One in five trade unionists works in the education sector

One of the advantages of the DfE moving its statistical output to the central government web site is that it allows those looking for data about education to browse much more easily a much wider field than before. Now there is no longer any need to consult a range of web sites in the hope that there might be some data about education buried there.

Thus it was that I discovered in the figures on Trade Union membership issued earlier today that the education sector is now the most unionised of any occupational group covered by the government’s classification system. Those who want to delve into the data can find it at

Trade Union membership in the education sector includes not only teachers but also all other staff classified as working in the sector. In 2012, the education sector employed 11.7% of those covered by the survey, but accounted for 23.8% of trade union membership.

Across the education sector, although the percentage of employees in trade unions has declined from 55% in 1995 to 52% in 2012, the percentage of women in the sector in trade unions increased from 50.5% to 52.6% during the same period; the only sector to record an increase in female participation in trade unions during the whole period. This was a time in history when overall membership of trade unions declined, from 32.4% to 26% of workers, and more than halved in the financial and insurance activities sector, from 37.3% in 1995 to 15.9% in 2012.

In the education sector there were just over 1,000,000 trade union members in 1995; by 2012, membership numbers had increased to more than 1.5 million, no doubt partly due to the increase in teaching assistants and other support staff employed in the sector during the past decade. Union membership is strongest amongst full-time, and female workers, and those with permanent posts, although the education sector has the second highest degree of union membership among part-time workers.

England has the lowest percentage trade union membership in the education sector, at 50.3%; compared with 58.8% in Wales; 61.1% in Scotland; and 68.1% in Northern Ireland. Sadly, there is no table to show whether the present Secretary of State in England has inspired an increase in membership across England since 2010. However, there are regional differences across England, with Yorkshire and the Humber having the highest level of membership at 62.4% overall, including more than 69% of full-time staff, and the South East the lowest, at 44.7%. Apart from London, where the percentage membership is 50.7%, membership percentages are higher in the northern regions and lower in the midlands and south of England.

In England, at least among teachers, there will be a big test for trade unions this year with the introduction of what amounts to pay bargaining at a local level for the first time in almost a hundred years for many teachers. Whether it is largely ignored by schools who stick to national ‘guidelines’ or becomes a real bone of contention will become apparent over the next twelve months.

What is clear is that the public sector unions, and those representing workers at all levels in the education sector, now account for a significant proportion of trade unionists. At an earlier piece on this blog showed, a survey last year didn’t always find the teacher members as in favour of action as their leaders.

Some Studio Schools encounter student attendance challenge

Are the government’s new studio schools getting off to a difficult start? Recent DfE figures for pupil absence during the autumn term of 2012-13 do at the very least raise questions about what is happening.

Five of the ten schools with the highest absence rates, across both primary and secondary sectors, were either studio schools or in one case a University Technical College. As all five of these schools had relatively small enrolments, the behaviour of just one or two reluctant transferees may have unduly affected the outcomes. Nevertheless, against a national rate of 5.2%, or 5.7% for the secondary sector as a whole, absence rates of more than 14% do seem a little on the high side.

Although the majority of the studio schools in the list were in manufacturing centres, with school systems that have faced considerable challenges over the years, it does seem odd that despite the variety of different specialism in these new studio schools so many have these high levels of pupil absence. It might have been though that a fresh start in a new school with a definite vocational slant to the curriculum, and often backed by well known employers, might have inspired pupils to attend regularly. On that basis, it is important to identify what, if anything is going wrong? Indeed, although two studio schools are ranked better than 4,000 in the list of all schools for overall absence rates, the other three schools with studio in their title are in the 600 worst performing school for absence rates.

By focussing on vocational trades, it may be that the early studio schools that a skewed distribution of ability and it will take time to enthuse the pupils about the value of their education after nearly a decade when school has not been the most welcoming of places for many of them. What really must not happen is that these schools become dumping grounds for the failures of the mainstream school system. The new schools coming on stream in 2013 and 2014, including the space studio school in Banbury, need to learn the lessons, not least about transfer to a new school at age 14, that these schools have had to encounter in their early stages of development. It would certainly not be acceptable to either turn a blind eye to high levels of absence in these new types of school or to accept it as a part of the deal for the future of education in England.

As the responsibility for these schools lies with Ministers in Westminster, so officials in the DfE, as would any competent local authority, must ask these schools for the preliminary figures for term two. If these so no improvement over term one of the academic year, action must be taken now. Not to do so will reveal to the education community that while it is acceptable  for central government to castigate local authorities for poor outcomes, government schools are able to produce even worse outcomes with impunity.

Tear down the ring fence?

The Think Tank Reform today published a report about spending on schools.

As a right of centre think tank it might be accused of having arranged some of the data to make the most of its thesis that spending on schooling has increased without an associated rise in outcomes. Taking the period from 1999-2000 as a base for some of the analysis means the analysis started from the end of a period when government spending had been depressed during the Major government and the first two years of the Blair government, so some recovery in spending on schooling as a proportion of GDP might have been expected.

The overall thesis is that the ring fence on school spending should be removed, and the same degree of efficiency imposed on schools as on other public services. Now the issue of funding of schools has featured in several earlier posts on this blog. Interestingly, I cannot find any reference in the Reform pamphlet to the growth in school reserves. This issue, the subject of the first column in this blog, is one that has disturbed me for some time. In an age of austerity why are schools taking cash from taxpayers and putting it in their bank accounts rather than spending it? Why, indeed are some schools sitting on balances of over £1 million pounds: the number of schools with deficit budgets was at an historic low in 2012.

Reform also seem to neglect to note that during the period 1999-2003, before spending on schooling increased significantly, there was a teacher supply crisis. They don’t model anything about labour costs in detail. A failure to staff schools does lead to poor performance, and one reason I expect the next PISA results to be better is because schools have been better staffed during the past decade than at any time during my adult life. My anxiety is that an end is now in sight to that period of full staffing unless the government is very careful.

One issue the Reform report does note in passing is the difference between spending on primary and secondary schooling. According to the figures used by Reform, secondary schools accounted for 46% of spending in 2011-12, whereas primary accounted for only 27%; or 33% if under-fives spending was included. In my own view targeted spending on primary pupils who fail to achieve where they could do so might produce the best return on investment within the school system. The Pupil Premium has the capability to achieve this end, providing schools fully understand its purpose.

Indeed, adopting the suggestions in the Reform Report, and abandoning the ring fence on school spending while still aiming to improve educational outcomes and pupil attainment, might affect more affluent areas more than the less well off parts of England. Reform’s supporters might well reflect that it was David Blunkett as Secretary of State who imposed a maximum class size of 30 at Key Stage One. The major beneficiaries of his policy were mostly schools in Tory authorities where large class of over 30 were more frequently to be found at that time. Removing the funding cap might cause a return to that situation. It might also sound the death knell for small and expensive post-16 provision in some schools that is already under threat from other government actions such as the introduction of studio schools and UTCs. Reform’s authors should be careful about what they wish for.

Mixed views on Phonics Screening Check

The evaluation report issued today by the DfE on the Phonics Screening Check seems to offer some interesting messages.

The research report conducted by NfER concluded that;

One of the key messages to emerge from the evaluation so far is that many schools appear to believe that a phonics approach to teaching reading should be used alongside other methods. Evidence from the case-studies and surveys suggests that most teachers are overwhelmingly positive about phonics teaching and its contribution to reading development. However, it is less certain that this is an endorsement of the recommended approach of systematic synthetic phonics taught first and fast. Whilst nine out of ten literacy coordinators agree, at least to some extent, that the teaching of systematic synthetic phonics has value in the primary classroom, a similar proportion, somewhat contradictorily, feel that a variety of different methods should be used to teach children to decode words, suggesting there is widespread misunderstanding of the term ‘systematic synthetic phonics’. Thus, it appears more likely that the reported level of agreement with the value of systematic synthetic phonics actually represents support of the more general use of phonics within the primary classroom, and that teachers in general have not yet fully adopted the practices recommended in the Department for Education’s policy and evidence paper, The Importance of Phonics: Securing Confident Reading.

Within this broad acceptance of phonics teaching as part of a mixed approach there was less certainty reported about the Phonics Screening Check. The researchers created a typology of four different types of approach:

Supporters of synthetic phonics and the check – 28% of literacy coordinators

Supporters of synthetic phonics but not of the check – 39% of literacy coordinators

Supporters of integrated literacy teaching – 5% of literacy coordinators

Supporters of mixed methods – 28% of literacy coordinators

So, this first evaluation of the check suggests that phonics has found a place in teaching reading, and indeed probably always did have such a place in primary schools, but around a third of literacy coordinators, and presumably their schools, use phonics as a part of mixed methods or an integrated approach. A further 39% don’t see the value of the check, although they support synthetic phonics. Just over a quarter of literacy coordinators both support synthetic phonics and the check.

The next question must be around what is the evidence about outcomes in relation to the typology? Do schools teaching synthetic phonics and using the check do better than similar schools that use missed methods and ignore the check or is the check just a waste of money that forces teachers down an inappropriate route when teaching their pupils to develop the skill of reading?

Personally, I want well trained teachers working with young children, and indeed learners of any age, that can produce results using appropriate methods. I am not an expert about teaching reading, so I don’t know what the sensible approach is, and whether different children respond to different methods.

It would certainly be disappointing if using the check provided better information to parents, but that outcome resulted in more cramming, as if learning to read was some sort of examination rather than a skill that children need to develop. From the point of view of the teacher, experience in the classroom may mean a screening check can seem too simplistic and not necessary, but equally the challenge must be to find a method to help every child read that can do so, and create as much understanding from those with special educational needs. If teachers can do that then I don’t mind what method they use; if they cannot do so without structured help, such as the phonics screening check, then so be it.

Challenging schools find difficulty recruiting new leaders

Each year more than 2,000 schools in England advertise for a new head teacher. Most are successful at their first attempt. However, regular surveys have revealed that a proportion does not achieve success at their first attempt, and a small number require more than two attempts to find a new leader for their school. Recent research by the National College (Earley et al, 2012) has emphasised the importance of good leadership to the success of a school.

An analysis of primary and secondary schools advertising for a head teacher during the 2011/2012 school year revealed that the schools needing to re-advertise were likely to present several factors that possibly made them unattractive to some candidates. Understanding the factors affecting a school’s likely success in recruiting a new leader is of importance in the present market-led recruitment system for school leaders. Such knowledge may also help in determining whether preparation for headship embodies the appropriate skills and practices necessary for leading such schools.

Some 335 primary schools and 85 secondary schools that placed a first advertisement for a head teacher during the period between the end of August 2011 and the end of August 2012, and where there was at least one re-advertisement during the period up to the end of December 2012, were assessed as part of the study. Generally, secondary schools experience fewer challenges in recruiting a new head teacher, possibly because the ratio of potential candidates to vacancies is much higher than it is in the primary sector.

The research assessed three different aspects of each school:

  • Schools that were not straightforward primary schools, including junior and combined schools were assigned a score of 1.
  • Faith schools of any denomination were assigned a score of 1
  • Schools with KS2 results below the national average in 2012 were assigned a score of 1 as were secondary schools where the % of A*-Cs at GCSE including English and Mathematics were below the national average.
  • Schools with Free School Meals above the national average for the past six years were assigned a score of 1
  • A score of 1 was awarded for each re-advertisement. A re-advertisement was a second or subsequent advertisement more than 21 days after the original advertisement, but no more than 365 days after the original advert. The same rules were applied to each re-advertisement. The maximum score on this count was 6 for the primary sector and three for the secondary sector. In the primary sector, there were 72 schools with two re-advertisements; 23 with three; four with four; two with five and the one school with six re-advertisements. Since the re-advertisements included those during the period between September and December 2012 a small number of schools may have had their score affected by one point because they commenced their search for a new head teacher early in the 2011-12 school year compared with those that started the process latter. Hover, as 50% of head teacher initial advertisements appear between the start of January and the end of March each year the number affected is likely to be small.

Finally a minus score was applied for advertisements placed during most of the month of August and the whole of December as these are times when fewer candidates may be looking for a new post than at other times of year.

A total score was then created for each school, and the schools were ranked in descending score order. Schools with missing data were excluded from the ranking at this stage. Three schools scored six out of a possible maximum score of 10 for primary schools and one secondary school scored five out of six.



Of the schools ranked in the top 100, there were only three community primary schools including St Meryl a community primary school in Watford that topped the list. Although it has the name of a saint, according to the school brochure this referred to the name of the builder’s wife when the school was built in the early 1950s. If so, then this successful school might be well advised to consider a change of name to one less suggestive of a religious affiliation on a casual glance.  The other two community primary schools in the top 100 with below average numbers of Free School Meal pupils and above average KS2 results included another primary school in Hertfordshire, and one in Bracknell Forest.  The latter had been under-performing at KS2 for the three years before 2012.

Of the remaining 12 schools in the top 100 with below average numbers of Free School Meal pupils and above average KS2 results 10 were faith schools including three Roman Catholic, six Church of England, and one Jewish School. The two community schools were a combined school in Buckinghamshire and a junior school in Kent. Of the faith schools, one Church of England school was a combined school and three schools were junior schools, (two Church of England schools and one Roman Catholic school).

The geographical distribution of the 100 primary schools at the top of the list included 45 schools in the south East; 20 in London and nine in the counties of the East of England adjacent to London that are similar in many ways to many of the authorities in the South East. Thus, 74 schools in the top 100 were located in or around London.


Because of the large number of academies and recent academy converters full details are only available for 69 of the 84 secondary schools with re-advertisements. The missing data relates to either Free School Meals or KS4 results data. Of the 84 school with full or partial data 10 are in London, including seven of the 37 schools with a score of three or above, some 19%. Fifteen of the schools in the top 37 are faith schools, including 12 of the top 20.

Some 20 of the schools have above average KS4 results and below average scores for Free School Meals. Of these schools, ten are faith schools. However, there are only four such schools in the top 37. Three are Roman Catholic schools, and the fourth is an 11-18 boys’ school that is converting to become an academy.


The presence of a significant number of faith schools in our results is perhaps not a surprise since it has been reported for many years that such schools, and especially, but not exclusively, Roman Catholic schools have experienced difficulties in recruiting new head teachers.

The extension of the work to consider whether there might be other factors affecting recruitment, and specifically whether a combination of higher than average numbers of pupils with access to Free School Meals and lower than average Key Stage outcomes for the sector might affect recruitment is a new departure. Seemingly, such a combination does affect the market, with higher numbers of such schools re-advertising, with the South East and counties to the north of London being noticeable among the schools in the primary sector, with secondary schools in London probably also being over-represented. Clearly, where these schools are faith schools, the issues are obviously compounded.

It is clear that as Free School Meal levels increase, so there are a greater number of schools performing less well. While this may be understandable for secondary schools, where many are coping with the effects of under performance by their pupils since the start of their education it is less so in the primary sector where the importance of the early years of education has been known for some time. Those schools with high levels of Free School Meals are now being helped with the additional funding through the Pupil Premium scheme. However, the considerable number of primary schools with relatively few pupils who will benefit from that scheme, but still currently under perform  in some cases quite markedly so, must be of concern.

An analysis of schools in the primary sector where the Free School Meals index was below 20 revealed no real difference between the performance of faith and non-faith schools

There may well be other factors, such as the size of the school that need to be taken into account when considering the challenges facing school seeking a new leader, but it seems likely that the interplay of factors relating to deprivation and control of the school are still key factors in how easy a school will find it to recruit a new leader. The location of a school in London or the counties and authorities surrounding the capital may be a further subsidiary factor that can affect some schools.

How the future governance of schools will affect leadership recruitment and development in the future is clearly something that will need watching with interest.


Earley, et al. (2012). Review of the school leadership landscape. Nottingham; National College for School Leadership.

Was there a baby boom in 1953?

Figures published by the TES from the database I created over 25 years ago, and left with the TES when I retired in 2011, suggest that the highest percentage of primary schools for thirteen years failed to recruit a new head teacher at their first attempt during January 2013. Give that January is the month that witnesses the largest number of new recruitment adverts for heads, a 26% re-advertisement ratio, rising to over 40% for schools within the Greater London area, must be a matter for concern.

Perhaps it was unsurprising that the government spokesperson when asked to comment on the figures said according to a BBC report that, “we have always been aware that as the baby-boomer generation started to retire we were likely to see a rise in the number of vacancies.” Well now that comment begs two questions. Firstly, has there been a rise in vacancies, and secondly is it fair to  still be citing the baby boom for a rise in vacancies and the subsequent challenges in filling these vacancies?

According to a spokesperson for Education Data Surveys that compiled the TES Report, there were 261 vacancies for new primary head teachers advertised for the first time during January 2013. In January 2009, there were 416 advertisements for head teachers of all types of schools, so the 216 primary vacancies this January doesn’t look like out of line with previous years.

The second question relates to how fair is it to attribute the present problem to the retirements by baby boomers? Heads retiring at 60 this summer would have been born in 1953, Coronation Year. Those retiring at 65 would certainly have been part of the immediate post-war baby bulge, but as the DfE 2012 Workforce Survey only found around 1,000 primary heads over the age of 60 in November 2012, it would require virtually all of them to decide to retire this year to have any impact on the figures. Since the number of vacancies doesn’t seem out of line with recent years, any retirement boom among the over-60s will probably have been counter—balanced by a reduction in the retirement rate among the approximately 3,700 primary head teachers in the 55-59 age group last November.

So was there a baby boom in 1953: apparently not according to the Office of National Statistics

Live births in the United Kingdom































Although higher by around 10,000 than in the years either side of the Coronation, and perhaps that event had some effect on the figures, the number of live births in 1953 across the United Kingdom was around 200,000 below the really baby boomer year of 1947 when I entered this world (Office for National Statistics,

Indeed, the DfE might now park the baby boomer excuse until at least 2017 when it might again be worth using as an excuse based upon these figures. Even then, I would approach the task with some caution.

So, are the NAHT right in suggesting rising targets and negative rhetoric from ministers as the cause of deputies shunning the top job? They may have a point, as the recent tragic death of a Worcestershire primary head teacher pointed up, the job is not without considerable stresses and strains and the lack of a credible middle-tier of support since local authorities had their budgets slashed probably doesn’t make the job any more attractive.

However, there may be other structural reasons for the rise in re-advertisements, especially in London. The asymmetric nature of house prices that allows Londoners to move out of the capital and trade-up to a better property, but means those outside the capital cannot afford to move in may be one issue restricting supply. However, a bigger issue may be the lack of deputy heads in the age-group one would expect to be seeking headships. I will return to analyse this point and the type of schools that may be suffering unduly in the contest for a new head teacher in a future blog. But, let me end with what I said about headship recruitment last summer in the report that I wrote for the Pearson Think Tank.

The market for head teachers in London is always complicated by the fact that the price of housing in many parts of the capital restricts the likelihood of inward movement by senior staff working in schools outside London. The increase in salary is often not enough to compensate for any such move, despite the average recorded salary in the 2010 School Workforce Survey being £99,000 for a secondary head teacher and almost £72,000 for a primary school head teacher – both some £15,000 more than the recorded average for a head teacher working outside of London

In general, it seems that the larger the number of different factors affecting a school seeking a new head teacher, the greater the risk of disappointment at first advertisement. Thus, a small school that is a faith school and also has relatively poor results may find the search for a new head teacher more of a challenge than a larger community school with results slightly above average located in an area with average housing prices that advertises at a point in the year, specifically between January and March, when the majority of candidates are looking for headship vacancies for September. page 31

Applications good: acceptances better

How good do you have to be to become a teacher? Should it be as hard to enter the teaching profession as say to become a doctor, dentist or vet? Or does the need for such large numbers of new teachers, around 35,000 enter training each year, mean the focus must be on quantity over quality?

The government released data today that showed around 20,000 applicants had made more than 64,000 applications to become a teacher through the new School Direct route. That’s around seven applications per place, and well above the ratio for the university teacher preparation courses, where applications through GTTR for postgraduate courses rarely hit the level of four applications per place except in very popular subjects such as History, Physical Education, the Social Sciences and Drama. However, since GTTR measure applicants rather than gross applications so on that basis School Direct is probably doing little better than GTTR in terms of applicants per places available. But, without a breakdown or applicants as well as applications by subject and phase to School Direct it is impossible to be sure.

With so many applications to choose from you might expect School Direct to have filled all its places by now, just as Teach First has already closed its door to applicants for this year. But, you would be wrong, if data from the DfE web site is correct. Over the Easter weekend only between 7% and 45% of the salaried places were filled, depending upon the subject, and there was a similar percentage range of places filled on the non-salaried training route. With so many applicants, this means that only between two and nine per cent of applicants appear to have been offered places on School Direct so far. This is a much lower proportion than for the courses offered by universities through GTTR.

The obvious questions that arise are whether there are better applicants for the GTTR courses than School Direct or are perhaps admissions tutors in universities being more generous in making offers than their colleagues in schools? Take Chemistry as an example, on the School Direct Salaried route 11% of the places were filled by Easter, and that represented just four per cent of applicants being offered places. On the School Direct Training Route nine per cent of places were filled, and just three per cent of applicants had been offered a place. By comparison on the GTTR courses 46% of the applicants had been offered a place although this was down on the 51% accepted at the same time last year. Given that it is unlikely anyone without the basic academic degree class bothers to apply, it seems odd that so many applicants have yet to be offered a place through the School Direct programme, especially as applications have been arriving since the autumn.

However, there is still about three months to go, so all is not yet lost, but the government will need to keep a close eye on whether schools are being slow at interviewing applicants that applied sometime ago or whether schools have decided the quality of the applicants are not good enough. There is certainly no guarantee that a flood of high quality applicants will turn up at the last minute, and too many empty places could cause staffing problems for some schools next summer. A teacher supply crisis in the year before a general election would be embarrassing for the government that made much of the large number of applicants to the School Direct programme in its announcement today. No doubt the lack of a similar announcement about the numbers accepted was an oversight that will be quickly rectified.