust but there was little or no meeting of minds. But, without a doubt Sir Chris Woodhead was one of the key figures in education in England during the 1990s even if he was too controversial for some.

Teacher recruitment and retention in the headlines again

Yesterday, the adjournment debate in the House of Commons, proposed by Louise Haigh the Labour member for Sheffield Heeley, was on the issue of the recruitment and retention of teachers. Ms Haigh is already showing an interest in this important area for schools and has asked a number of PQs on the topic as well as initiating this debate. Today the Sutton Trust has published a research report called ‘Teaching by Degrees’ that seeks to consider the university backgrounds of state and independent school teachers.

I am grateful for a mention by Ms Haigh in the debate, as well as a mention of TeachVac by another Labour member who had attended the recent SATTAG seminar I spoke at in Portcullis House. The unusually large number of interventions during the adjournment debate last night – this is how other MPS show their strength of feeling on the issue – there were interventions 16 during the half hour debate at the end of business on a Thursday, including from MPs from the north of England that might normally already have been on their way back to their constituencies by then. Such a large number of interventions must have alerted the Minister, Mr Gibb, to the seriousness of the issue. Indeed, one wonders when it will feature as one of the opposition day debates. An earlier post on this blog recalls that last autumn a debate on teaching say the first appearance on the Order Paper of a difference in policy between the Lib Dems and the Tories over teacher qualifications.

In that respect, it is interesting to read the Sutton Trust research report that suggests more Oxbridge graduates are now teaching in state schools. Given the period covered by the research included the recession that probably isn’t a terribly surprising observation. Of more concern is the methodology used in reaching such a view. The main vehicle used was to collect data for the state funded sector was the NfER Voice Survey. Now, this is a survey stratified by types of school and various other variables such as grade of respondent, but I cannot see anything in either the Sutton Trust to NfER explanations of the methodology to suggest it is also stratified by the age of the teacher and their length of service in the profession. Without that data it is unclear to me whether the classroom teachers are a spread of recent entrants and those with longer service or some other distribution across the profession.

My view is that to detect changes in entrants to teaching it would have been better to have used the UCAS/GTTR records of applicants to teaching. This could have identified the degree awarding body of entrants and any changes over time could easily have been identified. The key question is surely, not what has changed over the past decade but what was the impact of the recession and is any impact now fading in terms of the source of new entrants to the profession. It is important to know, for instance, whether the decline in the past two years in applicants to become maths and Physics teachers reflects any change in the degree patterns away from Oxbridge graduates. Otherwise, the Sutton Trust research doesn’t help policy makers grappling with the issues raised in the adjournment debate yesterday.

Councils lose another education role

The Conservative government has lost no time in taking another duty with regard to education away from local government. In his letter of the 15th June to the directors of children’s services, Lord Nash, the Minister, gave local authorities just 15 days’ notice that they would no longer has responsibility for choosing the sponsor for a new school. Many years ago the Blair government started the process that has led to this letter by mandating that all new secondary schools should be academies. This was later extended to all new schools. Local authorities retained the responsibility to run the beauty competition to decide the sponsor to suggest to the DfE. That appears now to have been handed to the unelected regional school commissioners. So much for localism.

As far as I can see there has been no explanation for this decision and no clarification as to whether it applies only to new competitions or also to those already under discussion and not finalised by the 1st July. It may be that the DfE was irritated at some of the choices made by local authorities: it certainly made Oxfordshire re-run the process for selecting the operator for a new primary school as it didn’t like the outcome, this despite the sponsor selected being on the DfE approved list. The fact that the re-run process produced the same outcome may have led to this draconian and precipitous change in the selection process.

For those councils that don’t like the academy process the letter can probably be ignored since they can seemingly continue to expand existing maintained primary schools by adding on extra classes. Whether it might now tempt some Conservative local authorities that care about their local schools, but have supported academies in the past, to do the same would be an interesting outcome.

Certainly, counties with lots of new house building, and I suppose there aren’t many of them given how few houses are being built nationally, now face the possibility of having to deal with academy chains located a long way from county hall and possibly with little local knowledge. Even worse, the academy can fix its size and if new houses are added to the development can refuse to expand: seemingly at present with neither the regional commissioner nor the DfE being able to do anything about such a situation. That it could increase council spend on home to school transport unnecessarily doesn’t seem to matter. After all, the local authority could always close another library or children’s centre to pay for the buses.

Schooling is now firmly a national service, as I explained earlier today to someone taking the local authority to task because the school where they are a governor wasn’t funded as well as other local schools. I pointed out that the School Forum set the formula and no councillor had a vote unless they were elected as a governor. There is still a widespread belief local authorities run schools. They don’t, and it is now the DfE and their un-elected officials that take the decisions.

Food for thought

Last Friday the DfE published its annual census data on schools. This deals with the number of schools and also provides details about the number of pupils. The headlines, larger classes and larger schools, were well covered by the media. The increases in pupil numbers were not unexpected, although the increase in average class size at KS2, while average class sizes at KS1 remained the same, might not have been predicted by everyone.

Average class sizes in the primary sector are now larger than a decade ago, but remain 1.4 pupils per teacher smaller than in 2006 across the secondary sector as a whole. Average class sizes in the primary sector are at their smallest in parts of the North East, where the growth in pupil numbers hasn’t really happened yet and largest in parts of outer London where they are approaching 30 pupils per teacher in both Sutton and Harrow at 29.6:1. Several other London boroughs have average class sizes of over 29 pupils per teacher.

However, one table that interested me and hasn’t been widely reported on was the take-up of school meals. This was the first year of the free school meals for infant pupils. At the census, the average take-up of school lunches by infant pupils was 85.6%. However, since pupils absent on the day are included in the overall total, the actual take up by pupils present in school was presumably somewhat higher than that in schools where some pupils were absent. Redcar in the North East had the highest take-up at 94.5% of it infant school population if you exclude the 100% in the City of London’s one primary school. Not far behind were a group of six London boroughs that included Kingston and Islington. At the other end of the table were Brighton and Hove, at just 70.5% take-up and Oxfordshire with the second lowest figure of 77.4% take-up. These authorities were followed closely by Thurrock, Medway and Hillingdon. The south east had the lowest take-up of any region at just over 81% whereas Inner London averaged over 90% take-up, closely followed by the North East region.

It is difficult to know what to read into these figures on take-up. Are families in affluent areas happy to ignore the free meals on offer or were these authorities where the meals service had collapsed after the assault on provision during the Thatcher years? The former clearly doesn’t work everywhere as a reason, otherwise places like Kingston upon Thames would not be so close to the top of the list. Perhaps, parents in these areas understand the value of the £400 of saving taking up the free meal deal can provide, especially when the alternative is spending income taxed at 40%.

It isn’t a rural urban divide either, so may be some other factor is at work. As a councillor in Oxfordshire I will be asking questions about why the take-up is so low locally? But, the Tory cabinet member was always opposed to the free school meals policy, so that may have had some effect.