Divide by three

The government’s new TV advertising campaign to attract entrants into the teaching profession cannot come soon enough. Data released today by UCAS shows that at the halfway point in the recruitment cycle the grim picture I highlighted when the January data emerged has not improved; in some cases it has even become worse.

Normally, in past years most primary PGCE places have been taken up by now. This year, applicants are holding 7,610 offers compared with 8,540 at the same date in 2014. Now, because of the new, expensive and unhelpful admissions arrangements, candidates may hold a number of offers for a period of time. Thus, real acceptances this year could be less than 3,000, including candidates required to meet conditions such as passing the skills tests. In 2012, there were 18,700 applicants for primary courses at this point in time, whereas if we assume the current 37,000 applicants have all made their possible three applications then there may be fewer than 12,500 applicants for primary courses are in the system. That’s a big drop in four years.

The picture is little better in secondary where many of the subjects that under-recruited last year aren’t doing much better this year. The total of offers are higher than at this point last year in languages; PE; art; and probably in IT and Chemistry. They are basically the same as at this point last year in Physics; mathematics; history; English; business studies; and biology. Most worrying is the fact that current offers are probably below last year in RE; music; geography and probably design and technology. The concerns over the future of the arts in schools are probably not mis-placed and no doubt potential teachers in these subjects are picking up on the messages.

With School Direct closing down applications in many cases during July, there are less than 20 weeks to turn around the current situation. A TV advertising campaign may not be enough: Fees should be either abolished for all trainees or guaranteed by the government. Increasing bursaries that are tax free risks trainees being paid more after tax and NI than the mentors helping train them in the schools. It also risks trainees having to take a pay cut on entry into the profession, especially if the £25,000 bursary is grossed up from the time spent in training to an annual salary.

There is a rumour that the NCTL is handing out more places to providers willing to take them. That is not a sensible move at this stage as it risks destabilising the sector. Providers that cannot fill enough places to make ends meet and cover their costs might just pull out. This is especially true of small primary school providers put in jeopardy by the current drop in applications. The government should look at possible safety net arrangements for providers faced with a shortage of applicants but serving parts of the country where their disappearance would cause real supply problems.

Unless teaching can attract career changers, and so far only 10,000 of the 24,600 applicants are over 25, then there will be few new applicants from now until after final exams finish in May or June. That will be too late to redeem recruitment failures earlier in the cycle.


Oasis close an academy in Kent

Hextable Academy in Swanley is to close because of falling rolls. Just when you thought schools needed to expand the Oasis Academy chain has decided to close Hextable Academy in Swanley. The 11-18 school has just fewer than 500 students according to government figures, but could accommodate 1,000 pupils. Those parents and their offspring waiting to hear about 2015 admissions in a fortnight’s time will be especially annoyed, as will the pupils kept at the school to complete their examination courses if teachers decide to quit ahead of the closure. Having worked in a college during a period of run-down prior to closure I know from first experience how little fun such a situation can be for both staff and students. The Academy Trust has at least apparently offered to pay for the new uniform of pupil relocated to another school.

Questions will need to be asked about the future of the site. It would be short-sighted to lose the school from education use if pupil numbers will increase over the next few years. Indeed, one wonders whether it might have been possible to save the school by turning it into a 5-18 all-through school by adding a primary department.

Kent County Council, the local authority, is in something of a difficult situation. They retain the legal responsibility for ensuring an education for all children but have no control over admission numbers in academies and could not have vetoed the decision to shut this school. I hope they will send Oasis a bill for all the extra work required of officers in placing the pupils requiring a new school because of the closure. It would be unfair to expect the council taxpayers of the county to foot the bill either for finding new schools or for any extra travel costs resulting from pupils having to change schools.

Hopefully, the academy chain discussed this closure with both the Education Funding Agency and their Regional Commissioner and explored whether it was worth keeping the school open with additional grant funding until pupil numbers increased again.

This episode, along with the Cuckoo Hall Academy Trust revelations chronicled in a previous post confirm my belief that the next government must sort out governance arrangements once and for all so that there is an overall body responsible for place planning and the effective use of resources across the school estate. I would like it to be the role of local authorities, but it doesn’t have to be if the government at Westminster decides otherwise. But, the present muddle cannot be allowed to last. Unstitching the grant payment for pupils that transfer to secondary schools that are not academies and operate on a different financial year will be just one more headache for officers to deal with.

One thing the DfE and EFA along with the regional commissioners must now do is set a timetable for academies and free school to notify the authorities each year if they are considering closure because of lack of numbers, or indeed for any other foreseeable reason.

Burying bad news: a dishonourable tradition

The DfE has continued the tradition of publishing bad news at a time when it presumably hopes many won’t be looking. However, in the current digital age the tradition of burying bad news on a Friday afternoon before a school holiday no longer really works. Thus, even though the adverse report by the Education Funding Agency on the Cuckoo Hall Academy Trust plus the Financial Notice to improve appeared on Friday 13th February on the EFA website (under respectively transparency data and correspondence for anyone having difficulty finding the details), they didn’t go un-noticed.

Cuckoo Hall Academy Trust was one of Gove’s flagship convertor schools and an early sponsor of ‘free schools’ in parts of Enfield, the North London borough.

Indeed, Gove visited the school and the head teacher was on the panel set up by Gove as Secretary of State to review teaching standards. As a result, the investigations of the goings-on at the Trust makes uncomfortable reading in what must been seen as a Tory flagship Trust.

As Cuckoo Hall has also been at the forefront of some of the school-led innovations in teacher training the findings regarding the approach to employing staff without current DBS checks has hopefully also been investigated by the NCTL to ensure that the same shortcomings haven’t been happening with respect to those taken onto teacher preparation courses and not shown as employees by the Trust.

The previous week to the Cuckoo Hall publication the EFA published the heavily redacted report on the Park View Academy Trust. There are now 10 reports on one part of the EFA website in a list first published in March 2014.  But, that isn’t the full list ofreviews, as there is another list covering investigations into financial management and governance at academies that was started at the same time, but that now contains 15 reports including some schools and trusts not on the other list.

Some schools have always broken the rules and these remain a small minority of academy trusts, but the risks remain high that governance arrangements and audit trails don’t always seem to be good enough. Too frequently the mis-use of credit cards appears in the reports and good leaders seem too often to succumb to a failure to manage basic operational procedures in the correct manner.

One solution would be to require all internal management auditing to be brought back into government with local authority teams auditing academies as well as maintained schools.  It might also help if there was a common accounting year for schools of all types as maintaining two different periods as the NAO has shown can also lead to a lack of understanding and poor control.

The other development should be to ensure all schools have a properly trained bursar with the power to refer any anxieties about compliance matters to an external regulator. Ofsted should be retained for teaching and learning compliance issues but financial and other matters needs a mechanism that will encourage the highest standards of public life across the board in education.

Congratulations Mrs Clarke

Congratulations to Mrs Rebecca Clarke. The BBC today noted on their Education pages that Mrs Clarke has become the head teacher at Greenleas First School in Linslade, near Leighton Buzzard in Bedfordshire, after starting work at the school as a volunteer and working through a range of posts including lunch-time supervisor, teacher, deputy head and twice acting head teacher before becoming the substantive head teacher.

This is a good news story in several respects. Firstly, as it shows that those coming to teaching later in life, in this case seemingly after her children started school, can still become a head teacher and secondly because governing bodies need to remember that head teachers can achieve without always following the expected path to promotion. That doesn’t mean I advocate dropping in those with no experience of education into the head’s study, as I don’t. But you don’t always need twenty years in the classroom environment before you can become a head teacher. This is especially the case for those women that take a career break to raise a family or care for a relative. Although it may be appropriate to initially return to classroom teaching to regain core skills the profession does need to do far more to facilitate re-entry and accelerated promotion for such people than currently is the case.

Once back promotion should be relatively swift if those making the decisions can see beyond the bare facts on an application form. With the demise of local authorities it isn’t clear where ‘return to teaching’ courses and support for this type of career development now resides in local areas. At the very least, the NCTL should review the help for returners on offer across the country.

Another primary school in the news this week is Gascoigne Primary in East London: a school featured in its own TV series. Currently with more than 1,000 pupils on roll, it has been suggested that it be expanded to 1,500 across two sites. Now, I wonder whether the expansion has less to do with educational factors and more to do with the fact that if the school was split into two new schools these would both have to become academies, whereas the current school can grow to any size and remain a community school with a closer relationship to the local Council. I am sure that isn’t the thinking, but I am curious about any plan to create mega-schools. When Labour tried to create massive so-called Triton prisons some years ago there was a mighty row in the national press and among those concerned with prison reform. But, it seems as a community we are accepting of such large size primary schools. Personally, having been educated in a 16 form junior school with around 650 pupils, I am not a great fan of very large primary schools, especially when they include very young children on site, as I have said before on this blog.  Still let’s celebrate Mrs Clarke’s achievement and worry about large schools on another day.



Labour backs Free Schools

Far more important than Labour’s reiterated pledge announced today to adhere to a watered down class size policy they first introduced in 1997 was the fact that at the same time they seemingly conceded that Labour now no longer universally opposes Free Schools as a concept; they just oppose them where they aren’t needed. Others will know whether this is a major concession or just a bit of real politick. Perhaps such schools might have been more acceptable if they had been branded as ‘voluntary academies’ to sit alongside converter and sponsored academies in the family of schools. After all, there has been a long tradition of voluntary schools in the state system and by no means are all of them faith schools.

Sadly, Labour seems to have ducked the issue of who will enforce class size controls. I assume it will be regional commissioners in academies, but will it still be local authorities in other schools and how will they be funded for such a duty?

The allowance of a year with an oversize class muddies the water since if on day one of the second year the school creates two classes but on day two reverts to one over-sized class for financial reasons will the clock start again providing another year of grace for the school? Realistically, as Labour understood in 1997, but doesn’t seem to now, if press reports are correct, an over-size class needs to be dealt with when it arises and either reduced in size or a dispensation granted because there is no other solution possible. There is also no pledge to extend the limit to the junior age pupils. They can still legally be taught in a class of any size.

I welcome the acceptance that teachers need to be trained and the work that Chris Waterman is doing with SATTAG and the manifesto on teacher education should help make clear to all where the Parties stand on this issue during the general election. Every MP seeking re-election will have received a copy of the manifesto in the post and as a contributor I hope that they read it and make their position clear.

There are big risks for education in England after the election as any coalition propped up by Scottish Nationalist MPs wouldn’t have a majority on education issues in England since it seems unlikely many Scottish Nationalist MPs would want to hang around Westminster to vote or even speak in debates about schooling in England; not a topic they know much about anyway. In that respect, education in England could be the big loser of a hung parliament with the Secretary of State having to be mindful of what might be voted down in parliament. This is an issue that no doubt will be discussed further between now and the 7th May.

Labour’s sexist jibe

This blog has been relatively quiet lately, partly because there have been few new numbers coming out of the DfE over the past month, and partly because the launch of TeachVac has been taking up a lot of my time. On that front, the team at TeachVac have now issued an amber warning in respect of English and Business Studies because we believe there will be insufficient trainee numbers to meet the demand from schools during this recruitment round. Design and Technology may join this list of subjects with such a warning this week if current trends in the advertising of vacancies continues.

As more trainees and teachers sign up for the matching service we are able to start identifying parts of the country where problems may be especially acute later in the recruitment round. The team at TeachVac have also identified that, as expected, independent schools and selective schools are more likely than other schools to advertise for teachers of the separate sciences rather than a teacher of science. As TeachVac is free to schools and trainees, all schools can try both and see what happens without fear of having wasted their money. For anyone unsure about the process there are helpful videos on both the schools and teacher pages demoing the system: just visit www.teachvac.co.uk and hit the demo button.

TeachVac is a long way from members of religious orders as teachers: one of the issues of the moment. I cannot think why Labour’s Mr Hunt – does he really want the job he is doing or is he just going through the motions – talked or nuns and ignored the many men in Roman Catholic orders that have given their lives in the service of education throughout the world.

Until the early 1970s, the Roman Catholic Church along with the Anglicans and free churches in this country ran a number of training colleges for those wanting to become teachers.  By the way, Mr Hunt, the term training college went out of common use when university departments took over most of the colleges in the 1970s in a bid to improve academic standards for would-be teachers. Previously, there were some teachers that learnt on the job, and they weren’t restricted to members of religious orders as I have pointed out in relation to my own career history in education. Now there may be some untrained teachers left in the independent sector, and no doubt many parish priests that come into Roman Catholic schools haven’t had any formal training in teaching, but in the state-funded sector I am sure Ofsted would have commented if it had come across a large group of untrained staff acting as teachers.

The withdrawal of religious orders from headships in the primary sector over the past 30 years I have been studying the issue has undoubtedly been one of the reasons why Roman Catholic schools, especially in the primary sector, have struggled to recruit head teachers from the laity in sufficient numbers. The selfless devotion of those that take vows often allowed them to tackle the burden of headship with single-minded devotion. No doubt they were also willing to go where asked regardless of the type of school or its location. Teachers with families, partners and other community ties don’t have such freedom and it has affected the supply of head teachers in recent years. To date, we have seen no results from the government’s national leader scheme announced in the autumn of 2013 to overcome this problem. No doubt time will tell if it can succeed.