Wasting money in a time of austerity is unforgivable

In September 2010 I seconded a motion about Free Schools and Academies at the Lib Dem Conference in Liverpool. Peter Downes from Cambridgeshire drafted the motion and proposed it to Conference where it was accepted after a lively debate. I have reproduced part of my speech winding up the motion because the Public Accounts Committee have today published a report on the managing of the expansion of the academies programme that makes sobering reading and reflects some of my concerns in 2010.


I have also included some of the PAC’s remarks after the quotes from my speech.

This motion was carefully crafted to recognise that being in coalition should not require us to abandon our basic principles: 

As Lib Dems we believe in

  • good local schools for all, that are
  • supported and coordinated by democratically elected local bodies; and a
  • a system based upon fairness, that protects the most vulnerable.

What we don’t believe in is an expensive and wasteful free-for-all.

Many of you in this hall joined the Lib Dems because of our education campaigns,

‘a penny on income tax’,

better early years education,

and a Pupil Premium championed as long ago as 2001.

Education has always been important to Liberal Democrats.

As you know, the Coalition’s programme for government is based upon, Freedom, Fairness and Responsibility- that’s what it said in the Coalition Agreement. 

If you pass this motion, you send a message to the government that Lib Dem activists understand the challenge of government, but are not prepared to abandon all our principles. 

We believe that government, an especially a coalition government, is for the many, and not just the few; for the future, as well as the present, and founded upon real principles. 

But Lib Dems know it is to work with schools, to inspire staff and pupils, to demand high standards in return for investment in teaching and learning, to have an appropriate curriculum, and to manage provision locally, not from Whitehall, and above all not to waste money we cannot afford pandering to the demands of the few whilst ignoring the needs of the many.

I don’t care who runs schools, but I do care that those who do so recognise that public money is for the good of all, not the benefit of the few.

Extracts from the PAC Report published 23rd April 2013.

10.  Despite some improvements, academies’ governance is still not sufficiently transparent for parents to scrutinise how their child’s school is spending its money, and for communities to hold their local school to account. There are gaps in the availability of key information such as academy funding agreements and governing body minutes, with less than 20% of academies surveyed by the National Audit Office publishing this information on their websites.

21.  When schools become academies, responsibility for their academic and financial performance passes from the local authority to the Department and the EFA respectively. However, local authorities retain some overall statutory responsibilities for young people in their area. The Department suggested that, in addition to these specific responsibilities, it would expect local authorities to retain some detailed knowledge of all educational provision in their area, including academies. At the same time, the Department and other witnesses suggested that academy trusts, particularly multi-academy chains, should also play a key performance-monitoring and intervention role in between academies and the Department and EFA.

22.  We heard conflicting views about whether inconsistency or uncertainty in the roles of these various players had created an accountability gap.  We are not convinced it is clear who is accountable for performance monitoring and intervention in academies, nor how the Department can know whether the system is operating consistently, effectively and with minimum bureaucracy across different localities and academy structures. We expressed concern that interventions in failing academies may be delayed if roles and responsibilities are not clear, or if central oversight is too distant to identify school-level problems before young people’s futures are put at risk.

In reading the PAC Report I wonder why such a waste of money was allowed to happen in a time of grave austerity. To take just one example, the DfE spent an extra £92 million on insurance premiums for academies, monies that should have been available to spend on educational outcomes. A simple national scheme administered from Sanctuary Buildings would surely have released most of that money to be spent where parliament intended, on education not on insurance premiums. Then there is the £350 million paid to academies and not recovered from local authorities, presumably over-funding schools in areas with more academies compared with the parts of the country where there are fewer academies. And, as the PAC remarked, ‘some of the budgets the Department drew upon to fund the expansion had been previously earmarked for other purposes – most notably £95 million originally intended for improving underperforming schools. There is a risk that the Department’s decision to solely use this money to create academies—many of which were already high-performing—may have been at the expense of weaker non-academy schools which could potentially have benefitted from it more. This is a particular risk in the primary sector.’

With local government being forced to cut important services, and other government departments having taken a heavy hit on their budgets, this cavalier approach to department spending at the DfE on a flagship programme is exactly the sought of concerns that were voiced in the Liverpool Conference motion. One might have expected better from Conservative majority partners in a coalition, and maybe it is time for the Secretary of State to take responsibility for his actions. At the very least he should explain what steps he is taking to prevent the waste continuing while he considers the overall funding formula for schools of all types.

Youth numbers in custody halve in a decade

One of the more impressive statistics of the past few years has been the reduction in the number of young people held in custody. For much of the first decade of this century the average number of children and young people held in custody (including 18 year-olds) averaged around the 3,000 mark for England and Wales. The peak year was 2002/03 when the average was 3,451. With a month to go in the 2012/13 financial year the latest figures show that the average number in custody is now down to 1,755 almost exactly half the average in the peak year a decade ago.

Even more impressive is the decline in the 10-14 age group held in custody, down from a peak of 236 in July 2005 to 54 in February 2013. The decline in the 14-17 age-groups in custody has been from a peak of 2,885 in June 2008 to 1,266 this February. These figures can be found at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/youth-custody-data along with other useful data for those interested in the topic of youth custody. For instance, only 52 of those held in secure institutions are females compared with 1,268 young males. Some 765 of the young population are classified as ‘White’ compared with 506 from the BME and ‘other’ classifications. The reduction in the ‘White’ population in youth custody from a peak of over 2,000 has been much steeper than for the BME and ’other’ group where the peak was less than 800. There are clearly questions to be asked about the differential rate of decline in the custody population by ethnic group. One explanation may be geographic since 389 of the custody population come from London, the most racially mixed part of the country with the other urban areas outside of the North East also over-represented. One disappointing statistics is that 281 of the young people in custody were on remand. However, if the census was taken on a Friday it may be a proportion of these were on ‘warrants’ awaiting an appearance at a Saturday remand court. However, even this number is well down on the peak of almost 700 recorded in June 2008.

Hopefully, keeping these young people out of custody will also reduce the revolving door where one custodial sentence invariably leads on to another, especially for those handed down sentences of six months or less where support after custody is often insufficient if not non-existent.

Schools have a part to play in reducing exclusions since a large proportion of those in custody were as some point excluded from school. It may be no accident that youth custody rates were at their highest when secondary schools in urban areas were struggling to recruit sufficient numbers of teachers. If there is a relationship between sufficient teachers and a reduction in youth crime then the DfE would do well to ensure we don’t slide towards another teacher supply crisis in the next couple of years.

Mrs Thatcher as Education Secretary

When I left LSE in 1969 I cannot recall a single person who wanted to start their own business. Although I took over the running of AIESEC-UK the student organisation, most of my graduating class headed for the civil service; large companies or a period of further study. It was not until the advent of the Thatcher government that entrepreneurship once again became something for the new breed of graduates to consider or even aspire to achieve in large numbers.  

In reflecting on that change in society; a change that may have done more to allow the development of new industries that have in part replaced the ‘smokestack’ industries of the first industrial revolution I recalled that Mrs Thatcher’s time as Education Secretary in the Heath government has perhaps received less notice than her premiership. However, as it was on her watch that I first entered the profession as an un-trained graduate and temporary supply teacher, at Tottenham school, in January 1971 some six months after the election those years Mrs That her spent as Education Secretary may be worth a moment of reflection on the day of her funeral.

The legacy of Mrs Thatcher is best remembered by the general public through the slogan ‘Mrs Thatcher: milk snatcher’ as she was responsible for removing the right to free school milk from many older pupils. But, is that a fair summing up of her time as education secretary? Interestingly, as an aside, at least two Labour controlled education authorities, of which one was the London Borough of Hillingdon, attempted to take the ruling as only applying to the provision of milk and continued to supply a ‘nourishing beverage’ to replace the lost milk supply. This stopped in Hillingdon when Labour lost control at the next London council elections. So what else did her time as Education Secretary leave behind as a mark on the world of state education?

One of Mrs Thatcher’s first actions as Education Secretary was to continue the plan to eradicate schools built before 1906 started under the former Labour minister. I am not sure why that date was chosen, and it was interesting that Mrs Thatcher extend the plan to cover primary as well as secondary schools. Those who teach or were educated, and indeed still are being educated in schools built either substantially or completely before 1906 will know that the ambitious plan failed, and has never featured in any subsequent discussions about school building. Indeed, until Mr Blair’s ‘Building Schools for the future’ programme there was a period of almost 30 years when there was no national plan for a replacement school building programme, and Mr Blair was seemingly only interested in the secondary sector, like so many politicians both before and after him.

Perhaps Mrs Thatcher’s high point as Education Secretary came in December 1972 with the publication of the White Paper ‘Education: A Framework for Expansion’. Sadly, this document appeared just as the oil crisis was breaking, and the Barber Boom was collapsing, so its plan for a ten-year expansion programme largely disappeared in the economic turmoil of the following decade.

However, here are a few extracts from what was promised:

Nursery Education

Within the next 10 years nursery education should become available without charge to those children of three and four whose parents wish them to benefit from it. If demand reaches the estimates in the Plowden Report, some 700,000 full-time equivalent places may be needed by 1981–82. Some 300,000 are already available, half of them for children of rising five. As the extent of demand and its future growth are uncertain it will be necessary to watch the development of demand carefully in the early years. As a first step the Government propose to authorise earmarked building programmes of £15m each in 1974–75 and 1975–76. Total current expenditure on the under fives is expected to rise from nearly £42m in 1971–72 to nearly £65m in 1976–77.

Besides helping families in deprived areas—both urban and rural—in bringing up young children, the extension of nursery education will also provide an opportunity for the earlier identification of children with social, psychological or medical difficulties which if neglected may inhibit the child’s educational progress.[fo 2]

The provision of nursery education will be generally on a half-time basis but allowance has been made for about 15 per cent—as recommended in the Plowden and Gittins Reports—of three and four year olds to attend full-time for educational and social reasons. It is hoped that most of the extra nursery places will form part of primary schools to avoid a change of school when the child becomes five.

School Building

There should be a more systematic long-term approach to the renewal of school buildings, to prevent the accumulation of backlogs of obsolete buildings. But such a policy needs to be very flexible, not only between primary and secondary schools, but also to take account from year to year of variations in the level of basic needs and other factors.

The size of the Teaching Force and Pupil Teacher Ratios

School staffing standards should continue to improve progressively. The Government believe that local education authorities will welcome a broad policy objective of securing by 1981 a teaching force 10 per cent above the number needed to maintain 1971 standards. After allowing for the increase in school population and the increased proportion of older pupils, this will require about 110,000 extra teachers, bringing the total to about 465,000 qualified teachers for pupils aged 5 and over. With about 25,000 teachers needed to staff the expanded nursery programme, and another 20,000 to meet the needs of the Government’s policy for in-service training and the induction of new teachers, there would be some 510,000 (full-time equivalent) qualified teachers employed in maintained schools by 1981. The Government propose that this figure should be adopted as a basis for planning. This would represent an overall pupil/teacher ratio of about 18½:1 by that date compared with about 22½:1 in 1971.

Teacher Training and Professional Development

The Government propose to work towards the achievement of a graduate teaching profession. During probation teachers should receive the kind of help and support needed to make the induction process both more effective and less daunting than it has been in the past. Also they should be released for not less than one-fifth of their time for in-service training. For the remainder of their time probationer teachers would be serving in schools, but with a somewhat lightened timetable, so that altogether they might be expected to undertake three-quarters of a full teaching load. The Government propose to give effect to the James Committee’s recommendation that teachers should be released for in-service training for periods equivalent to one term in every 7 years of service. It is their aim that a substantial expansion of such training should begin in the school year 1974–75 and should continue progressively so that by 1981 3 per cent of teachers could be released on secondment at any one time. This involves a four-fold increase in present opportunity.

Some of these proposals have still not been achieved more than 40 years later, especially in respect to teachers’ professional development. Perhaps the biggest disappointment is the lack of attention by successive governments to primary teachers, their training and professional development that includes the current coalition. With a primary sector facing many of the same issues as during Mrs Thatcher’s tenure at Elizabeth House, the home of the Department in the 1970s, especially in relation to rising pupil numbers and the pressure on places, and a young and relatively inexperienced teaching force, it is to be hoped that the current administration will find time to do more than just talk about creating a world class school system and take the steps to ensure it actually happens.

Finally, it is perhaps the supreme irony of Mrs Thatcher’s times as Education Secretary that she is also remembered for implementing two of Labour key education policies that were blown off course by the economic crisis of 1967: the raising of the school leaving age to 16, and the creation of a largely non-selective secondary school system. Both had a massive impact on the England and Wales of the Thatcher government, and will continue to do so when the coalition introduces the further raising of the learning leaving age to 18: again a proposal initiated by a Labour government.


Sir Christopher Wren’s inscription in the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral, the church where Mrs Thatcher’s funeral took place, finishes with the Latin words LECTOR SI MONUMENTUM REQUIRIS CIRCUMSPICE which translates as, ‘Reader, if you seek his monument – look around you.’ It is a thought that each and every education secretary might bear in mind when they contemplate their legacy.



Do entrepreneurs go to state schools?

I ask this question on the basis of a BBC magazine story that successful app creators have tended to be ex-public school pupils. (Public in the sense of fee-paying schools for those not from the UK). Now the BBC article didn’t have any real research data, just a few observations on the part of the writer . It is certainly true that some recent high profile success stories of young men in the IT world, and it often seems to be men – Baroness Lane-Fox apart – that have sold apps for mobile phones for a healthy profit were educated at such schools.

It is also true that the one app company where I have an investment stake was started by three young men who all went to public schools, so many be there is something in the idea that such schools are the breeding grounds for risk-taking business tycoons. May be it is also that to start a business of this type needs time funded by someone, and parents who can afford school fees may be able to subsidise the business needs of their creative offspring. Those who have a more pressing need for money to support the family have always encouraged their children to ‘get a job and start earning’. Indeed, one of the reasons the school leaving age was raised twice after world War II was to ensure working-class children stayed at school long enough to gain qualifications. Even in the 1950s some pupils at the grammar school I attended left at 15 because the family could or wouldn’t continue to support their education.

Innovators, and entrepreneurs who are often also innovators in new fields such as mobile phone apps, are often non-conformists; school sometimes don’t like those who won’t conform because it makes the task of running the establishment that much harder.  Indeed, some schools are also often anti-risk, despite the fact that an appreciation of risk is an essential requirement for any budding entrepreneur. Occasionally, I think that working in state schools offers a job in an environment where risk has essentially be almost completely removed despite the ever-looming presence of Ofsted. One of the good things to come out of the drive for higher standards in schools is an acceptance of trying new ideas, although paradoxically that notion clashes with the opposing view of enforcing uniformity, whether in curriculum or teaching style. Nowhere is this better articulated in the debate about whether each generation should discover its own heroes and heroines or accept the choice handed down by their ancestors. I wrote in an earlier piece how this particular circle might be closed to the satisfaction of all through the sensible use of new technology, and the encouragement of public-speaking that would boast self-confidence, something else of use to entrepreneurs, and also something some state schools have not always been good at encouraging.

If our economy is to thrive again, it needs entrepreneurs, and they need to come from all walks of society, and that means all schools must play their part in encouraging entrepreneurship for the sake of the common good. In the 1980s film ‘Gregory’s Girl two cameos have remained with me; the penguins on the way to nowhere, and the boy who is forever selling things to his school mates. There is no doubt that he was a budding entrepreneur. As this was a Scottish film it seems apt to remember the travail of Robert the Brue who motto might have been ‘the only failure is to give up trying’, an apt encouragement for everyone, and especially entrepreneurs not all of whom will have the initial success of our recent young mobile phone app developers.

More secondary schools or better secondary education?

According to the BBC, but not yet the DfE, the government are going to allow a further 13 studio schools for 14-18 year olds. These schools seem somewhat similar to University Technical Schools, another new form of school administered, along with academies and free schools, from Whitehall. These schools are in the tradition set by Kenneth Baker when he was Secretary of State for Education and established the City Technology Colleges, not all of which were in cities, nor were colleges rather than schools and had varying degrees of technology in the curriculum.

Also according to the BBC there is an interesting array of employers involved in the new studio schools, including charities such as the RSPCA. One does wonder why it needs a new type of school, with all its associated overheads including the salary of the leadership team, to solve what looks like local skill deficiencies in the labour market. Now that pupils can move to further education colleges from 14 onwards why cannot specific courses be developed there rather than creating yet more institutions, especially when numbers at the upper end of secondary schools are generally still falling.  It is worth recalling that in the famous Section 6 of the Thatcher Education Act that granted parental choice over schooling there was a ‘get out’ clause of not being ‘prejudicial to the efficient use of resources’. No such fetter appears to hamper the present government when it comes to setting up new schools.

However, Andrew Webb, the new President of the Association of Directors of Children Services believes that the debate about new forms of schooling is over, and everyone should just move on. Like so many others, his comments seem to focus mainly on the secondary sector whereas the future of the growing primary sector seems anything but clear.

One of the new Studio Schools announced today is to be a space studio in Banbury with the involvement of The National Space Centre, UK Space Agency and European Space Agency. This is a town where one of the current academies has just been consulting on altering its admission arrangements to introduce banding. Across the town there were 697 pupils in state schools at the end of Key Stage 4 in 2012 according to DfE figures. If the Studio School is to have an intake of, say, 100, giving a school of about 400; small by current standards for secondary schools, it will need to take almost 15% from each existing school or perhaps 10% if the catchment area is widened to include towns like Brackley, Bicester, Leamington Spa and Oxford where there are good travel links to Banbury. What the knock-on effect on the viability of science and technology courses at these schools will be is a moot point, but has not doubt has been considered somewhere before approval was given for the space studio to be announced.  And some pupils may choose instead to opt for the new University Technical School to be established elsewhere in Oxfordshire that was announced on the 28th March and will specialise in science research, engineering and computing. Its proposer is Oxford and Cherwell Valley College. The university sponsor is the University of Reading and according to the DfE its partners include BMW, IBM, Culham Science Centre, and Rutherford Appleton Laboratory.

There are those, not least in some of the teacher associations that are concerned about whether these new schools will encourage specialisation too early, and it is to be hoped that pupils who attend these schools will not have too narrow a focus too soon in their education. Will they also be drawn from across the ability spectrum or just from those regarded as in the top third of the ability range?

What is becoming clear is that the blueprint for the shape of schooling in England isn’t being widely discussed and tested in the cauldron of public debate. It hardly constitutes open government and if the new President of ADCS doesn’t care, who does? 

Excluded should not mean forgotten

Just before Easter the DfE published a research brief about a trial programme into dealing with school exclusions entitled: Evaluation of the School Exclusion Trial: Responsibility for Alternative Provision for Permanently Excluded Children – First Interim Report Brief. The report can be found at: https://www.education.gov.uk/publications/standard/publicationDetail/Page1/DFE-RB284

Reducing the number of exclusions could have an impact on both schools and society in general since many of the young people who fall into criminal behaviour as teenagers were excluded from school at some point in their education: often during the last few years of formal education when exclusions are at their highest in relation to the school population.

Although the trial is relatively small scale and still in the early stages it has produced some interesting findings. However, the authors of the report suggest that most of the issues raised during the baseline research phase were not directly related to the trial but concerned issues related to Alternative Provision (AP) that is often used with pupils at risk of exclusion.

The issues included:

-the shrinking of the AP market currently underway;

– problems in rural areas where the possibilities for managed moves and AP were limited

because of geographical location;

-managing changes in demand and requests for increased flexibility when AP providers may

have limited capacity;

-providing AP providers with regular income, particularly when they are not operating in

highly populated urban areas, to ensure stability of provision and high quality staff;

-the current lack of AP at Key Stage 3; and

-the availability of AP at Level 2.

Some issues, which may impact on the trial, but are not directly related to it, concerned schools.

These included:

-the difficulty of engaging some parents;

-the need to improve intervention in primary schools to address underlying serious

behavioural problems early on; and

-ensuring that schools have sufficient accommodation to be able to provide a range of in school provision on and off-site.

Two issues were identified which directly relate to the implementation of the trial. These are:

-ensuring that schools have the capacity and expertise to commission, manage and monitor AP;


-increasing the extent of early intervention at the first sign of difficulties.

At their heart, many of these issues relate to the extent that the schools are separate entities or part of a system of schooling responsible for the education of all children whose parents want to trust the State with the education of their children. In the muddle that is our school system at present this issue is important to deal with if schools are to be able to feel confident about helping challenging pupils. One solution is to commission the market to provide AP services over a wide area, or even nationally, and leave the contractors to identify how to allocate resources and still make a profit while meeting service levels. Cash could be recouped from schools that made use of the service.

However, this doesn’t deal with the issue of prevention at the in-school level, especially at the primary school where these problems often first manifest themselves. As the research report identifies, finding a way of providing early intervention is important. Such early investment may be a good investment, but will require co-ordination and support for schools. Ministers might want to start thinking this through in time to have some policies ready when the final report appears around the time of the general election. One policy might be to ensure better professional development for primary teachers whose initial training is so crowded that at present it leaves scant room for more than basic behaviour management techniques. There is also the issue of how far parents can exploit their child’s rights to avoid facing up to difficulties when they arise in a school

This trial is an important look at an area too often neglected by policy-makers and it is to be hoped it will attract the attention of Ministers since behaviour is too often quoted as a reason teachers feel demoralised and want to leave the profession.