Funding for new school places: who has the ultimate responsibility?

The Public Accounts Committee has just published a short report into the Department for Education and the capital funding for new school places* following anxiety about the supply of places to meet the growth in the school population. It is worth highlighting the following paragraph from the summary of the Committee’s Report:

The Department does not have a good enough understanding of what value for money would look like in the delivery of school places, and whether it is being achieved. In response to fluctuations in local demand local authorities can direct maintained schools to expand or close but do not have this power over academies or free schools. Local authorities need to have mature discussions with all parties, including the academies and free schools, to resolve any mismatch between demand and supply for their communities as a whole. We hope that discussions at local level always prove successful, but the Department needs to be clear about how it will achieve the best value for money solutions in the event that local discussions fail to achieve a resolution. This has to be in the context that Free Schools and Academies are directly accountable to central Government, but the Government has no mechanism to force them to expand to meet the demand for school places. In addition, the Department does not sufficiently understand the risks to children’s learning and development that may arise as authorities strain the sinews of the school estate to deliver enough places. The imperative to increase the quantity of school places should not be achieved at the expense of quality.

This debate was further articulated in paragraph 14 of the report. The Committee asked the Department how it would resolve matters if, for example, it would be better for an academy or free school to expand or to close in accordance with changing demand in an area, but the particular school(s) did not wish to do so. The Department told The Committee that such situations are best settled by sensible discussions between professionals in the area concerned. The DFE said that such situations are intensely local and that, as opposed to a central direction from government, it would rather see local authorities and schools working collectively to meet such challenges. The Department assured us that it monitored these matters closely and that all cases so far had been resolved properly by discussion. The Department stated that, were it not to find a solution through discussion, it would look at the individual circumstances and make decisions accordingly. The parties involved need to be confident that a process to resolve these matters exists.

The Committee’s Report commented it hoped that discussions at local level always prove successful; it added, however, we would like to receive greater reassurance about the actions the DfE will take in order to help resolve matters to achieve the best value for money solutions in the event that local discussions break down.

Now in response to what is happening in Oxfordshire, I find the DfE’s comments curious since they have side-stepped the question of what happens if the DfE sanctions a new school where there is clearly an over-supply of places in the short-term. Both the UTC in Didcot and the Studio School in Banbury are in areas where the local supply for school places in the 14-18 age range is clear sufficient for the next few years, unless there is a dramatic upturn in house building. That hasn’t stopped the DfE introducing these two new schools that will make the position in terms of overall places even worse in the short-term, as I indicated in an earlier column. Whether the capital resources would have been better applied providing additional primary school places in schools where parents want their children to attend is a moot point. Indeed, the Committee recognised that the present system might force local authorities to expand poorly performing schools, because they had no choice of an alternative.

It does seem odd that more than 140 years after the creation of State Education such a basic issue as the provision of places for every child should have caused so much confusion and anxiety. It may be fun to create new types of school, reform the curriculum, or even take on the teachers, but a Secretary of State also has a Department to run, and successive holders of that office under both the present coalition and the previous government don’t always seem to have realised their duty of care to provide a service fit for everyone who uses it, and not some of them. The next crisis in Minister’s in-trays is probably around the matter of teacher supply. Let us hope that they don’t make the same mistakes as has happened with the supply of school places. The provision of teachers is, after all, just as basic an issue as the supply of places. After 140 years we ought to be getting both right not risking serious shortcomings in both. That’s not the way to a world-class education system.


Nationalisation of our schools: the latest state of play

A couple of weeks ago the DfE submitted to parliament the Annual Report on Academies for 2011-12, as required under the 2011 Education Act. The document can be accessed at:

During the year from August 2011 to July 2012 there were 1,151 funding agreements signed, meaning at the latter date there were 1,952 open academies, of which 365 were of the sponsored type created originally by the Labour Government, and 1,587 were of the converter variety invented by the present Secretary of State. By May 2013, the total number of open academies had increased to 2,924. And as at 31 July 2012, 42% of state funded mainstream secondary schools and 3% of state-funded mainstream primary schools were academies, a figure that is no higher although nearly a third of local authorities still had no primary academies within their boundaries.

According to the Annual Report, academies are sponsored by many diverse bodies, so that at the end of the 2011/12 academic year there were 471 different approved academy sponsors. Of these, 161 were academy converters sponsoring other academies; 40 sponsors came from the business sector; 82 from the charitable sector; 40 from dioceses; 65 from the further education sector; 34 from the university sector; 13 were grammar schools, of which 10 are now themselves academies; 13 were independent schools; two were special schools, and 21 were sponsors from other public bodies, including local authorities.

These figures show that the Conservative led coalition is as keen, if not more so than the previous Labour government, at encouraging the creeping ‘nationalisation’ of the school system in England under the guise of providing freedom to individual schools and their sponsors. Local democratic oversight, it was rarely control, is gradually being eradicated from the day to day management of the nation’s schools to be replaced by unelected officials whose political masters are sometimes happy to play fast and loose with planning rules to see their schemes succeed.

In a technical document on attainment between academies and other types of school published in association with the annual report* the DfE identifies the improvement academies have brought to the education scene, although there is no evidence at all as to whether this has been achieved with more or less resources that at other schools.

I hope that local authorities will put together mechanisms for comparing the progress of the academies in their locality against those schools that have not yet been converted or been created as an academy. Not only can such comparison raise questions about what is working, and what is not creating results locally, but it can help develop a local oversight of the whole education system and its Value for Public Money that a fractured system might obfuscate in an unhelpful manner. Even though the national budget for schools is ring-fenced that doesn’t mean it should be squandered in a wasteful manner setting up new schools where they aren’t needed. And just as we have seen responsibility for public health returned to local authorities, there is always the possibility that a future government will return control of schools to local authorities, especially if there are hard budget decisions to make once the ring-fence is finally removed.


Baby boom now affecting schools, especially in London

Between January 2012 and January 2013 primary schools across England added nearly 2,000 extra classes in order to teach some 64,000 additional pupils. By contrast, their secondary colleagues educated some 23,000 fewer pupils in January 2013 than in the previous year, and saw the number of classes on census day drop by 85 compared with the previous year to a number around 1,500 less than in the peak year of 2011.

None of these statistics contained in a new Statistical Release released by the DfE (SFFR 21/2013) are very surprising to followers of trends in pupil numbers. Secondary schools are approaching the lowest point in the current demographic cycle, and primary schools in some parts of the country are already experiencing significant growth among the younger age children entering primary schools. This pressure can be seen by the fact that the average class size in primary schools has increased from 26.2 pupils per teacher in 2009 to 26.8 in 2013. At Key Stage 1 the increase has been even more dramatic, from 26.2 in 2009 to 27.3 in 2103. The number of KS1 pupils has increased by nearly 150,000 in the period between 2009 and 2013; an increase of more than 10%, with more yet to come over the next few years.

As has been predicted, the largest KS1 average class sizes are to be found in the outer London boroughs.  Twenty of the top 26 authorities with the largest average KS1 class sizes are London boroughs, and only two – The City of London and Lewisham are what might be considered Inner London boroughs in historical terms. Interestingly, two traditional inner London boroughs, Hammersmith & Fulham and Kensington & Chelsea have the lowest average KS1 class sizes in the capital, on a par with class sizes in Sunderland and Buckinghamshire. In Harrow, the average KS1 class was 29.5 in January 2013, only 0.5 of a pupil below the legal maximum of 30 for KS1 classes, although this was exceed by the one school in the city of London where the average was shown as 30 pupils per teacher. In Sutton, where the Chief Executive last year spoke of a need to increase the legal limit, the average is a relatively unproblematic 28.7; slightly better than the average for schools across Birmingham.

Authorities in the North East took five of the lowest ten positions in 2013, although the authority with the overall lowest KS1 average class size was Cumbria, with its many small rural village schools. Here the average KS1 class was 23.9, some 5.6 pupils fewer than in Harrow.

If the success of London secondary schools achieved over the past few years is to be maintained, it will be essential to monitor the performance of the pupils in these increasingly large classes in order to avert any decline in standards at an early stage. If there is no decline in achievements, it will no doubt further add to the debate about class sizes and pupil performance.

Oxfordshire, where I am a county councillor, is in the third of authorities with the lowest KS1 class sizes, so it will be interesting to see how our KS1 results fare this summer after the scrutiny they have come under during recent years.

Back to the future: the return of the Advisory Teacher

Ofsted is clearly becoming the linchpin in what looks like the increasing nationalisation of our school system. The idea of national teachers parachuted into the shires by officials in London in order to demonstrate good practice to under-performing teachers would have been unthinkable some years ago. But, as I have said before, those who are able to  access resources can be in the driving seat when it comes to facilitating change.

For the past quarter of a century successive governments have denied local authorities the right to intervene in their local schools by ensuring that funds that could be used for such purposes were transferred into school budgets, only to see the cash all too often end up unused in school bank accounts. However, when faced with a school system across London in meltdown a decade ago the notional of a regional challenge was born, even if it didn’t extend to central government listening to what was being said about future pupil numbers and the need for extra places. Despite the success of London Challenge in raising achievement in the capital’s schools, the local evening paper, the Evening Standard, has still seen the need to become involved in a large-scale reading campaign across the city region, demonstrating the importance of community involvement in raising standards of learning.

For some time I have been pointing out the message about rural under-performance that Ofsted has finally acknowledged. Indeed, the poor performance in Oxfordshire and Oxford City in particular, has been a theme I initiated nearly three years ago now, and was coincidentally discussed at a public meeting in the city last night arranged by the city church of St Michael at the North Gate. We were reminded at that meeting that the Oxford City Council, although it has no education brief, was able to find £1.4 million to invest in projects to raise attainment in local schools, whereas the county would have been questioned as to such cash hadn’t been passed to schools?

I firmly believe that a world-class education system starts in the primary schools, where the foundations of learning are developed. Primary schools are essentially local in nature, and many in rural areas are the hub of their communities. For that reason I believe they need to be part of the local democratic structure and, as in London, the challenge should be for the locally elected members to lead the drive for improvement. If they fail, then perhaps an interim board should be imposed, but most local communities won’t fail given access to the appropriate resources.

Indeed, the idea of national superstars descending on schools to show how teaching is done properly must already be causing a film-maker somewhere to be salivating at the mouth. You can just see the plot; a talented but hapless outsider descends on remote village school to show teachers how to improve the literacy of their children …. I leave you to finish the plot. Much more important is to provide a local focus using the best in the way previous generations of local authority leaders developed advisory services, and in the 1980s the concept of advisory teachers, where best practice was spread using local professionals with a stake in their communities. All that was destroyed when, what is usually now referred to as the ‘middle tier’ of the education system, was dismantled by successive Conservative and Labour governments.

By all means parachute in outsiders if there is no local talent, but I doubt any local government area is totally devoid of successful teachers able to pass on their success to others. Such locally based schemes might also be cheaper than a visit from ‘the team from the Ministry’ but it wouldn’t fit into a model of a national school system where every school reports directly to Westminster and local authorities are too often cast as the villain of the piece.

For anyone who believes in local democracy, Ofsted may have joined me in identifying a serious problem, but their proposed solution is not one I can endorse.

Birds of a feather

Nothing I have read so far about the Social Mobility Commission Report into access to Russell Group universities that was published earlier today has mentioned the need for state schools to be able to access the best teachers.

The present gap between state and private school pupils’ access to this group of universities is certainly dire in many cases, but unless we can adequately staff our state schools it won’t improve. On top of that problem there is the unspoken issue of revision classes and private tutoring often used when some parents are concerned that their child’s school may not be delivering the grades required for entry to a particular university.

Much has been made by some commentators of the fact that state school pupils study the wrong subjects for entry to Russell Group universities, but this doesn’t seem to be an issue in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland where, Edinburgh University apart, the Russell Group institutions generally meet or exceed their state school targets. Leaving aside for a moment the Oxbridge issue, there seem to be a group of Russell Group universities that stand out as being the farthest from their benchmarks; Bristol and Durham in particular, followed by Exeter, Newcastle and a group of London institutions that includes Imperial, UCL and LSE. Although Leeds isn’t in this list, the size of the university means if it did more to attract state school pupils it could also make an impact on the shortfall.

It is to be hoped that these state school pupils that don’t make it Russell Group universities do still attend a university, and that they are rewarded with teaching that stretches their able minds. Then there is the issue, touched on in the Commission’s report, of what happens after university. If employers only attend Russell Group universities looking for new talent, then unequal access to these universities is certainly acting as a filter. But, as the Report identifies, requiring upfront fees for postgraduate study can also be a powerful barrier where private sector employers require a post-graduate qualification. Of course, the egalitarian Mr Gove has solved that problem in education by allowing some schools to take into teaching those with no training at all. But, in reality, that is a different argument. There is also the question of how instrumental candidates from state schools are in selecting both ‘A’ level subjects and degree courses. It is no doubt better to be employed with a degree from a local university than both a NEET and a Russell Group graduate. However, the evidence of the need for state school pupils to achieve higher grades to obtain entry clearly suggests that something unfortunate is going on in England. The Commission might like to republish its findings with just students domiciled in England included: the position then might be even starker than at present.

As I hinted earlier, the need to continue to ensure a supply of sufficient teachers for all schools is a necessary condition if even the present situation is to be maintained, let alone improved. Regular readers will know of my fear in that respect. If they come true, who attends what university still be a matter of even more concern in 2020, and probably well into the next decade.

Ethnic minority teachers: some progress, but where are we heading?

In the autumn of 1997 the new Labour government held three conferences designed to raise awareness about the need to recruit more teachers from ethnic minority groups. Over the following 15 years the TTA, and its successor the TDA, continually tried to encourage more recruits into teaching from among students with an ethnic minority background. Their success was mixed. As the following table shows, students from a White background were more likely to be accepted into teaching than were those students from minority backgrounds, at least as far as courses for graduates to train as a teacher were concerned.

Applications and acceptances by ethnic grouping – UK domicile UK degree 2007-2010
Ethnic Group



% accepted

% of the total accepted
























Source: The Author

As a result, it has been estimated that if there were thee hundred graduate would-be teachers; 100 each from the Asian, Black and White groupings:  24 of the white group, 14 of the Asian group, and just nine of the Black group would be likely to fulfil their aspiration of teaching in a state funded school classroom. Even in the sciences, where shortages have been the greatest, out of three hundred would-be science teachers there would be 34 White teachers, 17 Asian teachers and 11 Black teachers.

This suggests that is a need to understand why this discrepancy between the groups arises, especially so since with School Direct decisions now being made at the level of the individual schools.  There is evidence that even when students from an ethnic minority have gained QTS they find it more of a challenge to secure a teaching post.

A second concern is that when ethnic minorities do secure teaching posts they tend to do so in areas where there are large numbers of pupils from ethnic minorities in the schools. A study of the 2012 School Workforce Survey revealed 115 schools where two thirds or more of their teaching staff were from ethnic minority groups. Overwhelmingly, these schools were in London. Of the 31 local authority areas with at least one school that had two thirds or greater ethnic minority staff, 23 were London Boroughs, and only Birmingham among the other eight authorities outside of London had more than two schools where the staffroom was comprised of more than two thirds ethnic minority teachers. The London Borough of Brent had by far the largest number of schools; 28 in all that met the two-thirds criteria. Many of these schools, along with those in other authorities, were primary schools, including the school I attended for six years as a primary age pupil, but there were some secondary school in the list.  The other London Boroughs with more than five schools with high concentrations of staff from ethnic minorities included; Ealing; Hackney; Lambeth; Newham; Tower Hamlets and Haringey.

This concentration of teachers from ethnic minorities in a small number of schools raises the issue of whether this might increasingly create schools that are monocultural in nature, and whether this is desirable in a multi-cultural society? Outside of the big cities, teachers from ethnic minorities are probably far rarer sights for white pupils than the Asian corner-shop and the Chinese, Thai or Bangladeshi Restaurant.  Can this developing divide be healthy for society?

Teaching a feminised profession?

In the real world you probably don’t come across a normal distribution curve as often as you do in the textbooks. As a result, it is interesting when one pops up during the analysis of a dataset. In this case the dataset is of the number of male teachers in each secondary school in England as recorded in the DfE’s 2012 School Workforce Census. Sadly, it is not really possible to do the same analysis for the primary sector because a very large number of schools either have the data shown as not available or it has been suppressed. Quite why it is necessary to suppress data in this category is a bit of a mystery, but that is government statistics for you

The modal class for schools is between 40-41% of teachers being male, with most secondary schools falling somewhere in the range of 20-70% of their teaching staff being men.

It would be interesting to compare this graph with that of ten or twenty years ago if the data was available; sadly, it probably isn’t or at least not in an easily obtainable format. However we can say that male teachers in the secondary sector accounted for around 75,000 of the 181,000 full-time teachers in the secondary sector in 2012 compared with 119,000 out of 220,000 in 1985. This is reduction from 54% of the teaching force to 41% in just under thirty years.

In a few years time it is likely that six out of ten secondary teachers will be women; and the percentage teaching lower secondary pupils is likely to become even higher as the remaining men take a disproportionate number of the senior posts in schools. Whether secondary education will eventually end up like primary schools, with an essentially feminised workforce is too early to predict, but in London and the Home Counties, where demand for graduates across the labour market is at its greatest, it seems likely that unless wage rates remain competitive men will vanish from many secondary schools.

Whether this is an important issue or just a matter of note probably depends upon your position.  I first identified the trend towards more women in secondary schools in 1995, nearly twenty years ago  (The Guardian 13th January 1995), and also at that point raised the question of where would be male role models for the increasing number of boys in single parent families? That debate hasn’t gone away, although it is much more recognised as a fact of life than it was then, and professionals from all walks of life are probably more aware of the possible issues it can raise.

That’s after all one of the reasons for monitoring data. The fact that earlier today Ofsted reported that many secondary schools didn’t seem to be aware of the evidence that some pupils who leave primary school with top grades weren’t making the expected progress at secondary school just highlights how important using management information can be in schools, even if you don’t come across a normal distribution curve as often as you might expect.