Time for school approaches

As schools start to gear up for the new term, interest begins to focus on whether there will be any pupils that won’t have a school place at any school. this September? This would be the result of the increased number of children expected to start school this autumn. Hopefully, such an outcome will be unlikely, even for late applicants, because councils have been aware of the expected growth in the school population for a number of years now. Of course the outcomes won’t be satisfactory for everyone. Some pupils will be taught in temporary classrooms, and Barking & Dagenham Council in East London is apparently contemplating building schools in some of their parks, if recent press reports are to be believed. http://www.barkinganddagenhampost.co.uk/news/barking_and_dagenham_may_build_schools_in_parks_to_tackle_primary_place_crisis_1_1503807

However, not all the problems are in London. A mother in East Kent, whose child will have to be taken to school by taxi because of lack of places locally, is apparently upset at the risks such an outcome poses to her offspring. http://www.thisiskent.co.uk/Broadstairs-mum-hit-schools-postcode-lottery/story-19605410-detail/story.html#axzz2dLcD7rGf If the Council has to incur that sort of costs then I would be surprised if they hadn’t exhausted every other possibility.

So far there are few examples of issues in the secondary sector where many schools are not running at close to their capacity limits because of changes in the age profile over recent years. This has meant the secondary school population has been in decline from its high reached some years ago. However, that trend won’t last, and there will be pressure on secondary school places over the next decade, especially in London and the South East.

The main anxiety for ministers outside the DfE is that the traditional system for in-year transfers will break down in the secondary sector as each school effectively becomes its own admissions authority. A well-functioning labour market no doubt needs workers to be able to transfer to jobs across the country at any time of year. For some workers with children this can mean either a move of school during the year or the parent living in rented accommodation and commuting each week. Making the task of finding a new school too challenging may put some off from moving jobs until the summer holidays. Of course, for some it might also mean that boarding schools could look more attractive, especially if there was the possibility of several moves during a child’s education. After all, this was often the justification used by many in the military for the use of boarding schools for their children.

Whatever the school pupils will be attending this September, or are already are in Scotland and parts of Northern England, my best wishes go out to you. Even if it wasn’t your parents’ first choice of school, as my primary school wasn’t over 60 years ago, may you be happy and successful there, and may you make many friends.

Half Our Future: A tribute

I couldn’t let August pass with recognising the 50th anniversary of one of the least remembered but arguably key reports of the post-war period of education consensus. On August 7th 1963, John Newsom, Chairman of the then Central Advisory Committee on Education, submitted his Report entitled ‘Half Our Future’ to the Minister, Edward Boyle. Half a century later this group of young people are still too often overlooked in the debate about our school system.

However, they did benefit from the raising of the school leaving age to 16 in 1972, and should be beneficiaries of the current raising of the age of participation to 18; although I doubt whether all of them will immediately recognise the benefit.

As an aside, I participated in a local radio phone-in recently about the raising of the participation age. A caller phoned in to explain that because he had left school at sixteen he knew how to do practical things, such as change a fuse, whereas his more educated friends hadn’t a clue. Reflecting on this point later, I wondered whether the circuit breaker that has made our lives so much easier when there are electrical short-circuits or power overloads was invented by someone who left school at sixteen or with slightly more education than that. I know the original concept is credited to Thomas Edison, but I suspect the increasingly varied and sophisticated versions of recent times have emanated from research facilities.

Anyway, back to Newsom, and his important Report. Part of it featured the need for teachers. At that time it wasn’t necessary to have a qualification in order to teach if you were a graduate or were going to become a trained teacher. The latter route allowed untrained staff to work as teachers in secondary modern schools when these schools couldn’t find anyone else. In Tottenham where I grew up, in the 1960s some of the scholarship ‘Sixth’ used to become teachers in January after the Oxbridge entry process was over. Newsom said in his Report that his Committee echoed the statement of the Eighth Report of the National Advisory Council on the Supply & Training of Teachers that:

“In the primary and secondary modern schools teaching methods and techniques, with all the specialized knowledge that lies behind them, are as essential as mastery of subject matter. The prospect of these schools staffed to an increasing extent by untrained graduates is, in our view, intolerable.”

Sadly, such a suggestion is no more intolerable to some politicians today than it was half a century ago.

Newsom also recognised that as one unspecified contributor to the Report had stated, “Fatigue is already a serious and continuing difficulty to many of the best teachers.” Half a century later, there would be many in education that would still echo such a view, despite smaller classes and more non-contact time.

The misfortune of Newsom was to appear at just the point where the drive for non-selective secondary education was sweeping the country. This created the comprehensive school all too often dominated by the selective school curriculum. Half a century later we are still trying to remedy that mistake. Even more important than providing the teachers is creating the most appropriate curriculum for all, and not just for the 50% destined for higher education. Those politicians that forget that they have a duty to do the best for all, and not just the Russell Group of universities, ought surely to add the Newsom Report to their list of requisite reading.

The Politician’s Curve or is it Curse?

For the past quarter century I have watched with interest the annual ritual of the examination results season. There are a number of basic approaches used by politicians when questioned about the outcomes. All start by congratulating candidates on their hard work, and the results they have achieved. They then either express concern about the level of the outcomes, often harking back to some previous ‘golden age’ or they complain that too many have achieved the top grades and hark back to some previous ‘golden age’. Either way the present is always seen as in need of reform to meet the standards of the past. In recent years, the past has been replaced to some extent by reference to other education systems. Often our system is seen as ‘falling behind’ the best in the world.

One by-product of this political imperative for ‘improvement’, in whatever guise it takes, is a desire among some politicians to re-introduce a norm referencing system. This is where each year a set proportion of entrants to an exam receive the top grade, and most candidates are clustered around the middle grades. At its crudest, half are above average and half below average. Of course, more than half are generally below average as it is not normally possibly to control exactly for the numbers those who are ill on the day or fail to turn up for some other reason.

The alternative system used in recent years is based upon achievement of candidates against expected outcomes. Under this system, familiar to most adults through the driving test, anyone can pass if they achieve the appropriate level. So, theoretically, the top grade is open to all. However, by determining the standard of the questions the chances of that happening are unlikely. Indeed, standards can be raised by making the test harder, as has happened with the driving test with the addition of the theory test, and a wider range of practical tests to meet for challenging road conditions. Such changes make comparison between years difficult, if not impossible.

In reality, only in English and Mathematics are any forms of comparison really possible as it is only these two subjects that are studied by all pupils. In other subjects, the decisions about who studies them, and who is entered for an examination, can influence the outcomes.

Take two GCSE subjects for England in the provisional results for 2013. The cumulative outcomes were:

Subject A

A* 16.0%

A   41.3%

B   69.2%

C   90.8%

Subject B

A*   3.3%

A   16.3%

B   40.2%

C   66.6%

Now decide which set of results is for Physics and which for Media Studies. To help you there were 152,152 entries in subject A, and 55,005 in subject B. Another possible clue is that there is probably more of a shortage of Physics teachers than or Media Studies teachers. So, that’s clear then, subject A is Media Studies, and subject B is Physics. Well no, actually it is the other way around. 90% of entries in Physics received an A*-C grade compared with just two thirds in Media Studies. It is worth reflecting that under a norm referencing system far fewer would have received the top grade in Physics, but more would probably have done so in Media Studies.

Do we now make Physics GCSE harder, even if it means fewer study it to GCSE, or do we make Media Studies easier or is there a good reason why the outcomes are so different? I don’t know the answer to that question. Despite there being three times more entrants in Physics than in Media Studies, perhaps only those likely to succeed are entered for the subject, whereas anyone studying Media Studies takes the examination. That may explain why only 0.1% of those who took Physics received an unclassified grade compared with 1.3% of the entrants in Media Studies.

In the end, an examination system has to be fit for purpose. What that purpose is must be clear to all. With the participation age for education now increasing to 18 over the next few years, it might be worthwhile asking what purpose is served by an expensive external examination at 16.

Source of results data; http://www.jcq.org.uk/examination-results/gcses/gcse-and-entry-level-certificate-results-summer-2013

Allocation of a target

Civil servants don’t use words by accident. So, when the recent Statistical Bulletin (DfE, 32/2013) was headed ITT- Allocations, you can be certain that they aren’t ITT targets in the way they used to be. The last ITT census of 2012 foreshadowed the change by containing ‘targets’ for most subjects, but  ‘maximum permitted allocations’ in four subjects – ICT, Design & Technology, Business Studies and Citizenship. This change has now seemingly been adopted for all subjects.

The Statistical Bulletin helpfully defines the allocation of ITT places as setting the limits on training availability to ensure the appropriate supply of newly qualified teachers. The Bulletin’s text continues with the clarification that ‘Sufficient numbers are allocated to ensure enough teachers are trained, but avoiding excessive provision which may lead to employment difficulties and over-burden public finances.’ However, according to the Bulletin these allocations are then set as ‘targets’ by subject – and presumably phase – by the DfE and NCSL, and these targets are then allocated to particular courses and schools after bids and informed by the Teacher Supply Model (TSM) operated by DfE statisticians, and generally not shared outside the Department. The TSM determines the optimum number of ITT places in England in order to match future teacher supply with future teacher demand as closely as possible. The Bulletin notes that whilst allocations are guided by the TSM outputs, they have to address variable recruitment patterns, viable provision issues and regional differences. New policy decision may also lead to new allocations of places.

How often the TSM is run, and what smoothing of output is currently taking place, isn’t generally shared with the wider community. More than twenty years ago I suggested that the TSM be made public in the same manner as the Treasury shared the economic models it used to forecast future trends in various indicators such as inflation and interest rates. Since then much has happened to economic debate, but little has happened with sharing the TSM except for a couple of papers in response to Select Committee Reports. However, before the appearance of the Statistical Bulletin, one might be forgiven for thinking that this really didn’t matter now. After all, the head of the NCSL told the North of England conference in January 2013 that:

In the future I would like to see local areas deciding on the numbers of teachers they will need each year rather than a fairly arbitrary figure passed down from the Department for Education. I have asked my officials at the TA to work with schools, academy chains and local authorities to help them to devise their own local teacher supply model. I don’t think Whitehall should be deciding that nationally we need 843 geography teachers, when a more accurate figure can be worked out locally.

So either the Statistical Bulletin is correct and the DfE is still setting allocations nationally, if not targets, and Mr Taylor’s approach has been rejected by Ministers or the Bulletin is a last manifestation of a system to be replaced by local decision-making.

The middle way between the two, and the most likely, is that the DfE and the Treasury set the overall national number based upon the TSM output, and how much the Treasury is prepared to allow in student loans and bursaries, and this global total is bid for by schools, with HEIs and others taking up what left after this process has happened. However, this begs a lot of questions, not least what happens to the places schools return during the recruitment rounds, as happened this year. And, who is responsible for managing any overall shortfall in recruitment into training under such a devolved system?

By way of example, take what has happened to global allocations between November 2012 and August 2013, History places have increased from 686 to 811, whereas Computer Science numbers have declined from 853 to 780. Why has it been necessary to smooth the global targets in these subjects; what policy changes have taken place demanding more history teachers but fewer computer science teachers? The rationale for these and other changes in global allocations haven’t been made clear to those I have asked about them. Overall, as the Bulletin observes, 1,199 extra places have been added to the ITT total between November 2012 and August 2013, making a total of 38,902 places plus Teach First, or more than 40,000 overall for 2013-14. That’s probably a record for England alone. Whether all 40,000 trainees will find a teaching post only time will tell. What worries me most is that many who had taken on the burden of an extra £9,000 in tuition fees may be at the back of the queue when jobs are being advertised next spring.

Curiouser & Curiouser

Now I may have done the DfE something of a dis-service with my last piece about scaremongering. Almost as I was writing it the DfE were publishing a Statistical Bulletin https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/229468/SFR_ITT_allocations_August_2013.pdf about ITT allocations and the changes from last November. This has allowed me to update my data about current trends to be much more accurate.

After looking at all the routes, including those that don’t recruit through nationally managed schemes, I still stand by my view that the targets are unlikely to be met this year. However, whether the targets are too high is another matter. For many years the employment-based routes weren’t subject to targets in the same manner as the traditional higher education and SCITT programmes were. After they were added to the targets overall numbers were quite rightly reduced to take account of the falling secondary school population. This year, it seems as if some employment-based providers that either lost out in the School Direct allocations or wanted another route have created some new SCITTs. These providers have acquired nearly 600 extra places since November, a similar number to the increase for the whole of the HE sector. Interestingly, by contrast, School Direct has only grown by 1.5%, or 145 places, since November and there has been a switch from the Salaried Route to the less expensive Training route of 5%. The undergraduate route has remained static at just under 6,800 places in some tables and 6,400 in others. Either way this route now accounts for less than a third of trainee primary school teachers.

ISurprisingly, Computer Science, a one-time favourite of the Secretary of State actually has now a reduced number of places in the August totals compared with November’s target. The decrease is of 73 places, close to a 10% reduction. Design & Technology also seems to have suffered a similar fate. What the Business Secretary will make of his Education colleague presiding over reductions in the sort of subjects that are key for the nation’s wealth producing industries I don’t know, but the fact the Statistical Bulletin doesn’t point these reductions out might be worthy of note in itself. By contrast, both history and PE have gained an additional 100 places each. Both subjects will have no difficulty filling these extra places as they are the two subjects where applications through the GTTR route in 2013 are above last year. Filling the extra places awarded in Mathematics and the Sciences may not be possible this year, and it does go to show why managing the whole recruitment cycle efficiently is important.

Finally, for some reason that is even less clear than in the past, Teach First numbers are excluded from consideration in the Bulletin. As Ministers keep announcing that it is an ever more important route into teaching, excluding the data from a discussion on ITT allocations seems bizarre to say the least. If there is nothing to hide, then I see no reason not to include Teach First data in the overall statistics. At the very least it would allow potential trainees to see the total numbers being trained. But then we don’t know the numbers being recruited without any training. How that total will be tracked is another interesting challenge for the sector.


So now I know I am officially a scaremonger. A DfE spokesperson, helpfully anonymous, is quoted by the Daily Mail today as saying of my delving into the current teacher training position that there was no teacher shortage, adding: ‘This is scaremongering and based on incomplete evidence.’

Well the first thing to note is that I haven’t said that there is a teacher shortage, just that training places are not being filled: not the same thing. Indeed, I have said a teacher shortage is less likely than in the past in the near future because Mr Gove has mandated that qualified teachers from Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the whole of the USA can teach here as qualified teachers with no need to retrain. With an oversupply of teachers in parts of both Canada and Australia that should prevent any short-term problem developing even though another part of the government isn’t very keen on importing workers from abroad, presumably including from within the Commonwealth and a one time colony.

More serious is the charge of using ‘incomplete evidence’ in reaching my conclusions. If the DfE has figures to show that more places will be filled this September on teacher training courses than I am predicting, then please will they share them with the wider community, if not, will they please justify what they mean.

It could be that they take issue with my colleague Chris Waterman’s assessment of the number of those likely to be taught Mathematics by unqualified teachers. However, it is worth noting that earlier this year the DfE produced its own evidence to show that 17.9% of the Mathematics hours taught to years 7-13 were led by those with ‘no relevant post A Level qualification’. That was some 85,000 hours of instruction. Assuming each class of pupils has six hours of contact per week that makes more than 14,000 classes already being taught by unqualified staff, and with no programme in place to improve their qualifications if they are intending to teach the subject for a period of time. If each class has only 20 pupils, the total number of pupils already being taught by teachers with no measurable post A Level qualification in Mathematics can easily be worked out. It is also worth pointing out that the DfE showed that in November 2012 less than half of those teaching Mathematics had a degree that could be classified as a Mathematics degree, with 23% having a PGCE as their highest Mathematics qualification and a degree in another subject, hopefully with lots of applied mathematics as a apart of the degree.

As Chris Waterman has rightly pointed out the raising of the participation age to 17 this September and 18 a year later should increase the demand for Mathematics teachers as the Wolf Report endorsed the now widely held view that more youngsters should continue to study Mathematics until the age of18.

The government has taken a bold gamble with teacher education: moving training to schools; introducing pre-entry tests in literacy and numeracy; raising the cost of training in many subjects to £9,000 for fees plus living costs. It is important that there is a credible debate about how these changes are working.

After all, in 2010, Mr Gove promised 200 teachers of Mandarin would be trained each year, and although some providers such as the London Institute offer it as an option I doubt that target was ever reached. It is time for a radical overhaul of teacher preparation to really meet the needs of a 21st century education system.

550 more primary school teachers needed for London in a few years time

Mid-year estimates from the Office of National Statistics released today* show around 9,000 more children in London in the under-one age category compared with the number of one year olds. That’s a big jump, and more than 20,000 greater than the number of five year olds. If these children stay in the capital then the pressure on services, and not least on schools, is going to remain intense. At least 500 extra teachers will be needed when those born since the last figures were published reach school-age.

Although the present supply of teachers for the primary sector is adequate, the government will need to watch for any decline in interest in teaching the early years, and be prepared to improve the limited funding to encourage training and working in London if such a decline occurs. Fortunately, there is some, but not much, relief from the figures for the South East where there is a slight drop in the totals, but it is only just over a thousand. Elsewhere across the regions of England there don’t seem to be any dramatic changes in the number of under-ones compared with the total of one year-olds.

Pressure on childcare and nursery places is going to be felt ahead of the problems facing the school but at least the government and local authorities have time to respond to the population growth. I personally doubt whether ‘free school’ will be the answer and however much Mr Gove may not like local authorities he would be well advised to ensure that they have sufficient funds left for planning how to handle this increase. No doubt the Mayor of London will also have something to say about the issue since strategic planning for the whole of London is one of his concerns.

Funding these extra pupil numbers is going to be one of the biggest challenges facing education planners over the next decade, especially as class sizes are fixed at a maximum of thirty for the under-7s. Finding space for all the new classrooms is going to almost as big a challenge.

* http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/publications/re-reference-tables.html?edition=tcm%3A77-319259