Losing the teacher supply battle

This time last year I raised the question of whether we would recruit enough trainees to become teachers in 2014, in a post dated 1st June 2013, and headed ‘Missing the Target is a Known’. Sadly, I have to make the same prediction for the 2014 round that now has but three months to run before the majority of courses start in September.

With schools so heavily involved, and would-be trainees needing to pass the Skills Tests before starting their course, anyone that hasn’t applied by mid-July, effectively at some point during the next six weeks, will probably struggle to find a course unless the NCTL makes it clear to providers that they should recruit right up to the wire, as many universities have always had to do when recruitment was challenging.

The auguries for recruiting new trainees are not good. Recently the Association of Graduate Recruiters said that nine out of ten graduate employers still have vacancies for this autumn, with businesses in engineering and IT particularly suffering. Recruiters, they added, ‘cannot find enough quality candidates’. So the golden years of the recession, when a surplus of good quality graduates flowed into teacher preparation courses at the point in the demographic cycle when rolls in secondary schools were falling, and demand for teachers was declining, is over. We need more teachers and they are becoming harder to recruit.

My current predictions based upon data released this week by UCAS from the unified application process is that the following  subjects may well miss the lower of their DfE Teacher Supply Model figure or their NCTL allocation:

  • Biology
  • Design & Technology
  • Geography
  • Mathematics
  • Music
  • Physics
  • Religious Education

The jury is still out on Chemistry, but science overall is likely to face some sort of shortfall, if only because of the serious shortage of physics trainees. Although English will meet its target, I still do not believe we are training enough teachers, and governors still tell me that they are facing challenges recruiting such teachers in some parts of the country. It is significant that the TES job site has around 250 main scale positions for teachers of English today, but only around 200 for teachers of Mathematics.

Many of the subjects in the list where I expect shortages of trainees this year, were also subjects where there was a shortfall last year, so the warning that I and others made this time last year may been heeded, but has not been dealt with, unless you consider hiring unqualified personnel as the solution.

This year, there is also some nervousness about recruitment to primary ITT courses in some parts of the country. A shortfall there would be a real disaster, especially as schools with cash reserves will undoubtedly start upping the salary they are prepared to pay in the new de-regulated world of teachers’ pay and conditions. From there, it is but a short step to abandoning the principle of free schooling so parents can top up school coffers to help attract teachers through better pay. How that will affect the notion of fairness and equity only time will tell.


Schools in chains or not?

The DfE’s recent publication of some case studies relating to effective academy chains presents a useful contrast to the departure of an academy chain earlier in the week; the first such chain to effectively fold. The DfE research can be found at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/academy-sponsor-profiles

Both these events set me thinking about the issue of control of schools. For the past three years, the favoured solution, at least in terms of what has been happening on the ground, has been the converter academy model where in most cases a school goes its own way. This has replaced the sponsored academy model introduced by the Labour government, and now often reserved for either newly formed schools or school that are taken over after failure by Ofsted, or possibly groups of primary schools.

Of course, both chains, and individual schools within the State system, are nothing new in education. The dioceses that manage the large number of church schools might be described as the original chains, and it is interesting to see the Diocese of Wakefield as one of the DfE’s academy chain case studies. At the other end of the spectrum were those individual voluntary aided schools that traced their history back to charitable foundations. Many were, and often still are, selective secondary schools, but, for instance, around London there is a ring of schools linked either to the livery companies or to long-established charities. At one time there were many more, but the amalgamations of the 1980s, during the drop in pupil numbers, witnessed the disappearance of quite a number, including the final vestiges of three in Haringey alone.

Now that the remaining community schools are not very different from academies in respect of their control as local authorities have few powers left, even where they are able to retain considerable influence, the question of the span of control needs properly debating properly.

The chief officer for Children’s Services in Hampshire recently expressed concern to the Select Committee about a dip in performance in some converter academies, and the DfE recently released figures for the number of schools not opening an email about safeguarding. Both these incidents raise the question about effective span of control. The other key question is the place of education in the democratic process?

Put the two questions together and you essentially ask the question successive governments since the Thatcher era have ducked; town hall or Whitehall as the key player in education.

Despite my preference for the local, especially for primary schools, where most children attend their nearest school, and there must be key links to other community services such as health and welfare, I fear we are moving inexorably towards a Whitehall run system with un-elected local commissioners; and not even the semblance of a School Board as in the USA.

I predict that whoever wins the 2015 general election, assuming the nation isn’t in a state of legislative paralysis after a hung parliament when the notion of five year fixed term parliaments may yet come back to haunt the electorate,  any sensible government will take decisive action to make clear the policy and decision-making processes within our school system.

Hopefully, the system that emerges will be effective at continuing to raise standards. Certainly, it won’t be as democratic as what has been the position during most of my lifetime, and possibly it will be expensive in managerial overheads. Whether small chains will survive is still a matter for debate.

Slow start for UTCs

Along with Free Schools, the Coalition, (well the Conservative section at least), is keen on University Technical Schools and Studio Schools. I don’t really know what my Party’s position is on these new types of 14-18 schools offering specialisms designed to help the local labour market, and provide youngsters will vocational skills.  I suppose we accepted them as part of the Coalition deal, and because we have always wanted better 14-18 education for those not likely to be heading straight for university at eighteen. But, I don’t recall any serious debate about the topic; perhaps I missed it somewhere early on in the life of the Coalition.

Whatever their purpose, it is sad to see that the 39 UTCs and Studio Schools open by the start of September 2103 have in some cases attracted only limited numbers of students. Perhaps not surprisingly, the UTC with the largest number of students is the JCB Academy, a flagship schools which opened in January 2013, and had 276 students enrolled by September of that year. As befits its flagship status, it also had the best attendance record of any of these schools.

Of the other UTCs and studio schools open in September 2013, 25 had an enrolment of 100 students or less, and 14 had enrolled more than 100 students. Now 150 students is a reasonable number for one year group in a 14-18 school, and would give a total of 600 when the school was fully operational. However, three of the schools with fewer than 50 pupils opened in 2012, and one that opened in 2011 with the first tranche of such schools still, apparently, only has 54 students on roll in September 2013. So, unless they increase enrolment over the next two years, they could be fully operational with little more than 100 students.

I am not sure how much capital for new buildings has been ploughed into this programme, but so far it is educating fewer than 2,500 students across the whole of England, or the size of one large comprehensive school. Hopefully, the new schools aiming to come on stream in 2014 will have fared better in the admissions round just completed; perhaps someone might like to file a few FOI requests to find out.

After the recent debate about funding for the 800,000 extra pupils entering the mainstream school system over the decade after 2010, it might be appropriate to ask whether many of the skills being offered in both studio schools and UTCs could have been taught more cost effectively in the further education sector. How far should the national taxpayer be asked to pay for a specialist local school that is often only of benefit to a small section of local industry?  This is especially the case when government is also championing the growth in apprenticeships: the two policies risk being at odds with one another.

As the decisions on where to place these schools seem more related to who wants to fund them, the opportunity to develop a coherent policy towards 14-18 education once again appears to have been lost.







Coalition gets children back to school

This post was based upon the original data released by the DfE. The data has now been reissued in revised form although the DfE say that main trends are unaffected.

Figures from the DfE released today show absence rates in the autumn term continued to fall in 2013 when compared with previous years https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/pupil-absence-in-schools-in-england-autumn-term-2013 Overall, the national figure for those pupils missing 22 or more sessions during the autumn term has fallen from 8.3% of pupils in the autumn of 2009 – the last year of the Labour government – to 4.6% of pupils in 2013, the fourth year of the Coalition government’s oversight of education. In secondary schools, the decline has been from 10.3% in 2009 to 5.9% in 2013 or from just over one in ten pupils at risk of becoming a persistent absentee to just over one in twenty.  There are similar levels of improvement in the figures for all pupil absences over the same period.

Illness still remains the main reason for pupil absence, accounting for some 59% of all missed sessions, so the relatively mild start to the winter in2 013 may have helped reduce absence along with more pressure on parents not to take holidays during term-time despite the much cheaper prices available then compared with the peak holiday periods.

One interesting challenge for the coalition is that only 2 of the 26 UTCs and Studio Schools open last autumn had absence rates for that term that were below the national average, and three of the Studio Schools appeared to have had absence rates of over 20%. Surely, cause for a quick call from Ofsted to see what is happening here, and whether they are being used by other schools as a means of exporting pupils at age 14 with poor attendance records that might reflect badly on the schools they have previously been attending. The fact that two of the Studio Schools seem to belong to the same group might also merit attention. It may well be that they are working with particular groups of pupils, although, if so, that isn’t clear from their web site, and the schools are obviously doing good things for some pupils.

However, as nine of the 25 schools with the worst overall absence rates were Studio Schools or UTCs, and one was a Free School, this does suggest there are some questions to be asked. Interestingly, 13 of the schools with the worst absence rates are primary schools and it would be important to see whether they regularly appear in the worst 25 such schools, and if so why?

For the first time data has been produced for both Pupil Referral Units and for four year olds, and both will provide a baseline for comparison in future years.

Sadly, no school had a 100% attendance record for the autumn term, but a free school in the North West and a junior school in Hampshire recorded 99% or better attendance figures for the term.

Below I am repeating the blog I posted last year about studio schools that reveals I was concerned then about attendance rates. Clearly, the issue has not been solved.

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. https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/200820/Main_text_-_SFR17_2013.pdf

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.







‘£56k’s being spent to give children a sandwich’

The headline in today’s Guardian above an almost universally negative article about the Free School Meals initiative is indicative of the feelings of many educationalists about the policy: frustration at the funding, unhappiness at a lack of consultation, and too often an apparent unwillingness to look beyond the obvious tried and tested solution.

Firstly the money issue. Schools in Oxfordshire charge £2.00 at present for a meal, but will receive £2.30 per meal taken from September, so there should be a greater contribution towards serving costs than at present. As to a small chain of academies having to employ a catering supervisor, as mentioned in the Guardian article, this really demonstrates the dis-economies of scale of small academy chains. In 1974, the debate about local government re-organisation centred on whether an authority with 250,000 citizens was large enough to manage a school system. In the market-based world of the past quarter century this sort of debate about size and efficiency has been thrown out along with the bath water. No doubt the failure of an academy chain today, the first such failure, will be seen as partly due to economic rather than educational reasons, especially as it had no geographical integrity to the group of schools it oversaw. Perhaps this might re-open the debate about size and effectiveness of schooling.

Finally, on the money issue, many local primary schools once again under spent their budgets in 2013-14 despite locally submitting budgets showing that they would draw down several million pounds of reserves. It is in my view entirely appropriate to use some of this cash to introduce the free school meals policy.

Where there has been a failure is probably over the discussions between politicians and teachers’ leaders, especially the leaders of the heads associations and the governors. Confrontational politics makes for interesting times, but can inhibit the smooth operation of government. I don’t advocate a return to the days when a small cabal sat around a table and decided everything, but under the present approach a policy that needed to win the schools’ hearts and minds didn’t even attempt to do so; sadly, the leaders of my Party don’t seem to have fully understood that basic tenant of leadership.

The policy of free meals does have real benefits, they may not all be directly educational, but with the growth of zero hours contracts they will ensure no child loses out on lunch because of the form filling required of parents; and mothers, since it is they that usually either find the money or buy the packed lunch in many households, will see an extra £400 or so in their purses from September onwards.

I would like to see more of the ‘can do’, but after six years of economic hardship I suppose the present attitude is only to be expected. And to the head juggling building work, child protection issues, teaching  and learning, and the introduction of free school meals: that’s the reality of leadership.

Trojan horse or Zinoviev letter?

As I understand the situation, part of the row in Birmingham, and now Bradford, over the targeting of several schools by those with a particular view of education, centers on the issue of the possible use of schools to radicalise young people. However, much of the public discussion appears to be around issues linked to more traditional educational debates, such as separating the genders in classrooms, and denying girls the right to some activities such as sport and physical education. Clearly, these educational points should be easily disproved or established, and dealt with.

Although academies are free to set their own curriculum under Gove’s reforms, I am not sure that barring certain groups from some activities was an intended consequence. But, it shows what can happen with freedom. There is also an issue about how governors are appointed in the new undemocratic education world. In local authority controlled schools there was generally some democratic oversight of governor appointments with ward councillors being told of vacancies, and reports to Council. There is no such obvious mechanism for what is happening in academies. However, not all the schools involved in Birmingham were academies.

The wider point of segregation on gender lines in education is more interesting as an issue. There are, after all, selective gender segregated schools in Tory controlled Kent and Buckinghamshire; in the London boroughs of Merton and Kingston; and in northern authorities such as The Wirral and Lancashire. Indeed, it is only within my lifetime that the last gender segregated junior schools in places such as Croydon were turned into co-educational schools. Many of the three-decker Victorian schools in London still have the reminders of past times with separate boys’ and girls’ entrances, inscribed in the stonework over the doors, now happily used by all. Indeed, Birmingham has had separate boys’ and girls’ selective and comprehensive schools within its education system for many years.

Personally, I prefer co-education, but there cannot be one rule for some and not for others. The DfE database record 232 state-funded schools just for girls, including selective schools run by faith groups, and slightly fewer for boys. That means up to ten per cent of secondary schools across England may be single-sex schools. There is an issue about how any group of parents or other community groups can alter the characteristics of an existing school, compared with the clear framework for submitting proposals for a new academy of some sort or other.

Up until 1997, there was an understanding that Christian and Jewish schools would be funded by the State, but not those of other religions. The Blair government changed the rules to make them more logical, with any group being able to seek to set up a school with a faith-based character funded from the public purse. However, it never really discussed what to do when communities change and there is an existing pattern of schools.

Nevertheless, the government should have been alert to the problems that can occur with the secular curriculum in schools run for particular religious purposes. The Ofsted report of an independent school in Hackney this January is evidence enough to have alerted anyone concerned by the issue. It also demonstrates that Ofsted was perfectly capable of inspecting such schools, and reporting on their education functions. Why a former police officer needed to be sent into Birmingham ahead of Ofsted, only the Secretary of State can explain, as no doubt he will do so when the various reports have appeared.

The role of religions in education has always been complicated in England because of the manner in which the State replaced the churches as the main provider of schooling. The issue was discussed before the 1902 Education Act was passed by the then Wesleyan Methodist Church. The question they discussed was: were Wesleyans teachers of children or teachers of Methodist children. They opted for the former point of view, and as a consequence there were no Methodist state funded secondary schools, but many Methodist have become teachers. Other faith groups took the contrary view, and there are such schools. Where does the modern State want to go in a multi-faith community where schooling is a key factor in the lives of young people? Birmingham may present an opportunity to decide what type of schooling system the State should fund. A debate now joined by the Archbishop of Canterbury in favour of faith schools.


Knife crime: do we need mandatory sentences?

There was a debate on the Today programme this morning about mandatory prison sentences for possession of a bladed instrument – to use the formal legal terminology – carrying a knife to you and me. A mother whose son had been killed while attending a party as a teenager was advocating not just prison for using a knife, but even for just carrying one; presumably as a means of deterring young people from so doing. Simon Hughes as the Minister had a difficult job talking about a policy on mandatory sentences advocated by one of his ministerial colleagues that his party leader has publically disagreed with.

As regular readers of this blog will know, I have a personal interest in knife crime for reasons I don’t need to discuss again in this post. However, as I have written in a piece for the Church Times, by coincidence published today, I am opposed to mandatory  prison sentences for carrying a knife or other bladed instrument. Unlike the mother interviewed on the Today programme, who dismissed the courts out of hand, I have more faith in the judiciary and the guidelines set down by the Sentencing Body and the higher courts, including the Supreme Court.

As well as being a victim of a knife crime, I also served for 20 years within the justice system, so I have considered this issue in my mind several times over the past few years. Draconian laws will have some effect. However, fishing is the most popular participation activity for men in this country, and it usually involves carrying a knife. Going on a summer picnic may involve carrying a knife to cut the cheese with or even the bread. Automatic prison sentences for carrying knives in these situations? There would presumably need to be the exception for those carrying on their trade, carpet fitters, chefs, and no doubt those that work in many other occupations and carry knives from place to place. So, perhaps we should just consider banning the carrying of knives by those under the age of eighteen, as we do with the sale of alcohol or cigarettes; and punish both the seller and the purchaser with prison? It would have an effect, but since even some in custody seem adept at creating bladed instruments from what is on hand in prison, it seems that where there is a will there is a way.

Perhaps not surprisingly, I prefer a different approach based upon education and earlier intervention. The Museum of Childhood ran an interesting exhibition on the subject of knife crime some time ago and their very readable booklet can be found at:  http://www.museumofchildhood.org.uk/__documents/teen_knife_crime_booklet.pdf (link no longer active – September 2018) What is clear is that social media and the internet have allowed those opposed to knife crime the opportunity to spread their messages as much as those that want punitive action.

I don’t condone violence whether with a knife, gun or a fist, but dealing with those with anti-social attitudes just by locking them up doesn’t completely solve the problem.  Compared with a decade ago, knife crime, and many other crimes, seems on a downward trend. I remain to be convinced that harsher sentences will assist in reducing knife crime still further in society.