Time for a review of UTCs?

The news that yet more UTCs are struggling to survive comes after reports of the over-representation of these schools at the top of the absence tables, as noted in a post last week. The idea of 14-18 schools specialising in science and technology, together with the accompanying studio school concept for a wider range of subjects, has merits, as their champions such as Lord Baker have always pointed out.

Sadly, the idea of depositing a cuckoo in the next of 11-16 and 11-18 schools in any area is fraught with difficulties. No schools wants to lose pupils at fourteen, unless that is they cost the school more to educate than they bring in as funding. Hence the struggle some UTCs have faced to recruit anything like a balanced intake, or in some cases an intake that would be large enough to make them financially viable.

As I reported earlier in the year, UTCs face extra running costs because they are delivering high cost subjects to largely examination age groups of pupils, but on a funding model that doesn’t take that fact into account. With the emergence of the now well documented problems across the sector, it is surely time for a review to decide whether to support the concept of a break at fourteen or engineer the existing schools back into the mainstream system to help cope with the rising secondary rolls over the next few years. Keeping open under-used schools while extra places are needed in the same locality is a waste of public money.

In many ways the 14-18 experiment is a good example of a market at work. Any new start-up venture has to compete with existing suppliers and often finds it a challenge unless they have the edge on design, price or technology. In this case, often despite spending lots of money on advertising, the 14-18 sector hasn’t caught the imagination of parents. Outside London, the fact that parents that didn’t face any travel costs to send their children to school would have to pay if their teenagers moved to a UTC might well have been a deterrent that the government could have found a way around: possibly by encouraging the UTCs to fund buses from key local centres.

If the UTCs are struggling to create a brand, then it seems likely that the studio school movement has even less definition and will only attract pupils where there is a strong local resolve to make such a school work. Nevertheless, there is merit in offering a fresh start at fourteen for some pupils, but the concept does need more thought. The involvement of the further education sector needs to be considered as part of any review, since colleges can offer an alternative structure for those seeking a curriculum post-14 that the average school cannot provide. Now FE is back under the wing of the DfE it should be easier to organise a coherent 14-18 offering.

However, any review might need to start by asking the question; at what age do we want specialisation to start? For if we want everyone to follow the same curriculum until sixteen, the need for separate schools after fourteen for some pupils is difficult to justify.

Teacher Supply in the news again

Last week Nick Gibb as Minister for Schools appeared in front of the Education Select Committee. At the weekend the media picked up on a parliamentary question from a Lib Dem MP about teacher retention. The facts in the answer to the PQ probably didn’t reveal anything new, but the figures did create quite a stir, with your truly being quoted yesterday on the BBC new site education page. The key point is the rise in departures of teachers with 3-5 years’ experience of teaching. This seems like a new trend.

However, the data is a ‘lagging’ indicator, as it arrives several years after the event. Nick Gibb talked about another and new ‘lagging’ indicator the DfE has inserted into the School Workforce Census. This is the question about whether a school has advertised a vacancy in the past year. Since the census is taken in November, I assume a school will reply this year with data from the 2015/16 academic year. The data from the census appears in the spring of the following year. By then the main bulk of the next recruitment round is nearly over and the data can only influence what happens the following year. Indeed, as an aid to teacher supply, it might miss decisions on trainee numbers for that autumn and so this year will influence 2017 entry into training and the 2018 recruitment round. As we are in a period of rising rolls, the data will also be lagging behind the growth in pupil numbers and so probably underestimate demand.

As I said, when establishing TeachVac, we need a real-time tracking system for the recruitment scene in schools across both state and private sectors to detect trends as they happen and in time to affect policy decisions that will allow a response to the identified change.

This issue was well demonstrated in the interchanges between the Committee and the Minister at the Select Committee over the issue of regional provision of places. I was interested to hear the Minister say that those that train in the North East might not work there, but offer no evidence to back up his assertion. Some time ago the DfE used to track and publish the data on where trainees studied to become a teacher and where they obtained their first job. It was not encouraging on the issue of mobility between regions and distance they traveled to obtain a teaching post. With significant numbers of career changers among trainees in some regions this isn’t perhaps surprising, but I am not sure the Committee pushed the Minister on that point.

Still, it was good to know that £16 million will go on advertising for trainees this year, some £10 more than last year and money that might otherwise be spent on teaching and learning. Reducing the unnecessary spend on recruitment of those training and already trained might at least release some extra money back into the system at the school level where it is currently spent with agencies and on advertising. TeachVac www.teachvac.co.uk cost nothing to use for schools, teachers and trainees and offers a solution for the sector to adopt.

Absence trend still downward

Yesterday the DfE issued its annual statistical bulletin on school attendance and absence rates. You can read it at https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/561152/SFR51_2016_text.pdf There are also accompanying tables detailing information at local authority and even at individual school levels, but you might have to do a bit of cross-checking with Edubase to identify school names this year.

Generally, overall rate remained stable. The overall rates are heavily influenced by illness, so either a bad winter with lots of flu and other illnesses or a mild illness free winter can affect the figures in one direction or the other. The bulletin notes that

“The overall absence rate across state-funded primary and secondary schools decreased slightly from 4.5 per cent in autumn/spring 2014/15 to 4.4 per cent in autumn/spring 2015/16. The overall absence rate in primary schools decreased from 4.0 per cent to 3.9 per cent and the rate in secondary schools decreased from 5.2 per cent to 5.0 per cent. The decrease in overall absence has been driven by a decrease in the authorised absence rate across state-funded primary and secondary schools – which fell from 3.6 per cent to 3.4 per cent between autumn/spring 2014/15 and autumn/spring 2015/16.”

The various rows about term-time holidays doesn’t seem to have overly affected these figures. Family holidays not sanctioned by the school accounted for 0.2% of absences compared with over 66% as a result of illness and the rate hadn’t changed from the previous year.

There is good news for the government on the drive to force down persistent absenteeism. However, one in ten pupils still missed 10% of more of schooling. In secondary schools this rose to nearly one pupil in every eight at 12.3%. This group are no doubt reflected in the under-performing students at GCSE. Sadly, 20% of pupils on Free School Meals were persistent absentees compared with only 8.2% of other pupils. Engaging these pupils with learning from an early age is still a key priority and the best way to close the gap in performance.

There is still much work to be undertaken with Pupil Referral Units where, perhaps not surprisingly, absence rates are still very high. In view of the reasons why pupils end up in PRUs this isn’t surprising, but more attention needs to be paid to this group. The Treasury might ask whether the wider benefits to society of re-engaging these young people with learning might be worth the spending involved in the short-term, especially if it could help identify what would reduce the entry numbers. A review of the effects of the EBacc orientated curriculum on these pupils before they are dispatched to a PRU might be worth the investment, although many would be willing to provide an answer now.

As in past years, Studio Schools and UTCs feature disproportionally in the top 20 secondary schools for absence rates. In view of the fact that Years 10 & 11 are years of high absence this isn’t perhaps totally surprising but it does raise the question of why some pupils have been persuade to move at the end of Year 9. A new start of a blessed release?

Pension Fund concerns

No, for once this isn’t about the Teachers’ Pension Fund, partly because there isn’t one: the government pays the difference between receipts paid into the scheme and the pensions payable to pensioners each year. There is an issue about why private schools are in the Scheme, but that may be for another post.

This post is about the report by UHY Hacker Young, the national accountancy group that was released earlier today. According to the authors, the Local Government Pension Scheme fund deficits around the country have increased between 75-100% on average over the last year, following Brexit-related market turbulence. This change affects all academies directly because nearly all non-teaching staff in schools are members of these schemes, unless they have chosen to opt out. As academies publish accounts each year, the scale of their deficit is easy to uncover

I raised concerns about growing deficits among academies in Oxfordshire earlier this year at a meeting of the county council, as they are the body that administers the scheme. Apparently, in 2013 the DfE gave some form of guarantee about under-writing the deficit. However, that seemingly has yet to be challenged, presumably because if an academy changes hands the deficit just passes to the new body running the school. I am not sure what has happened when a school closes completely as happened with at least one UTC in the West Midlands.

Of course, pension deficits are to some extent an a figure on a balance sheet of the type accountancy standards require, but most ordinary mortals pass over very quickly and nod sagely when it is explained to them at the meeting where the annual accounts are presented and discussed. However, with staff costs making up around 75% of the total costs of the average school, according to UHY Hacker Young, something will eventually have to be done to prevent these deficits overwhelming the education budget as a whole, so trustees might want to start asking questions when the accounts are presented to them later this term for sign-off.

As UHY Hacker Young explain:

“Pension deficits fluctuate each year according to market rates and other complex assumptions, however the trend over recent years, even before this latest increase, has been upwards. A deficit means the pension fund does not currently have sufficient assets to pay pensions that will fall due in the future to retired staff, so trustees are rightly questioning how the gap will be funded and where costs can be cut to plug the deficit.”

One option would be for the government to nationalise the fund rather than continue to allow a significant number of different local authority schemes to operate. This would, presumably, reduce the cost of administration, but some well-run schemes might see their returns reduce. However, schools would be secure in knowing that non-teaching staff were now being treated in the same manner as teachers. I assume if this somewhat drastic approach were to be chosen there would have to be a new Scheme, since taking away current assets from the market would be unthinkable.


Recruiting Teachers for September 2018

Next week UCAS opens the recruitment round for ITT courses starting in the autumn of 2017. So far the government seems to have kept those that watch the annual recruitment round in the dark as to the outcome of the Teacher Supply Model and the total number of places allocated to each route for next year. Perhaps the Select Committee can ask the Minister for the figures when he appears before them next Wednesday to talk about teacher supply. It is a slightly odd time for the Minister to appear before the Select Committee as the ITT census for 2016 has yet been published, so he presumably won’t know the final outcome of the number of places filled this autumn and how much better it was then last year?

He will, however, be able to talk about progress on the National Teacher Service in Yorkshire and Lancashire and how successful it has been. He may also be able to announce the date of the national roll-out and when the tendering process will start. If the Committee is really lucky, the Minister might announce what progress there has been on creating a national vacancy portal that was mentioned in the White Paper last March. In the light of the research by the TES, the Committee might also like to ask whether there is any difference in recruitment and retention of teachers and school leaders between grammar schools and secondary modern schools in those areas that still have fully selective systems of education.

If they haven’t already seen the new TV advert, the committee members can do so at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/teacher-recruitment-bulletin/teacher-recruitment-bulletin-5-october-2016 and might wish to compare the level of spending on the campaign with that of other government recruitment initiatives. As we know, teaching is by far one of the largest recruiters in the public sector. There has clearly been a stepping up of effort compared with a few years ago, but until the census appears, it isn’t possible to judge the success of last year’s efforts. It is interesting that the new advert seems to focus once again entirely on the secondary sector and doesn’t seem to feature any male teaching role model, always useful to help attract men into teaching as an under-represented group.

Hopefully, the Select Committee might also provide some indication of when it will conclude its inquiry into teacher supply. After all, it is more than six months since the NAO and the Public Accounts Committee considered the issue of teacher training. The Committee might explore how far the government has moved in the direction of meeting regional needs, rather than just the national demand and whether the government tracks in-year recruitment against training numbers. This is, of course, something TeachVac www.teachvac.co.uk does on a daily basis and it has reported its findings to the Committee both in its original evidence and in the supplementary evidence submitted at the end of the summer term.

Finally, the Committee might ask the Minister what the DfE said to the Migration Advisory Committee on the issue of teacher shortages and the need for visas in light of current government policy about immigration and the use of workers already living in England?





Don’t tax renewables

There is a device in the House of Commons called an Early Day Motion whereby  MPs can express a view on a particular topic relating to any subject you can think of and probably a few that wouldn’t ever have occurred to you, such as Carnwath Primary School’s lottery grant and local newspapers in South London. However, some EDMs are important and deserve to garner support from a large number of our elected representatives in order to show the strength of feeling on a topic.

One such that has all-party support is EDM 491 on business rates and solar power. The gist of the EDM is that the supporters of the EDM;

expresses deep concern at the changes to the rateable value of rooftop photovoltaic solar panels being proposed by the Valuation Office Agency, which may result in a six to eight-fold increase in the business rate charges to businesses, community groups and schools for the use of their own rooftop solar across the UK; notes the popularity, importance and affordability of solar power; and calls on the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the Department for Communities and Local Government and HM Treasury to take action to prevent unexpected and extreme business rate rises for solar… 

It does seem odd that schools trying to keep down costs and perhaps generate a small amount of feed-in tariff should have to contemplate turning off their PV panels because it might cost them more to operate them than to either turn them off or even remove them.

According to a video from Caroline Lucas, the Green Party MP, the situation is even more ludicrous as she states in the video that private schools would not pay the additional tax – presumably where they are charities? If this is the case, then why not exempt all non-income generating public buildings such as schools from any change to business rates. However, I would go further and support the ban on any form of tax on renewables anywhere as counterproductive to their essential purpose to help reduce greenhouses gases and the use of Carbon Dioxide.

If you agree, please email you local MP and ask them to either sign the EDM or explain why they think it is a good idea to tax renewable energy sources in schools? You might ask your professional association what stance they take on the EDM.

I am also interested in the use of asphalt covered playgrounds as a source of ground source heat generation. After all, these open spaces are probably left uncovered for 99% of the year. Providing a low cost form of installation can be devised playgrounds should offer a good potential source of low-level heat generation. Perhaps a university School of Education could team up with one of the science departments in the university to devise a viable scheme that could be installed over a summer holiday period?




Tories & Grammar Schools

As most followers of education know, Buckinghamshire was one of the counties that refused to fall into line with the 1976 Education Act and produce a programme for the removal of their grammar schools. As a result, it retains a selective system across the county after having seen Milton Keynes and its comprehensives split off in the 1990s to become a unitary council.

One might think that as a result of being a selective county, parents in Buckinghamshire wouldn’t be very interested in the present Tory inspired debate on the topic of more selective schools. Not a bit of it. While Mrs May, as Prime Minister, is talking about increasing the number of pupils from deprived backgrounds attending selective schools, or at least I think that is what she is saying, Bucks County Council has consulted on a proposal that would make it even more difficult for such pupils to attend grammar schools, especially if they lived in the rural parts of the county.

In a consultation on changing the home to school transport policy earlier this year, the county said;

This potential change would mean that free school transport would only be provided to the nearest secondary school to your home address.  The school could be located in Buckinghamshire or in a neighbouring county and could be an Upper, Grammar (for qualified children only) or Comprehensive.

As I read the paragraph above, if the nearest school is a secondary modern, even if the grammar school is next door to it, you won’t be provided in the future  with free transport to the grammar school unless it is the nearest school, even if you pass the entrance test and are offered a place. This is interesting in the town of Buckingham, where the grammar and secondary modern schools are adjacent to each other: those coming from the north could have the secondary modern as their nearest schools and those from the south, the grammar school. That is frankly madness if it is the case as a result of the consultation being accepted.

If this view is also accepted by government, it would seem to fly in the face of helping more children from deprived backgrounds to attend selective schools, if on top of uniform and other costs their parents also had to pay the transport cost of attending a grammar school, but not a secondary modern.

Personally, as regular reads know, I would do away with selective schools and make all schools achieve the very best for all pupils in an inclusive social setting. How schools are organised internally to achieve that aim is a different matter.

Perhaps, because transport to school is free for all in London, Mrs May, an MP whose constituency abuts Buckinghamshire to the south, hasn’t picked up on how her party is behaving with regard to grammar schools and widening participation. The solution of free transport to school of choice for all, as in London.