Private or public

I have been told in a briefing note from the LGIU that a recent edition of the Financial Times newspaper carried a report from Children England, a coalition of leading charities, warning that “price-driven competition” in children’s services is having a damaging effect on the resources available for vulnerable young people. The umbrella group suggests that the involvement of “major shareholder companies”, and the cut taken by their investors, is shifting the focus away from the public being served. The charities, backed by the TUC, said an independent inquiry should look at “the benefits and shortcomings” of outsourcing.

This set me thinking about the issue of direct services from government, and the alternative of out-sourcing; especially after I read in the city press about two UK companies active in the sector possibly merging. Although one is apparently stronger than the other, it did set me wondering about whether any of the benefits from a merger might be passed on to the public sector through lower contract prices or will there just be a benefit to investors and the staff? Much, I guess, will depend upon whether it will increase or reduce competition.

At a meeting I chaired in London recently the issue came up in another way. The largest cost we face in education is for staff; whether professional, support or contractors. Material and running costs are relatively low compared with staffing costs, as they are in many other government services. When staffing costs are relatively fixed through the use of agreed wage rates there seems little point in not employing staff directly, as why pay the profit element for a fixed cost? However, when variable wage rates are introduced, the possibility of savings being made arises. If that is controversial, as it always will be, passing the burden of making the savings to the private sector, with profit being the reward, absolves government of the burden of pushing down wage rates. This is what I suspect is happening in the care sector at present, as workers employed by private contractors are faced with absorbing more unpaid work, such as travel between clients and payment is being restricted to actual client contact. Much the same thing happened in the education sector with some supply teacher pay rates in the past.

Now where schools are purchasers of services, there is another reason for local government to abandon direct service provision, as there is always the risk that schools will go elsewhere, and a service will have to be supported from other council income for the remaining users. Wise councils have no doubt cushioned the risk by signing long-term contracts with schools that would allow time to wind down a service if too many schools opted to go elsewhere.

In a time of cutbacks on government expenditure, as we have witnessed during the past six years, it is inevitable that staffing costs will come under pressure, and the debate between cutting wages or cutting services will rage. Sometimes there is a third way, and new technology or a different approach, can achieve the same service level for lower costs. Is that what we ought to be striving for in education? The only other alternative to preserve service levels is higher taxes.


Zia Jian Mr Gove

Zia Jian (or goodbye)

So, it’s out with the wordsmith and in with a woman who will surely never make the mistake of taking just about heroes, and never mentioning a heroine, as Mr Gove once did to an audience of head teachers.

No doubt we haven’t heard the last of Michael Gove’s views on education as in his new role he will be able to take part in the Conservative election campaign without the need to actually take responsibility for a department of state. At least his successor, as a corporate lawyer with Treasury experience, might be expected to have a better grasp of numbers than her predecessor; always I felt a possible Achilles heel for Mr Gove, who seemed happier with a speech that could be reported by the Daily Mail the following day with a ringing endorsement. Perhaps it was either the Trojan Horse affair in Birmingham that finally did for Mr Gove or possibly intelligence from the constituencies picked up that the teacher vote was more important in marginal seats that was compatible with a Secretary of State with such an upfront manner. Either way, he is now added to the list of past holders of the office on the wall in the reception area at Sanctuary Buildings.

The departure of junior minister in the Department, Elizabeth Truss, to cabinet glory, leaves David Laws as the sole survivor in the Commons on the school side of the department. And one wonders whether he will survive the autumn re-shuffle of Lib Dem Ministers when it comes around at conference time. Perhaps, it may depend upon how the Scottish Referendum plays out and whether there is a vacancy for the post of Chief Secretary to the Treasury in October?

Much of the legacy of Mr Gove may come from his first year in office, and those heady first three months when he piloted the Academies Act through parliament and set schools on a new course towards independence. He also visited China with the Prime Minister that autumn, hence the headline for this column. However, although the teaching of Mandarin is now more common in our schools, it hasn’t yet taken off in the same manner as academies.

Hopefully, near the top of the new Secretary of State’s to do list will be to sort out teacher supply and the issue of how we prepare enough teachers for the boom years to come? Solve that problem and many others pale into insignificance. Some calming down of the curriculum changes might also be worthwhile now that there will be a new junior minister in place to take the burden. Finally, there is less than 300 days to mend fences with the teachers, or at least not to make relations any worse.




Some might call it a success!

My first thought was to head this piece ‘The triumph of hope over reality’, but I thought that a bit unfair. Nevertheless, the fact that the much trailed ‘Troops to Teachers’ scheme has recruited just 102 entrants into teacher training over two years, when the government has said in answer to a Parliamentary Question put on 6th March 2013 that they were planning to be able to support 1,000 entrants from that route on either School Direct Salaried or Training courses, does raise some questions.

Now those leaving the forces have often ended up in education. For many years Warrant Officers and NCOs leaving with a pension have taken their skills into the further education sector, and some officers similarly leaving with a pension have become bursars, mostly in the independent sector. So, were the government policymakers expecting these leavers to switch to mainstream teaching or had they indentified a group of earlier leavers from the army that might be attracted into teaching? I am sure someone in either the DfE or the NCTL asked the question; how many leavers of a graduate level or with the skills to acquire a degree leave the army each year; and how many might want to teach? I assume you can leave aside most of the specialist trades and professions within the army as they would normally head back into law, medicine, the church, or whatever trade, skill or vocation they had used in the army.

So, did that leave mostly the infantry and the gunners as the main source of potential teachers? I don’t know what the number of graduate level leavers there are each year from these two branches of the army, but I doubt it is anywhere near 1,000 even every two years. As a result, 61 this year might just be a good haul from the possible pool. I have been told that around 1,000 expressed an interest, and 300 were possibly eligible, so a one in six conversion rate for those eligible compares with a conversion rate per place of about 3.3 for higher education secondary courses according to one source in the comments to an earlier post on this blog.  

Now I suppose that there were those that felt former army personnel would have the necessary grasp of discipline to be able to deal with behaviour management: as if hormonal teenagers were no different to young soldiers. Personally, I think it more to do with the personal qualities any occupational group that works mostly with people requires. Those from such groups often make good teachers because they understand the need to relate to others. It is also why teachers make such attractive employees to other employers, a fact we should not overlook as the economy expands and business look for graduates with the inter-personal skills teachers have in abundance.

The question that needs asking is, who was responsible for talking up the possible delivery target for the ‘Troops to Teachers’ scheme, and did a Minister accepted the figures without asking any questions? If so, what was their special adviser doing?


Sour grapes from Daily Mail?

In the Daily Mail today there is an attack on the free school meals policy for infants to be introduced in September by the Coalition. Oxfordshire is apparently cited as an area not entirely ready for the new policy and the Conservative Cabinet member is quoted. I thought readers of this blog might like to see the exchange in the Oxford Mail comment column between myself and the Cabinet member over the issue that went out at the end of May.
Should all five- to seven-year-olds get free school dinners?
The decision to offer free school lunches for all pupils in reception and Years 1 and 2 of state funded schools was announced by Nick Clegg, the deputy Prime Minister, at the Lib Dem Conference in Glasgow last autumn, and comes into force with the new school year this September, writes John Howson.
The free school meals policy is one I completely agree with.
From September, hard-working families won’t have to spend money on their children’s lunches during term-time.
Parents can save around £500 per child per year of pre-tax income by not having to pay for these meals.
This is money that can now be used for other things. It is being achieved without any bureaucracy or form filling and will especially help parents on zero hour contracts with irregular working weeks.
The new policy also does away with the unfortunate division within schools between free school meal pupils and the rest that accompanied the previous means tested policy in some schools.
Bringing children together at this age at lunchtime can help develop social habits such as eating together as a group. It can also teach the values of sharing, as well as respect for the needs and tastes of others.
Lib Dem policy will now ensure a free meal at midday for most infants. It is a cost-effective policy.
Of course, there are hurdles to overcome.
These include creating the spaces to cook and eat the meals, especially in schools built since the Thatcher era when school meals were regarded by successive governments with disdain.
This is despite the contribution school meals made to the well-being of generations of young children after their introduction by the Liberal government of 1906.
Many schools will receive money to refurbish their buildings, and small rural schools will receive an extra £3,000 each that will help around 80 Oxfordshire schools.
The Pupil Premium money schools receive can still be used for breakfast clubs, where appropriate, and all schools will still need to collect information on eligible pupils that will continue to receive the funding, but, as other authorities have shown, collecting this information presents no real problems.
Nationally, the free school meals policy reverses a mistake of the Thatcher/Blair era, and once again recognises the vital relationship between nutrition, learning, and behaviour in young children.
Melinda Tilley, Conservative Cabinet member for Oxfordshire Children, Education & Families
We all want to see children eating healthily and there’s nothing wrong with promoting school dinners. But while Nick Clegg’s flagship policy may prove popular with parents, I suspect most – or at least a great many – would accept they don’t really need the state to pay for their children’s lunches,
Rather than introducing this universal benefit, the money would be far better spent on ensuring disadvantaged children are getting the help they need to keep up with their classmates. And if it must be spent on providing food, then breakfast clubs would be a better bet, as some children are starting the school day without any breakfast at all, and that has a major impact on their ability to concentrate and learn.
It has been suggested the policy will save parents £400 a year. However, they will also help to fund the scheme along with all other taxpayers – many of whom will rightly ask why, at a time of austerity, the Government is spending their money on a free-lunch scheme for families who can afford to pay and have done so for years.
The policy has also been announced without consultation or apparent consideration of the practicalities involved.
As things stand, many schools don’t have the right kitchen facilities or enough dining space – and some don’t have on-site kitchens at all. That means building work is needed, not to mention extra tables, chairs and cutlery.
The Government has provided around £1.4million in total for non-academy primary schools in Oxfordshire to make the necessary arrangements in time for September. We are working hard to establish the exact requirements of individual schools and what can be achieved in such a short space of time with this very limited funding.
In apparent recognition of these issues, Mr Clegg has now said schools can provide packed lunches instead of hot meals if necessary – which has only served to confuse matters further.
The bottom line is that hot meal or cold, schools have got to make this happen and we are doing what we can to help them.

Master Teacher: I think not

The Sunday’s papers story of Labour’s new professional development routes for teachers suggests that Labour is finally playing catch-up with some of the ideas discussed by the Liberal Democrats earlier this year in a report from the commission chaired by lord Storey, a former primary school head teacher in Liverpool.

However, I hope it was the headline writers that used the term ‘master teacher’ and that Labour weren’t quite as crass as to use such a term in a profession that is now predominantly female in its workforce. If they did, then it shows that 40 years of equal opportunity legislation still hasn’t really made more than a superficial difference in thinking. Considering the demands local Labour Councillors in Oxfordshire make about the use of the term chair rather than chairman, and the resistance of those that don’t see chair in the same form as the diminutive of ref in place of referee, I can see some fun to come.

However, the serious point is about the need for investment in professional development for teachers during the next parliament. The National College should provide benchmarking data for schools to show what good employers outside of education typically spend on further training each year on employees at different stages of their careers. Ofsted could then monitor whether schools are spending anything like the same amount of their income on all staff, and not just teachers.

Labour thinking also reveals the endless tension between ensuing enough good staff will join the leadership track for promotion while not preventing those that want to stay in the classroom from developing some form of career structure. The re-establishment of advisers and professional development centres might be a good first step, but it would require acceptance that some central funding is a good idea. It also isn’t clear from the reports I have read where Labour now stands on the idea of teaching being not just a graduate profession, but one where the majority of new entrants will be expect to achieve the level of a higher degree.

As I noted in an earlier post, it was Mrs Thatcher in her 1972 White Paper that first suggested a sabbatical of a term one in every seven years for teachers. Sadly, I cannot see that happening during the next parliament.

Nevertheless, with half the teaching profession under the age of thirty five, most sensible commentators would accept that there is a need for far more professional development than currently takes places. Some like the Conservatives that don’t believe teachers need initial training also presumably reject the need to spend money on professional development, believing teaching is an innate skill backed by subject knowledge. But, then some people still believe the world is flat, and the moon is made of cheese.

However, as well as securing better professional development, there is also the need to sort out initial training, especially for those entering the primary sector as graduate where both the PGCE and Teach First need urgent updating to meet the requirements of the modern age.

Trainees needed, even in the North East

Yesterday The Guardian carried an article about the impending teacher shortage that was kind enough to quote some figures from the research I have undertaken. You can read the full article at  Various BBC local radio stations have picked up on the story, and I am once again being asked to do interviews down the phone. In preparing for the one on Radio Tess tomorrow morning I thought I would check the position in the North East regarding the number of teacher preparation courses still with vacancies as of today by looking at the UCAS web site. It is irritating that whereas the DfE site last year showed the number of places, and the number still available, UCAS this year only shows whether the provider has a vacancy at present or not.

Anyway, the depressing news for a region that usually has no problem filling its ITT places is that apart from in History, PE, and some modern foreign languages, there are still a considerable number of providers with at least one vacancy in many other subjects. For instance 16/17 providers of places in geography have at least one vacancy: only Newcastle University has the course full sign up in this subject. That’s actually down from both universities offering places in geography that were full last time I looked a couple of weeks ago. In Mathematics, 30 out of the 38 providers still have places, and in Physics it is 23 out of 24! Even in primary, where I would have expected in most years all places to have been long filled, and there to be unofficial waiting lists, this year, 46 of the 95 providers offering graduate training courses for intending primary teachers are still showing vacancies. Of course, that might only be 46 vacancies out of several hundred places, but surely there shouldn’t be any vacancies nine weeks before the courses actually start.

No doubt the review by Sir Peter Carter that is currently under way will take cognisance of this type of data, and want to report on what is hampering recruitment this year, for we really cannot experience another year likes this next year.

Sadly, it is probably too late to do anything about most unfilled places this year as schools approach the start of the long summer break.  Nevertheless, Ministers will have to answer some challenging questions come the autumn if the current figures turn out to be the reality of the recruitment round.

In the past, the DfE has tended to treat a year once over as a disappointment, but no more, if places are not filled. I doubt that commentators will be as forgiving of any shortfall against training numbers this year as we have so many extra pupils to find teachers for during the coming decade, as the Guardian article made clear.

It is too soon to decide whether one type of programme has fared worse than another, but there may well be a debate about this once the final figures are known in the autumn.